Japan’s Security and Historical Revisionism: Explaining the Variation in Responses to and Impact of Textbook Controversies

Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Japan’s Security and
Historical Revisionism:
Explaining the Variation
in Responses to and Impact
of Textbook Controversies
M. Erika Pollmann1
This article builds on previous academic works to elucidate a theory as to how
Japan’s historical revisionism could have a negative impact on Japan’s security.
It then tests this theory by examining the impact that the 1982, 1986, 2001
and 2005 controversies had on Japan’s relationships with China, South Korea,
Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. It concludes that historical revisionism
does not have a significant security impact, defined as audience states’ distancing
themselves from Japan, diplomatically ‘soft’ balancing Japan, or militarily ‘hard’
balancing Japan. This research design is an improvement over previous works
on this subject because it draws a clear distinction between reaction and impact.
Even though it is ‘cheap’ to impute Japanese motives following an act of historical
revisionism, it is ‘costly’ to act on such accusations by either distancing from Japan
or balancing against Japan. This helps clarify what concerns–if any–Japan should
have about the collateral damage arising from historical revisionism. Based on
the empirical evidence examined, historical revisionism per se does not pose
a serious problem to Japan because the most important determinant of how
severe a controversy’s impact on Japan’s relationship with a given audience state
is the pre-existing nature of Japan’s security and economic relationship with
that state. The most significant consequence of revisionism is that it presents an
opening for China—Japan’s main security rival in the region—to attempt to ‘soft’
balance Japan by rallying international opinion against Japan in such a way as to
impede other Japanese diplomatic objectives.
Japan, South Korea, China, Southeast Asia, textbooks, historical remembrance
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(3) 307–336
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016670704
1 Independent Researcher, Washington, DC, USA.
Corresponding author:
M. Erika Pollmann, Independent Researcher, 2000 N Adams St Apt. #332 VA 22201, Washington,
E-mail: mep64@georgetown.edu
308 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(3)
At fairly regular intervals, the discourse on Northeast Asia’s troubled inter-
national relations comes to focus on how Japan’s unapologetic remembrance of
its past misdeeds continues to haunt Japan’s relationship with its neighbours.
One issue area that is a perennial source of memory-related conflict between
Japan and its neighbours is the screening of Japan’s middle and high school
history textbooks—as exemplified by China and South Korea’s reaction to the
April 2015 textbook screening results. After Japan approved textbooks that
reduced coverage of the comfort women issue and laid claims to the Liancourt
Rocks, islands disputed between Japan and South Korea, The Korea Times criti-
cized Tokyo for ‘turning [the] clock back to [the] colonial period’ and First Vice
Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yong expressed strong opposition to the textbooks in
his meeting with Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho (Kim, 2015; Shin, 2015).
In response to the same set of textbooks, which also glossed over the Nanjing
Massacre and reasserted Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyus that is
disputed between Japan and China, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokes-
person, expressed China’s serious concerns at a regular press conference. Xinhua
also reported on the ‘Historical revisionism exposed in Japan’s newly reviewed
textbooks’ (Xinhua, 2015a, 2015b).
China, South Korea and other Asian states protest to varying degrees whenever
Japan’s Ministry of Education (MOE, formerly the Ministry of Education, Culture
and Technology (MEXT)) approves textbooks that these audience states consider
to be revisionist. Despite Japanese discontent at what Tokyo views as foreign
meddling in a purely domestic affair, audience states justify their intense interest in
Japan’s internal politics as necessary to both prevent the resurgence of militarism
in Japan (which they associate with historical revisionism) and make predictions
about Japan’s future intentions.1 In an anarchic international system, where state
intentions are opaque, audience states have to use all the information they can get
to predict future behaviour. Particularly in a democratic state such as Japan, audi-
ence states have good reason to believe that ideas (and foreign policy preferences
associated with such ideas) expressed by citizens and private actors—including
textbook publishers, and the children these textbooks teach—can shape the state’s
foreign policy in the future.
Trying to get to the bottom of why former victims react to Japan’s historical
revisionism, Jennifer Lind analyzes statements made by Chinese, South Koreans
and Australians in reaction to Japanese revisionism. Based on this analysis, she
concludes that how a state remembers or commemorates its historical experi-
ences is one of many factors that audience states assess to judge whether a given
state is threatening (Lind, 2008, p. 95). Lind postulates three mechanisms by
which audience states could perceive Japanese ‘whitewashing’ or glorifying of its
past imperialism as hinting at its expansionist future intentions. First, apologetic
remembrance, which is a form of ‘costly signalling’, can reassure audience states
that Japan’s future intentions are unthreatening; after all, a citizenry indoctrinated
with the idea that war is wrong will be much more difficult to mobilize for conflict
in the future. Second, continued acts of apologetic remembrance can transform a

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