The subject of Sino-Japanese relationship is an important topic for discussion, as both powers are not only two of the most influential countries in the Asia region, but have also had a strained relationship for the past hundred years. Even though both China and Japan have many reasons for the cause of their strained relationship, many historians argue that “the history problem” is the root cause of these problems.

The history problem itself can be defined as ‘a series of diplomatic issues between China and Japan since the 1980’s relating to ‘issues left over from the war.’ However, this problem stems from the varying interpretations of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1975. Specifically, the differences in China and Japan’s wartime narrative, China’s perception on Japan’s failures to take responsibility for its aggression, and the Japanese concerns that China would continuously use the past atrocities to influence present politics. Historians argue as to what event marked the beginning of ‘the history problem.’ Some hold the view that the problem began after the Joint Statement of September 1972, others argue that it began with the wars between China and Japan throughout the 1930’s to the 1940’s1. As the history problem accounts for a large part of the conflict in ongoing Sino-Japanese relations, being able to understand the cause and effects of the history problem is vital to being able to understand the current problems between both China and Japan.

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This essay will examine to what extent the Joint Statement of September 1972 marked the beginning of the ‘history problem’ in Sino-Japanese relations, as well as whether or not there are other possible events that could otherwise mark the beginning of the history problem instead. Specifically, this essay will discuss the origins and effects of the Joint Statement of September 1972, as the problem that arose from it such as: the history textbook problem, the Yasukuni Shrine controversies, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, and then examine the event prior to the Joint Statement of September 1972.


The Joint Statement of September 1972 was an attempt to re-establish strained Sino-Japanese relations and ease the tensions between the two countries. After a series of conflicts that spanned throughout the early 1900’s, Chinese Premier of the State Council Zhou Enlai and Japanese Prime minister Kakuei Tanaka met in China. As both sides had spent the past several decades in animosity towards one another, the joint statement they would later agree upon was seen to be a leap towards the normalization of their relationships, and a path to a more cooperative future.

According to an essay by June Dreyer, she states that ‘Japan’s desire to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China long antedated the 1972 initiative2’, and that this attempt at a more cooperative relationship could be seen in certain sections of the Joint Statement, such as article one, which states:


‘1. The abnormal state of affairs that has hitherto existed between Japan and the People’s Republic of China is terminated on the date on which this Joint Communique is issued.3’

Their ability to put away the past and focus more on the future was also conveyed through articles five and six, which respectively state:

‘5. The Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that in the interest of the friendship between the Chinese and the Japanese peoples, it renounces its demand for war reparation from Japan.4’

‘6. The Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China agree to establish relations of perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries on the basis of the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence…5’

According to an article written by Charles Kraus, both Zhou Enlai and Kakuei Tanaka managed to discuss, and resolve, various important issues that surrounded Sino-Japanese relations and that ‘in doing so, they laid the foundation for Sino-Japanese relations to develop and remain amicable and productive for years after 1972.6’ Consequently, with the joint statement suddenly changing the dynamic of China and Japan’s relationship, both countries immediately set about opening up and saw a rise in trade. However, even though the normalization talks led to the resolution of important issues, it also led to the inevitable creation of several problems.                                                                                   Kraus continues by stating that, aside from the accomplishments of the Joint Statement, the normalization talks ‘also sowed the seeds for bitter disputes between China and Japan.’ These disputes set the stage for ‘the history problem’ and mainly refer to specific, seemingly minor yet crucial, events such as: The Yasukuni Shrine controversies, the differences in both Chinese and Japanese history books, the lack of a formal apology from the Japanese prime ministers on the crimes committed during the Japanese invasion of 1934-1937, and the highly debated Senkaku/Diaoyu island disputes.


