Chinese views of Japanese history

Sino-Japanese relations have been on a downswing in recent years, despite resumed meetings between the leaders Xi Jinping and Abe Shinzo since late 2014. Strategic and territorial differences over the East and South China Seas have exacerbated the sharp divisions over history that long plagued their relationship. While some may argue that geopolitics is the driving force of poorer relations, Chinese observers find it hard to separate the two factors: territorial disputes are viewed through an historical prism, and Japan’s military build-up and actions are linked to its historical aggression. Thus, it is widely assumed that if Japanese leaders and the public were to reflect more honestly about their country’s history, the result would be a different approach to the territorial and security issues and a much better relationship with China. It is distorted thinking about Japan’s past that, Chinese authors argue, leads Japanese to have an unjustified, negative image of China’s ongoing policies and to cause relations to be troubled. These criticisms center on views of World War II.  

The modern Sino-Japanese relationship has been one of the major bilateral relationships most affected by mutual images. Since the Meiji Restoration, mutual images, positive and negative, have served as a crucial element determining the ups and downs in their relations. The mainstream Chinese view has swayed between admiration and aversion during the past one and half centuries, which brought about improvement and deterioration to bilateral relations, correspondingly.1 In the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95, Japan was positively regarded as a model for China’s modernization, and bilateral ties not only quickly recovered from the wounds of war, but also reached their peak in the modern era.

However, a negative image suddenly took center stage when Japan imposed the notorious “Twenty-One Demands” upon China in 1915. Bilateral relations began to deteriorate again, and full-scale war followed in 1937. The eight-year war of resistance against Japan turned China’s national image of Japan into one of brutal militarism, which was so deeply rooted in memory that even under completely new circumstances marked by fast-growing positive elements—such as diplomatic rapprochement in 1972 and the learn-from-Japan movement in the 1970s and 1980s—it was unable to transform China’s negative image towards Japan. Thus, the negative wartime memory of a militaristic Japan became the predominant element forming China’s national image of Japan. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the Chinese mainstream view of Japan has remained negative and history-focused.

This article examines Chinese views of Japanese history in recent years. Since the year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII and the victory of the Chinese resistance against Japan, it provided an opportunity for many Chinese to express their views on Japanese history. Many articles and comments by academics, military officers, and newspaper reporters appeared in China’s major newspapers and journals throughout the year. They showed special interest in three topics: Japanese militarism, historical revisionism, and anti-China attitudes and policies. These views showed sharp divisions among authors, and some topics even triggered heated public debate.


Militarism is the most frequently used term in China, referring to Japan as an aggressive country before and during WWII. In his well-known book first published in 1928, Dai Jitao of the Guomindang, clearly defined prewar Japanese militarism. He pointed out that when a country’s overall system was controlled by military forces and engaged in aggressive expansion, the country had turned into a militaristic state: “Militarism was not only a sort of expression of ideas…but also must be a sort of system in which the regime was fundamentally based upon the military organization, all political forces were subordinate to the military forces, and all political organizations were subordinate to the military organizations, and only by doing so that the country can turn itself into a militaristic state.”2 Accordingly, Dai believed that unlike the imperialist nations, such as Britain and the United States, prewar Japan was a typical militaristic state.

If Dai’s definition of militarism serves as a yardstick, it seems obvious that postwar Japan no longer qualifies. For many Chinese, especially some high-ranking officers in the PLA, however, it remains too early to say. There is an ongoing, fierce debate among PLA officers, university professors, and newspaper reporters over whether present-day Japan has already become a militaristic power or is trying to revive militarism. The contested views can be largely divided into two groups. One argues that there is not only an imminent danger but also some clear signs, which have already indicated the revival of Japanese militarism. The other, on the contrary, believes that there is almost no room for militarism, since the historical conditions for Japanese militarism no longer exist, and that the argument for the revival of Japanese militarism per se is “a pseudo proposition.”

The group stressing the imminent danger of Japanese militarism has been led by some PLA generals. In July 7, 2015, the 78th anniversary of the start of the Sino-Japanese War, Song Fangmin, a famous PLA general, argued that “Japanese militarism remains the enemy threatening world peace,” and warned China and the rest of the world to be vigilant against this dangerous reality.3 Another PLA general, Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Command, has provided detailed evidence to support the argument. He wrote that Japan is in a state of militarism with a new face.4

According to Wang’s description, the new type of Japanese militarism has the following, five manifestations. First, the right-wing conservative forces have come from the edge to the center of Japan’s national politics under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe, a neo-militarist, and completely control the government and the parliament. They are powerful enough to decide Japan’s present and future. This extremely rightist regime has taken total control over Japan’s fate, and its power is tantamount to that of the prewar emperor, the army, the parliament, and the cabinet combined.

