Written by Adam Cathcart.

From the very beginning of the so-called ‘post war,’ the territorial and temporal parameters of the memory wars between China and Japan were never drawn particularly cleanly. The war ended formally in Tokyo Harbour on 3 September 1945, but it took nearly another week for Okamura Yasuji to formally surrender to General He Yingqin at Nanjing. It then took months (in some rare cases, years) for Japanese troops to disengage themselves from the mainland.

After 1949, China’s dissatisfaction with the optics of the Nanjing surrender ceremony occasionally surfaced, with accusations that the Guomindang were in bed with General Okamura (they were). Since 2005, the Beijing government has sponsored huge oil paintings and wax statues constructed to emphasize the ahistorical servility of the Japanese general to the representative of the Chinese nation.

In recent months, the Chinese Communist Party has gone beyond expressing verbal frustration with Abe Shinzo’s revisionism and turned again to wax (and online) artworks of inverted national humiliation. Xinhua praised the wax reconstruction of an orchestrated event in Shenyang 1956 — the trial of Japanese war criminals during a period of Sino-Japanese diplomatic warming. The two years’ worth of written confessions of these men ranged from the banal — intelligence collection in northeast China in 1913 — to plentifully grotesque instances of rape, plunder, and bacteriological weapons research. Barak Kushner’s research project at Cambridge University promises to unpack further the afterlife of these atrocities.

Inequalities in the memory wars are multiple, but there are, too, certain symmetries. State control over broadcast and social media in China is far more stringent, but the Abe government has shown itself more than adept at muffling historical critiques on the state broadcaster, NHK.

A visit by Angela Merkel to Tokyo last week exemplified this well. Amid a massive bilateral agenda focusing on trade, the German Chancellor ended up making two forays into Japan’s troubled relationship with its past, referring in a speech at the embattled Asahi Shimbun to the need to settle the “comfort women” controversy with South Korea and, at a separate event, to the general need for reconciliation with neighbors.

Merkel’s foray into the simultaneously abandoned and yet overpopulated trenches of the memory wars in Tokyo indicated that, for the most part, politicians and people generally in Northeast Asia do not wake up every morning wondering how they can be more like postwar Germany and/or France.

Naturally, the Chinese news media was very eager to amplify Merkel’s message, as it elided nicely with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s vigorous remarks directed at Japan at the NPC in Beijing. History is nothing if not a cudgel in northeast Asia.

Unfortunately, the Abe government’s eagerness to ostracize the liberal newspaper which hosted one forum for Merkel and to deal aggressively with rolling back even the slightest criticisms of the “comfort women problem / ianfu mondai” meant that her very indirect critiques of the present insolubility of Japan’s wartime past went largely unnoticed in Japan itself.

NHK, the state broadcaster, “packed the issue in wool” during its coverage of the Merkel visit. Moreover, the broadcaster failed to mention the venue of the Asahi speech, and further omitted any mention of Merkel’s admonition that a country ultimately has to look itself in the mirror of history.

Chinese state media is happy to provide its own version of that mirror, and to draw help from even unlikely reinforcements. American historian Alexis Dudden’s open letter to the Japanese government on the “comfort women” issue attracted a rather more unusual headline from the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), the foreign affairs tabloid offshoot of the more staid Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily): “American historians jointly bomb the Japanese government, which has no right to distort the true history of the comfort women /美历史学者联名炮轰日政府:无权歪曲慰安妇史实.”

In the memory wars, old chapters are continually made new, and the most well-meaning declarations can serve as rhetorical weapons. The desire of state actors to return to the archives and to reshape and refigure historical events into new configurations is now a commonplace. What this means is that presumably old chapters in the memory wars – like the Shenyang Trials of 1956 – are now at play again.

Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds and a CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He tweets @adamcathcart. Image Credit: CC by Marino GonzálezFlickr