History Threatens Repeat in Renewed Pacific War

Disputes over islands in Asia reflect a wider failure to reconcile differences among nations stemming from historical conflicts

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A Japan coast-guard patrol boat, top, exchanges blasts from water cannons with a Taiwan coast-guard vessel in Japan-controlled waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea

The good news is that there won’t be a new war in Asia. The bad news is that the old one never really ended. And with Japanese and foreign patrol boats firing water cannons at each other this week, it may not be long before the real shooting resumes.

“The dispute over the Senkaku Islands is a direct legacy of the Pacific War. For many people, particularly in China, that war is still going on,” says Liu Jie, professor of history and international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

Liu was among a dozen historians who converged on Tokyo this week to take a new look at the 15-year conflict that ended — or seemed to — with Japan’s surrender in August 1945. The consensus is grim: nearly seven decades later, wartime adversaries share little agreement over how the war started, who was responsible or how to bury grudges that remain very much alive.

The results are plain to see in the escalating dispute over the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. Fishing boats and patrol vessels from China and Taiwan have entered territorial waters in recent weeks to protest Japan’s nationalization of the islands earlier this month.

(PHOTOS: Anti-Japan Protests Hit China’s Capital)

In the tensest confrontation yet, Japan coast-guard vessels on Wednesday fired water cannons at Taiwanese fishermen. Taiwan coast-guard ships fired back before withdrawing. There were no injuries, but China has vowed to continue entering Japanese-controlled waters to press its claims.

The dispute can be traced at least in part to the Pacific War. China resisted the Japanese from the early 1930s and expected the islands to be ceded to them at the end of the war. So did the Kuomintang nationalists, who had fled to Taiwan after being beaten by communist rivals. Instead, the victorious Americans kept the islands until 1972, then returned them to Tokyo, along with other islands southwest of mainland Japan. “The perception among the Chinese public is that China defeated Japan. And so they think that America should have given the Senkaku Islands back to China when the war ended,” says Liu.

Japan has a very different view, says Fumitaka Kurosawa, a professor of modern Japanese history at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. “We see ourselves as having been defeated by the United States, not by China. So we don’t have to be aware of the defeat when it comes to the relationship between Japan and China,” Kurosawa says.

Tokyo officially claimed the Senkakus in 1895, as its military power began to dwarf that of its Asian rivals. Both countries have produced documents claiming ownership of the islands that date back centuries. The islands are called Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

Japan has blamed Chinese authorities and media of distorting the dispute and perpetuating anti-Japanese sentiment. Chinese television is full of movies, dramas and documentaries built around the real or fictional aggressions and atrocities of Japan’s Imperial Army. Estimates of Chinese who were killed during the conflict range as high as 20 million; tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers were still in China when the conflict ended.

Japanese authorities have issued numerous apologies, acknowledged some of the worst atrocities and paid compensation to war victims in China and elsewhere. But those apologies are often viewed as insincere and the compensation inadequate.

Even in Japan there is still no widely accepted understanding or close examination of such key issues as the role of the Emperor, prewar political objectives or the extent of Japanese war crimes, says Kurosawa.

Instead, Japan’s historical memory — shaped in part by the allied decision not to prosecute the Emperor and to quickly rehabilitate Japan as a Cold War ally — has focused largely on the damage done at home. “To understand how a defeat happened is not particularly pleasant in a defeated country, so it’s avoided,” says Kurosawa. “We tend to see ourselves as victims, because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the air raids on Tokyo and other cities. That has created in Japan a level of the sense of victimization that is inappropriate.”

Japan and China, as well as South Korea, at various times have accused each other of willfully distorting school textbooks and fanning nationalist sentiment for domestic political gain. Some see economic self-interest behind the Senkaku dispute and a separate argument between Japan and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks, a tiny island in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea.

The Senkaku/Dokdo region includes productive fishing areas and is thought to contain large deposits of oil and gas.

“No one cares about a few rocks in the middle of the ocean except for a few ultra-nationalists,” says Peter Dennis, a military historian and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “What the governments are worried about are natural resources. But they can use popular opinion to mobilize support. So if you say, ‘We are here to defend our national honor,’ it’s a potent argument.”

No one is predicting a prolonged and bloody conflict like the first Pacific War and cooler heads may yet prevail in the ongoing territorial disputes.

But H.P. Willmott, an author of several books on the Pacific War and a lecturer at Britain’s Greenwich Maritime Institute, says the unwillingness or inability of each side to recognize the other’s point of view could lead to the same kind of mistakes and miscalculations that contributed to the first Pacific War.

“Japan never understood the force of nationalism other than their own, especially in China and the United States. Every country has fought the war one war at the wrong time, but Japanese thinking in the Pacific War was flawed in every way,” says Willmott. “I can see an armed conflict taking place [over Senkaku/Diaoyu]. How would it turn out? God knows.”