Second, the social foundation for militarism has not collapsed. Since the historical spirit of Shinto and Bushido has already permeated the hearts of contemporary Japanese, they remain easy to mobilize into a state of absolute militarism. Especially, the sharp contrast between Japan’s economic stagnation and China’s economic dynamism (surpassing Japan) has made the Japanese uncomfortable, providing the social conditions for neo-militarism to grow.

Third, Japan has become the strongest military power and a force behind the turmoil in the Asia-Pacific region, and the SDF has already become a substantial national army, whose scope of activities has expanded from the periphery to the globe. The implementation of Japan’s new security law has broken the postwar international order.

Fourth, the Japanese media as a whole are conservative and highly consistent with the intentions of the Japanese government. Historically, the Japanese media were responsible for promoting militarism, and in recent years the major Japanese media have presented much less friendly and positive coverage of China, and, consequently, played a role in spreading anti-China feelings among the public.

Fifth, the ghost of militarism is still lingering within the SDF. Japan’s National Defense University has dispatched its students to the Yasukuni Shrine for evening visits every year, and last year, more than one hundred SDF officers visited Yasukuni in uniform. These activities showed that Japan is conducting militaristic education within the SDF, and the purpose of such activities is to prepare for the militaristic forces to control the army.

The above arguments are not only shared among military officers, but can be found within academic circles as well. Lu Yaodong, from the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), argued that although the likelihood of Japanese militarism as a national system has been restricted by Japan’s peaceful constitution, this does not mean that the ghost of Japanese militarism as ideology has completely disappeared. On the contrary, it is lingering within the hearts of some right-wing and conservative forces and threatening the peace and stability in Asia and rest of the world.5 The better part of Lu’s article was devoted to the historic roots and evolution of Japanese militarism, following the example of Japanese professor Inoue Kiyoshi, whose publications on Japanese militarism have had a profound impact on the postwar Chinese academic community and the formulation of China’s mainstream views of modern Japanese history.6

In contrast, arguments of the other group, which believes that Japanese militarism is an outdated label for present-day Japan, have been widely shared within Chinese academic circles, but seem to be less popular among the general public. Xiao Gongqin, for instance, drew the clear conclusion that “present-day Japan is not a militaristic state.”7 Xiao stated that “militarism means a sort of regime in which a country is completely under military control, and in order to meet the needs of military expansion and waging aggressive war against the outside world, all its political, economic, culture-educational, and various institutions are subordinated to the core military organization.”

Based on the above definition, Xiao made four major points. First, postwar Japan has undergone profound changes. The social cancer of the imperial army was thoroughly eliminated, and the problem of inequality between rich urban and poor rural areas has been resolved through postwar land reforms, and, thus, the social foundation for militarism has already collapsed. Second, with the postwar Japanese economic prosperity and societal changes, the moderate and rational middle class has already become the main body of the society. There is no need for Japan to make territorial expansion a national goal, as it did in the prewar era, given globalization and the development of high technology.

Third, Japan is a highly accomplished, increasingly diverse society based on the rule of law, and Japan’s peaceful constitution has a solid foundation. Japanese people are among those who have had the most powerful experience of the pain of war, and the Gallup polls in recent years show that only 11% are willing to go to war when their country is threatened. Furthermore, the research of Japanese specialists showed that by the year 2030, in order to maintain the current level of production, Japan needs to import 5.6 million foreign workers. Under such circumstances, militarism is not easy—even very few rightists want it. Although Japan has the third largest military budget in the world next to the United States and China, only 28% of it can be used to purchase the expensive military equipment produced by Japan itself.

Fourth, the most fundamental point is that China has stood up. China is no longer an easy prey. On the contrary, its national power and military capabilities are strong enough to defend itself. The era of a Japanese wanton invasion of China is gone, forever. Therefore, for China, there is no need to be overly nervous about the activities of Japan’s rightists.

