Looking Ahead to the 2015 Round of Historical Anniversaries


Anniversaries and the Creation of New Memories

Years that end in 5 have been the occasion of many key events in Japan’s modern history. Just to cite a few prominent examples, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in 1895, ending the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. Ten years later, in 1905, the Russo-Japanese war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth. World War II ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945. In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party was founded and the Japan Socialist Party was reunited, marking the start of the long-lasting “1955 system,” under which the LDP ruled and the JSP was the leading opposition party. And 1965 saw the normalization of ties between Japan and South Korea. The year 2015 brings the decennials of these milestones, notably the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, which is drawing considerable attention around the world—and creating a greater-than-normal level of tension in connection with the anniversary commemorations of historical events in East Asia.

Historical anniversaries are of course occasions for remembering the past, but they can also serve as opportunities for governments and societies to reassess their existing interpretations of history. The official designation of memorial days is aimed not only at commemoration of past occurrences and confirmation of existing views of history but also at the creation of new memories. So the commemorative activities and other observances tend to be more about the agenda of the current government and society than about history itself.

Here I would like to focus on the major decennial commemorative days involving Japan, mainland China, and Taiwan that are coming up in 2015. The commemorations in question will probably also reflect contemporary national and social designs.

May 7/May 9, 1915

What is this pair of dates? Just 100 years ago, on January 18, 1915, Japan presented the Chinese government with what came to be known as the “Twenty-One Demands.” This marked a major turning point for the worse in Japan-China relations. The Chinese government initially resisted the demands, but on May 7 Japan presented a revised version in the form of an ultimatum, and on May 9 the Chinese yielded. During the rest of the first half of the twentieth century the Chinese came to observe one or the other of these dates as National Humiliation Day.

The demands from Japan included many items that seemed excessive even to the Western powers of the day, such as joint control over the Chinese police, and they met with opposition not just from China but also from the West. The Japanese government withdrew some of the demands in response, but negative sentiment toward Japan continued to strengthen both inside and outside of China. Japan’s approach toward China stood out for its harshness by comparison to that of the Western powers, and it pressed these demands unilaterally at a time when nationalist sentiment was on the rise among the Chinese. As a result, people came to think of Japan as the prime aggressor.

To implement its acceptance of the revised demands, China entered into a number of treaties and agreements with Japan. The contents covered many different matters, but the key points were the confirmation and extension of the interests in Manchuria that Japan had won in its 1904–5 war with Russia and recognition of Japan’s takeover of the German concessions in Shandong Province at the beginning of World War I.

The Twenty-One Demands were issued while World War I was raging. The Japanese government at the time was headed by Prime Minister Ōkuma Shigenobu, with Katō Takaaki as foreign minister and Hioki Eki as Japanese ambassador to China. When we review the modern history of Japan’s relations with China, the Sino-Japanese wars of 1894–95 and 1937–45 of course stand out as major milestones, but many also view this 1915 ultimatum as marking a key turning point toward deterioration in the bilateral relationship. And the unilateral adoption of this sort of approach toward China caused Westerners to feel wary about Japan’s rise. There are no special events planned to commemorate the centennial of the Twenty-One Demands this year, but as noted above, in the prewar period the Chinese remembered this 1915 event by observing National Humiliation Day on May 7 or May 9.

September 3, 1945

June 22 this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which normalized diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul. July 7 is the anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, now seen as marking the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45. And August 15 will be the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. But the date to which China is devoting special attention this year is September 3. Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, and the following day a recorded speech by Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) announcing the end of the war was broadcast by radio to the Japanese people. On September 2, Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru and Army Chief of Staff Umezu Yoshijirō represented Japan at the signing of the instrument of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The document was also signed by officials representing the big four Allied Powers—the United States, China, Britain, and the Soviet Union—and other Allies, namely, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

“Victory over Japan Day,” commonly called V-J Day, is observed in some countries on August 15 and others, including the United States, on September 2. But the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government of the Republic of China held a ceremony to mark this event in its wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking) on September 3, and that day came to be observed as victory day in China. The Soviet Union and other Communist countries also designated September 3. When the Communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they initially observed August 15 as V-J Day, but eventually they fell into step with the Soviets and shifted back to September 3.

In 2014 the National People’s Congress of China voted to designate September 3 as “Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.” This year China is planning to observe the seventieth anniversary of the victory with various events, including a military parade with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin among the dignitaries in attendance. Putin’s planned presence is thought to be in return for the attendance of China’s President Xi Jinping at the ceremony scheduled to be held in Moscow on May 8 to celebrate Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II.

As noted above, the Republic of China, which now governs Taiwan, also designated September 3 as V-J day, and in the 1950s it was renamed Armed Forces Day. The current administration of President Ma Ying-jeou has indicated that it will conduct some sort of seventieth anniversary event this year, and it may choose September 3 as the date for the observance.

October 25, 1945

September 18 is the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident, and October 1 is celebrated as National Day in mainland China, while on Taiwan the Republic of China observes October 10 as its National Day. But the autumn date to which I would like to call attention here is October 25. Few in Japan are conscious of it, but this date is an important anniversary for Taiwan. Though not as major as the February 28 anniversary of the “2/28 Incident” of 1947, or the August 15 anniversary of the end of World War II, October 25 marks a significant historical turning point for this former Japanese colony. It is the date when Japan’s colonial rule of Taiwan officially ended in 1945 with the signing of a document by Andō Rikichi, Japanese governor-general of Taiwan, surrendering the island to the Republic of China and the acceptance of this surrender by Kuomintang General Chen Yi on behalf of the Allies.

So unlike Korea, where Japan’s colonial rule ended on August 15, 1945, Taiwan remained under Japanese administration through October 25. For many years after the end of the war, this was celebrated as a holiday called Retrocession Day, but since 2001 it has not been a public holiday.

For a Broader Public Awareness of History

As this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, anniversary dates like the ones cited above are likely to be the object of renewed attention. This will pose a challenge for Japan’s history-related diplomacy. Government officials frequently speak of “responding appropriately” to problems relating to history and “dealing appropriately” with them. But there is a need to reconsider just what sorts of responses or other measures are appropriate. And aside from responses on the government level, it is also important to consider the awareness of the public regarding historical issues. In today’s East Asia, where interaction between nations continues to grow more lively, it will be extremely difficult to get everybody to share the same view of the past, and we need to consider whether it is necessary to do so. But we can at least get a feel for the historical views of those in neighboring countries by looking at the anniversaries they observe.

We in Japan see our country’s seven-decade postwar period as having begun on August 15, 1945. But China focuses on September 3 as its V-J day, while Taiwan has celebrated October 25 as its Retrocession Day. We should accept this sort of diversity in matters relating to history, but at the same time I think we and our neighbors all need to take a broader view of historical issues. To the extent that the events marking the upcoming round of anniversaries are staged in keeping with the designs of the government and society of each country or region, they are liable to heighten nationalistic sentiments. We need to gradually “relativize” our assertions and feelings relating to these anniversary observances by trying to improve our understanding of our neighbors’ views.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 16, 2015.)

Japan China Kawashima Shin Russia East Asia Taiwan South Korea normalization Ma Ying-jeou Xi Jinping World War II Sino-Japanese War Twenty-One Demands