Wartime History and Beijing’s Response to the New Defence Minister in Tokyo

In the wake of the Upper House elections in Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has completed a reshuffling of his cabinet. As described by Japan hand Michael Cucek, it was not a particularly inspiring set of choices made by the newly-consolidated Prime Minister: Taro Aso (the right-wing former PM perhaps best recalled for his off-the-cuff endorsement of Hitler’s constitutional revision style) remains at the helm in Finance, for one.

The biggest waves internationally are being made by Tomomi Inada, the newly-appointed Minister of Defence. Inada is one of the most prominent revisionist voices in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; hailing from the Kansai region, she has been a regular visitor to Yasukuni Shrine, authored a book about flaws in the Chinese trial of two particularly deadly Japanese officers at the Nanking Massacre, and was involved in an LDP inquiry into problems with the postwar Tokyo Trials (known formally as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East). Are we seeing a theme here?

This appointment was bound to meet with immediate friction from Japan’s neighbours. Foremost, South Korea, where last December’s controversial but potentially transformative “comfort women” settlement is just now being implemented:


But probably more significant in the long run will be Inada’s impact on Sino-Japanese relations. Beijing state media’s response to her appointment has been unsurprising, in part because Inada herself provided so much material in her first two days in office for discussion.

While English-language coverage by agencies mentioned the revisionist views, a look at the transcripts of her conversations with reporters, and a read of the Chinese and Japanese coverage of those discussions, indicates that her appointment has already thrown up a number of new (well, old) historical obstacles.

About two-thirds of Huanqiu Shibao‘s introduction to her appointment, written by Wang Xuan, dealt with history issues and her views. (Readers will recall that Huanqiu Shibao is the Chinese-language Global Times, a 5-times-per-week mainland tabloid owned by People’s Daily and known for its pugilistic nationalism). Let’s take these issues one at a time, in the sequence they appear in the Beijing article:

1. Focus on the Nanking Massacre (1937-38) through the prism of the ‘Hundred-Man Killing Contest’

Quite a way to be introduced to the new appointee, is it not? Is this Beijing blowing the nationalistic trumpet perhaps, twisting Inada’s identity and trying to give the PRC public a completely distorted view of an otherwise moderate civil servant?

Unfortunately, to the second question, the answer appears to be ‘no.’ Inada did indeed discuss the ‘Hundred-Man Killing Contest’ at her 4 August press conference. Huanqiu quotes here as saying that she ‘did not believe in the “Hundred man Killing Contest”‘ and that ‘the number [of victims in Nanking] was very important’; in other words, criticizing China’s stance that 300,000 were killed.

Just for the record, here is the full exchange on this issue in Japanese, from the Ministry of Defence website:







Sankei covers the issue here. Inada, it should be noted, has a very explicit paper trail on the Nanking issue, and has covered herself more or less permanently from any potential attack from the right. Her 2007 book, entitled The Trial of the Hundred-Man Decapitation in Nanking [百人斬り裁判から南京へ / Hyakunin-giri Saiban kara Nankin he] purports to take apart manufactured elements in the famous ‘Hundred Man Killing Contest’ and the Nanking Massacre narrative generally. Inada NANKING book cover

2. Japan didn’t ‘invade’ anyone in the Second World War

Having gotten that out of the way, the Huanqiu piece moves on through her views on constitutional revision. After which Shinzo Abe’s declaration of semi-apology for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is covered; Inada suggests that she agrees with the spirit of Abe’s remarks, but also that it is a matter of opinion with respect to the verb one employs when discussing Japan’s actions in Asia in the 1930s or 40s. She does not seem to agree that Japan ‘invaded’ anyone, suggesting that her view is more in line with that of right-wing manga author Kobayashi Yoshinori and others who believe that Japan was an anti-colonial liberating force whose intentions were simply misunderstood.

Again, here is that exchange in the original Japanese, which appears to have been slightly misquoted by Huanqiu (the words ‘invasion /侵略’ or ‘war of aggression /侵略戦争’ are never spoken by Inada at all):



3. Leaving room for ambiguity on Yasukuni Shrine visits 

After dealing quickly with conflict with China in the South China Sea (the subject of much discussion on the Ministry of Defence’s website) and the one area where China and Japan are presumably in full accord — North Korean missile tests — the Huanqiu article comes back yet again to the history issue, discussing whether or not Inada will go to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. This major flashpoint of conflicting war memory was indeed discussed by Inada in her introductory press conference:



If all of this didn’t portend enough friction, the Huanqiu notes Inada’s past rhetorical challenges to the legality of the 1946-48 Tokyo Trials, which — in addition to giving Caroline Kennedy and John Kerry headaches — happens to run directly counter to an absolutely massive theme in Chinese propaganda in 2015-16.

Xi Jinping is going to have a whole lot more material to work with these days, so buckle up and mark your anti-Japanese calendars for 15 August, 3 September, 18 September, and 13 December. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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