Another Chinese specialist has made similar comments. Zhu Feng argued that whether Japanese militarism will revive depends on three conditions: (1) the revival of nationalistic ideology based on past imperial thought; (2) the collapse of Japan’s democratic regime, as soldiers again become the core of the power structure; (3) and belief once again in the Japanese public that military expansion is the only means of national survival. But present-day Japan is unlikely to have all three conditions in the foreseeable future, leaving the possibility of revival of Japanese militarism very small. Zhu concludes that China should not seek to conceptualize Japan through painful historical memories, and warned that whether China will be able to properly manage its relations with Japan will be the touchstone for China’s peaceful rise in the years ahead.8

The main points expressed by Xiao and Zhu on Japanese militarism have also been shared by a well-known opinion leader, Ma Licheng, a former commentator of People’s Daily, who advocated in 2002 that instead of focusing on the history disputes with Japan, China should take a “new thinking” approach. He published an article in Gongshi Wang in 2015, which argued that present-day Japan is not in a state of militarism, and warned that “presuming the revival of Japanese militarism without factual basis could lead public opinion and national policy in the wrong direction,” thus making it “difficult to rule out the possibility of a war eventually.”9

The continued debate over Japanese militarism between these two groups reflects the deep division in current Chinese views of Japanese history. Although it seems quite easy to draw an academic judgment on which group’s argument more accurately reflects the reality of present-day Japan, it seems unlikely that the two groups will be able to agree in the near future. Partially because the general public’s views on Japan remain negative, the Chinese government continues to express its concern about the possible resurgence of Japanese militarism. Before President Barack Obama’s Hiroshima visit in May, Foreign Ministry spokesman commented, “We hope the purpose of Japan’s inviting other countries’ leaders to Hiroshima is to show the world that it will never again follow the path of militarism which has inflicted grave suffering on its own people, the people of its neighbors and the rest of the world.”10

Historical Revisionism

Ever since the “history war” between China and Japan broke out in the 1980s, historical revisionism has been one of the main elements affecting China’s national image of contemporary Japan. The “history war” was triggered by a textbook controversy in 1982 when Japanese newspapers reported that in the textbook screening process, the word “aggression” was replaced by the word “entry” in describing the wartime Japanese military expansion in China. Since then as textbook controversies and the Yasukuni issue resurfaced, the negative images became stronger and widespread among China’s general public.

In the mainstream image, contemporary Japan is a country which is reluctant to face up to, in fact keen to deny and whitewash, its militaristic past. Japan’s unrepentant attitude has sharply contrasted with that of Germany, whose policies in dealing with Nazi history are regarded as a model for those nations with history of aggression, in particular, during WWII. Chinese negative views on Japan also seem to be proven internationally. A ten-country online poll conducted by a Chinese newspaper in 2015 showed that over 51 percent of the respondents said Japan has not made full apologies, while over 55 percent were satisfied with the response of the German government, and among those surveyed, 93.6 percent of the South Koreans, 90 percent of the Chinese, and 56.7 percent of the Russians believed Japan had failed to express enough regret.11

Comparing Germany and Japan became an oft-cited method to criticize Japan’s unrepentant attitude to its militaristic past in recent Chinese media and academic writings. For instance, Yan Xiaofeng, a PLA general at the National Defense University, wrote in Guangming Daily in August 2015, that while Germany has acknowledged the Nazis’ historical crimes, Japan has been trying various ways to deny the nature of its aggressive history throughout the past several decades.12

Yan made three points stressing the contrast between Germany and Japan towards the history of WWII. First, while the German government has taken a responsible attitude and sincerely apologized through various forms, and constantly paid compensation to the Nazi victims, the Japanese government, on the contrary, has been unwilling to take responsibility and acknowledge its past aggression against others, refusing to pay compensation for the victims such as the “comfort women” and the forced labor workers. In addition, while Chancellor Angela Merkel swore that Germany should bear permanent responsibility for the Nazi war crimes and the genocide victims, Abe Shinzo paid a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. Further, while those who say that Germany should take WWII responsibility have always been in the majority, both in the government and in society, those who advocate acknowledgment of Japan’s past aggression and war responsibility have always been a minority voice in society.

Second, Germany has continued to apprehend the escaped Nazi war criminals, and the Auschwitz Concentration Camp became a central place to mourn the Jews killed in the Holocaust. But in Japan, Emperor Hirohito, regarded by many in China as the “top war criminal,” has never apologized to the countries and peoples who suffered from Japanese aggression. In particular, Japan’s rightists always try to deny or water down the historical truth of the Nanjing massacre.