The Joint Statement of September 1972 brought to light a series of previously unresolved problems. One such problem being the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, or the Senkaku in Japanese, refers to a small group of islands based in the East China Sea. In an essay by Pan Zhongqi on the islands, he states that out of the eight islands: ‘five are barren and none of them have any inhabitants or human economic activity.7’ However, he continues by explaining that regardless of these features, the islands themselves have been a thorn in the sides of Sino-Japanese relations, due to their ‘strategic importance in terms of security and economy, as well as their significant political implications.’ The islands themselves are located almost midway between the island of Taiwan and the Japanese Ryukyu Islands, as well as being extremely close to the east Chinese coast. Further according to Zhongqi, the location of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is ‘special to both China and Japan’s national defense. Should either China or Japan legally secured the sovereignty over the islands, they would grant their owner an advantage in military security with a prolonged and enlarged frontier, putting the other side into a disadvantaged position.8’                                                       On the viewpoints from both China and Japan towards their claim for the islands. Japan states that the islands themselves were deemed as unoccupied when they arrived in 1885 and that the islands themselves were integrated into Japan in 1895. China, however, states that they discovered the islands during the Ming Dynasty but was ceded to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. China claims that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands were returned to China alongside various other Chinese islands at the end of World War II and, therefore, claim it as their own.9                                                                These views are important as having control over this position would effectively allow the owner to control a major portion of the surrounding coast/exclusive economic zone. Furthermore, the control over these islands would allow the owner to tap into the natural resources that the islands contain. Specifically, the potential oil and gas reservoirs in the areas.10                                                     It is because of these economic and security reasons, as well as the unwillingness to compromise, that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands disputes remain as such a difficult problem to resolve. Whether or not this dispute will even be resolved in the near future also remains up to debate, as Chinese politician Deng Xiaoping quotes that ‘it is true that the two sides maintain different views on this question…. It does not matter if this question is shelved for some time, say, ten years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser. They will certainly find a solution acceptable to all.11’


However, the Joint Statement of September 1972 showed that ‘the history problem’ seemed to trace back earlier than the joint statement. One of which is the problem with the history textbooks provided by both countries and how they write about the events of the Sino-Japanese wars. In China, the history books emphasize the victimization of its people and the heroes who stood up against the Japanese, in an attempt to a sense of patriotic zeal in its youth In Daniel Sneider’s essay, “Textbooks and Patriotic Education: Wartime Memory Formation in China and Japan”, he explains that history books and museums have been created in order to ‘convey a narrative of Chinese victimization at the hands of a depraved Japanese army.12’ He continues by talking about how in the early 1980’s, new patriotic versions of the Chinese textbooks ‘devote far more space to a detailed description of the Nanjing massacre including graphic accounts of atrocities there and elsewhere in China.’                                Conversely, in Japan, the history books downplay Japan’s history of aggression and colonial rule. Sneider mentions how the Japanese avoided some of the more sensitive wartime topics, such as the comfort women. Furthermore, he continues by stating that the Japanese Ministry of Education had softened the language used to describe Japanese aggression due to pressure by Japanese revisionists13. Although, the Chinese have been outspoken to these textbooks, stating that they should ‘be ashamed of distorting history.                                                                                                            There were attempts at making a joint history textbook, as both China and Japan understood that the tense history between the two countries was becoming an obstructive factor in creating a healthier relation. However, this also ran into several problems. According to an article by Shin Kawashima, he explains that the attempt towards a joint history textbook was made in order to repair ‘not only political and diplomatic relations between Japan and China, but also their economic and social relations,14’ after Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. However, both sides were unable to agree to what was allowed to be written, due to dramatization and censorship of certain events. Kawashima concludes that due to this, ‘the grand achievements of the joint-history research conducted by scholars in the first stage were watered down.15’ Ultimately, although the Joint Statement has led to the increase of cooperation between the two countries, neither can agree on a wartime narrative that would placate either side. In the end, both countries seem to be attempting to control the interpretation of their pasts and shape the memory of the war, in order to influence the future.


