The Shadow from Yasukuni

OXFORD – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine has enraged the Chinese and South Korean governments and ignited – no surprise – a firestorm of protest across Asia. The shrine, which honors more than a thousand indicted war criminals who took part in Japan’s disastrous war in Asia, remains a place of fascination for Japanese rightists, who persist in claiming that Japan’s war in Asia was a war of liberation against Western imperialism.

This claim sounds particularly hollow in China and Korea, which suffered horrifically from Imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of much of Asia. Yet there has always been a jarring element in official Chinese protests against the Yasukuni Shrine visits. Such visits are condemned as insensitive to the feelings of the Chinese people. But, just as Japanese conservatives are rightly taken to task for refusing to acknowledge the horrors of their country’s colonialist past, so China would do well to expand discussion of its own wartime history at home.

For many decades, under Mao Zedong, the only acceptable version of China’s wartime experience was that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spearheaded the resistance against the Japanese, honing its armies while preparing one of the world’s most significant social revolutions. Meanwhile, China’s Nationalist (Kuomintang) government under Chiang Kai-shek, weakened by incompetence and corruption, did little to oppose the Japanese.

Yet, in recent years, research from China itself has shown the enormous scale and cost of the war against Japan. Fourteen million or more Chinese were killed from 1937 to 1945, and 80-100 million became refugees. And the invasion destroyed China’s roads, railways, and factories.