Third, Germany has attached great importance to keeping historical memory alive, and there are many holocaust memorials in Germany but no revisionist views concerning the Nazis and Hitler in their history textbooks. All middle school students know about the war crimes. Japan, however, has tried hard to distort the historical facts and instill false historical memories into textbooks, some of which even stress that Japan brought “positive changes” to the invaded countries.

Some voices , for instance, Ma Licheng, argued that Japan has demonstrated  a responsible attitude towards its militaristic past, and the Japanese government has apologized 25 times during the past several decades.13 Nevertheless, Yan’s arguments are more widely shared among the Chinese people. When Merkel visited Japan and talked about the importance of facing up to history in March 2015, a Chinese newspaper reported that Merkel has given Abe “a lesson in history” and further analyzed the three root causes, which resulted in the divergent attitudes towards history in Germany and Japan, namely the differences in the role of government, cultural tradition, and national character.14 Right after Merkel’s visit, another news report from Tokyo added fuel to the fire, indicating that the Japanese government has intervened in the authorization of textbooks to be used in high schools to ensure that its controversial revisionist stance on historical and territorial issues is upheld.15

In an interview with a Chinese newspaper, Shi Mingde, China’s ambassador to Germany, further analyzed both the internal and external causes that have contributed to the notable differences between the attitudes of Germany and Japan. Shi said that there was almost no external pressure in the aftermath of the war because of the “double standard” policies pursued by the United States, which was more eager to contain China than to deal with Japan after the end of WWII. Also, domestically, there is no environment for deep introspection on the past because many Japanese leaders have had either ambiguous or revisionist views on history, which led to repeated textbook controversies and national leaders’ Yasukuni visits.16

Anti-China Policies

The sharp contrast between Germany and Japan, for many Chinese, has not only provided evidence of Japan’s unrepentant altitude about the past, but also been manifest in Japan’s embrace of militarism and historical revisionism, which inevitably resulted in the antagonistic attitudes and policies toward China. To put it in other words, many Chinese believe that all negative developments in the current bilateral relations resulted from worsening Japanese attitudes and policies towards China, and all these elements are linked with the revival of militarism and historical revisionism.

Since the Japanese government announced the nationalization of the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in 2012, Sino-Japanese relations have faced unprecedented challenges. Japan’s anti-China attitudes and policies have been witnessed in almost all areas of the bilateral relations. Japan’s irreconcilable stance on the East China Sea as well as its intentional involvement in the South China Sea disputes have escalated tensions to a dangerous level. From China’s perspective, the root cause of the deterioration of bilateral ties lies in the rising anti-China sentiment among the Japanese public and the anti-China policies pursued by the Abe cabinet. Chinese perceptions have been confirmed by “Public Opinion Survey on Diplomacy” conducted by the Japanese government early this year, which showed that 83.2% of Japanese do not feel affinity toward China, the worst result ever recorded.17

With regard to Japan’s “hostile” China policies, especially in the area of national security, the evidence seems to be ever clearer: for instance, the enactment of the security bills removed the ban on the “right of collective self-defense” and enabled the SDF to act globally, transforming its long time “defensive defense” policy into the “proactive contributions to peace” policy Further, strengthening of the Japan-US military alliance and the defense capacity in the southwestern islands and the intentional involvement in the South China Sea disputes have all suggested to many Chinese that containing China is the chief strategic objective of Japan’s SDF. Such unprecedented changes in Japan’s postwar defense policies have not only ignited massive domestic protests and demonstrations but also induced criticisms from China and other neighbors.

To deal with Japan’s anti-China attitudes and policies, different approaches have been advocated. One approach, supported by those who are worried about the resurgence of Japanese militarism, is that China should take a tough stance to continue “the irreconcilable fight against Japanese rightists’ reviving militarism.”18 Although this approach looks harsh and even somewhat emotional, it seems to be widely supported among the Chinese public.

The other approach, represented by Ma Licheng, emphasizes that the only realistic way for developing a stable bilateral relationship between China and Japan is to learn from the successful European experience of reconciliation among past rivals and realize true reconciliation between China and Japan in the future. And in order to achieve this goal, China should learn more from France about the mindset of forgiveness while Japan should learn more from Germany about the spirit of introspection. As a rational approach, Ma’s argument seems to be drawing more attention in Chinese intellectual circles, but it remains to be seen whether real reconciliation could become a diplomatic agenda for the two governments in the near future.

