The government of Xi Jinping has demanded that all history textbooks be altered to extend the Second Sino-Japanese War by 6 years from 1937 to 1931.

Meanwhile Japan’s Defence minister visited a shrine honoring war criminals.

The decision to change the timeframe of the war, and the controversial visit are not the first examples of these rivals calling on history to stir up nationalist fervour. Actions of this kind are certain to only inflame tensions between the nations, and the greater region.

  • Relations set to suffer in wake of provocative behavior
  • A worrying time for the region
  • Promoting nationalism for political benefit?

For decades generations of children have been taught of the conflict between the two countries. In this time it has been referred to as the “Eight-Year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression”. In a statement released on Wednesday the Communist Party announced it would henceforth be called the “14-Year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression”, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1945.

Now the official start of the war, in Chinese eyes, will be the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the autumn of 1931. This opposes the widely and long held interpretation that full scale conflict was triggered by the Marco Polo Bridge incident, in which Japanese and Chinese troops fought each other along a rail line to the South West of Beijing.

On the 29th of December, Tomomi Inada the Defence Minister of Japan visited the Yasukuni Shrine, shortly after visiting Pearl Harbor with the Japanese Premier, Shinzo Abe. The memorial pays homage to the Japanese war dead, including 14 high ranking war criminals. It follows a decision in 2014, which observers could only describe as questionable, by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit the same shrine.

It is evident that Mr Abe is not averse to using this kind of provocation. In 2007, during his initial premiership, he also expressed the view that 200’000 women used as sex slaves during the war were not coerced.

Reactions from Regional and Global Observers

In light of Inada’s visit, dismay was expressed by members of the international community. Both China and South Korea made clear their desire to take the matter up with the Japanese Government. South Korea condemned the “deplorable” visit.

“We express deep concern and regret over Japan’s defense minister visiting Yasukuni Shrine, even as our government has been emphasizing the need to create a new, forward-looking South Korea-Japan relationship,” it said in a statement.

However, Abe’s visit to the shrine had provoked a more aggressive reaction from Beijing. The Chinese exclaimed that he had raised the “spectre of militarism” by visiting the memorial to “Nazi’s of Asia”.

Yasuhisa Kawamura, press secretary for the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs, attempted to belittle the move, saying that China did not have the power to decide when the conflict started. “It is important that Japan and China should demonstrate they do not focus excessively on the unfortunate past,” he said.

It remains to be seen what effect will be had on relations between the countries. The atmosphere is already extremely tense due to China’s attempts to secure the South China Sea, as well as disputes over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.

Why meddle with the past?

The intentions behind these provocations are clear to some observers. Mr Abe has made clear that he believes Japan has apologized enough for its actions during the War. Something that Korea and China will violently contend. His government has espoused the idea of a country under attack – something evident in Japan’s increased military spending. The fact that China continues to encroach upon its territorial claims justifies his actions in the eyes of many.

On the other hand, the alteration of history by the Chinese is part of a continued campaign to highlight the achievements of the Communist Party. They have seeked to promote nationalism solely for political benefit. This is despite many historians arguing that it was the Chinese nationalist party who did most of the fighting and led efforts to negotiate a truce with Japan before 1937.

“The Communist party did very little to resist the Japanese during 1931-37, so why try to pretend otherwise? I can only imagine that this is an attempt to reverse the recent tide of historiography, which has recognised that Chiang Kai-Shek and the nationalists had been very unfairly treated not just by Chinese communist dogma, but also by the US administration and journalists of the time,” Historian Anthony Beevor said.

The consequences of these ill-founded machinations have yet to bear fruit. It is clear however that actions in a similar vein will not lead to a Sino-Japanese detente in the near future.