Impact on Bilateral Ties

History has played a crucial role in Sino-Japanese relations. Since Abe visited Yasukuni in 2013, the bilateral relationship has encountered grave difficulties: not only have political relations been severely damaged, but also economic and trade relations have suffered. China’s fundamental stance is that the correct view on history serves as the political foundation of bilateral relations, and the two countries should advance their relations in the spirit of “taking history as a mirror, and looking forward to the future.” This stance remained effective even after tensions escalated in the East and South China Seas.

Partially with a view to responding to the criticisms from China and other countries, Abe made a public statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in August 2015, but it failed to draw positive comments from China. Although the tone of the statement was carefully weakened compared to Abe’s previous remarks, the replacement of the keywords “aggression,” “colonial rule,” “apology,” and “introspection” was viewed in China as a new indication of Japan’s unrepentant attitude towards its militaristic past. In his speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory of China’s resistance war against Japan, Xi Jinping criticized Japan’s historical revisionism in stern terms: “All rhetoric and actions that deny the nature of aggressive wars, that distort and even glorify those wars, or that evade the historical responsibility for launching those wars, are self-deceiving, no matter in what way they are presented or how glibly they may be characterized.”19

In March 2015, Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave an interview to Chinese media after attending the China-Japan-ROK trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in Seoul and said that the trilateral meeting had been suspended for three years, mainly due to the interference of historical issues. He stressed that facing history squarely is the prerequisite for advancing better relations among the three countries, and without this precondition, there will be no way for a better future.20

China’s tough stance on history issues, however, does not mean that China is reluctant to improve its relations with Japan. As Xi pointed out in his meeting with 3000 Japanese visitors in Beijing in May 2015, China has attached great importance to Sino-Japanese relations, and this fundamental stance will not be changed in the future.21 Confronted with all sorts of difficulties, the Chinese government has made various efforts to improve bilateral ties in recent years. In November 2014, China and Japan reached a four-point principled agreement on handling and improving bilateral relations. Since then, although the tense territorial dispute remains unresolved, the overall political atmosphere of China-Japan relations has largely improved. Dialogue at various levels has helped the two sides to keep their differences under control. The upcoming G20 meeting in Hangzhou will provide another chance for the leaders to meet. Frequent exchanges between the two governments will be helpful for finding common ground and narrowing the existing gap between the two countries, but the way China views Japan’s interpretation of history will continue to be a major factor. 

1. For the evolution of Chinese views on Japan throughout the past one and half century, see Jin Linbo, “Chugokujin no Nihonkan, 1868-2002,” Seiji Keizai Horitsu Kenkyu 4, no. 3 (March 2002).

2. Dai Jitao, Riben Lun (Beijing: Jiuzhou Chubanshe, 2005), 85.

3. Song Fangmin, Huanqiu Shibao, July 7, 2015.

4. Wang Hongguang, Huanqiu Shibao, December 24, 2015.

5. Lv Yaodong, Gongshi Wang, August 14, 2015.

6. Inoue Kiyoshi published his first two-volume book on Japanese militarism in the 1950s, and a revised version with four volumes in 1970s. The sub-title of the fourth volume was “The Remilitarization and the Revival of Militarism.” See Inoue Kiyoshi, Nihon no Gunkokushugi (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1953); and Nihon no Gunkokushugi (Tokyo: Gendai Hyoronsha, 1975-77).

7. Xiao Gongqin, Huanqiu Shibao, December 18, 2015.

8. Zhu Feng, Huanqiu Shibao, February 3, 2016.

9. Ma Licheng, Gongshi Wang, July 6, 2015.

10. “Spokesman’s Remarks,” Chinese Foreign Ministry,

11. “Japan’s Apologies Insufficient, Say Online Poll Respondents,” Global Times, September 3, 2015,

12. Yan Xiaofeng, Guangming Ribao, August 14, 2015.

13. Ma Licheng, Gongshi Wang.

14. Li Mingbo, Guangzhou Ribao, March 16, 2015.

15. “Japan’s Revisionist Agenda Evidenced in Newly-Approved High School Textbooks,” Xinhua, March 18, 2016.

16. Shi Mingde, Interview with Jiefang Ribao, April 2, 2016,

17. The Government of Japan, “Gaiko ni kansuru Yoron Chosa,” March, 2016,

18. Song Fangmin, Huanqiu Shibao.

19. Foreign Ministry of PRC, September 21, 2015,

20. Foreign Ministry of PRC, March 21, 2015,

21. Foreign Ministry of PRC, May 23, 2015,