Another problem that has arisen after the Joint Statement is the controversy surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine visits by Japanese prime ministers in recent years. The Yasukuni Shrine itself is a Shinto memorial shrine commemorating those who died in the various Japanese wars throughout the years. Therefore, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese prime ministers have occurred various times since the end of the second world war. The controversy surrounding it, however, stems from the fact that various Japanese soldiers who took part in the invasion of China were marked as war criminals but were still enshrined and commemorated within the Yasukuni Shrine.                                    In an essay by Phil Dean, he explains that these visits to the shrine continuously led to ‘strong criticism of Japan by the governments of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea. The resumption of regular visits by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro significantly damaged Japan’s relationships with these two countries, and also generated concern in the United States.16’                                  China, therefore, sees the Japanese prime ministers visits as a glorification of Japan’s past military aggression. Dean continues by stating that since the signing of the Joint Statement of September 1972 and the continuous visits by Koizumi since then, there has been strong criticism in China, at both public and governmental levels. Even though, the Chinese government has used these visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in order to pursue other policies and goals, the visits to the shrine by Japanese political figures still seems to create genuine resentment and concern. It seems that for the Chinese government, the visits to the Yasukuni shrine and willingness to cease them are an important test of Japanese goodwill and willingness to develop a sustainable relationship with China. Meanwhile, on a public level, the visits seem to stir up strong anti-Japanese sentiment which may go well beyond what the Chinese leadership finds acceptable17. In this context, the controversies that surround the Yasukuni Shrine may never truly be resolved. This is because the positions on either sides are dug in too deep, and have become essential parts of both the identities and the ideologies of the contending political and nationalist aspirations. Ultimately, according to Dean, he concludes that ‘Well-meaning aspirations for a ‘secular’ war memorial unconnected with the controversies of Yasukuni can never truly succeed18.” It is interesting to note that, even though they gained traction after the Joint Statement, the problems surrounding the history books and the Yasukuni Shrine is marred with the politics and consequences of events that have took place long before the Joint Statement of September 1972.


The history problem had existed long before the Joint Statement of September 1972. While the exact definition of the history problem is difficult to pin down, many historians define it as ‘diplomatic issues between China and Japan since the 1980’s relating to ‘issues left over from the war’ and would mark the Joint Statement of 1972 as its origin. However, it is important to note that certain events prior to the statement caused strains in Sino-Japanese relations. Yinan He even goes so far as to mention, in response to the growing animosity between the two countries, that she ‘blames both parties for rushing through the normalization process and failing to adequately resolve the “history problem,” territorial disputes, and the issue of Taiwan.19’ This suggests that the history problem existed prior to the statements release. The evidence of pre-existing problems are even seen in the definition of the ‘the history problems’ most popular meaning:

‘a series of diplomatic issues between China and Japan since the 1980’s relating to ‘issues left over from the war.’

In this definition, the issues of the history problem are specifically referred to as issues left over from the war. Issues that existed long before the Joint Statement of September 1972. Whether the issue revolves around the history textbooks on the war and atrocities of the Second World War or the Yasukuni Shrine and the controversy on the enshrinement and honoring of war criminals, all issues seem to focus specifically on some aspect of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. Events that have shaped the memories, narratives, and perspectives of both participants and have heavily influenced the actions of both the present and the future.


In conclusion, the subject of Sino-Japanese relations must be approached carefully and thoroughly. This is because there is no doubt that in this subject, the past has a direct influence on the events that are taking place both now and in the future. It is important to understand that the Joint Statement of September 1972 was an attempt to repair China and Japan’s strained relationship and bring about a return to normalcy. This worked in several aspects but shed light on several crucial problems as a by-product. The unwillingness to compromise and resolve the issues of the past has led to various problems such as: the problem with how a countries history and narrative is presented in history books and the controversy around respecting the war dead at the Yasukuni shrine. As well as problems that were created due to the animosity between China and Japan, such as the Daioyu/Senkaku Island disputes. However, one thing is certain; all of these ‘history problem’ disputes have indeed taken place after the Joint September 1972, but the issue themselves, ultimately, pre-date the Joint Statement. Due to this, to say that the Joint Statement of September 1972 marked the beginning of the ‘history problem’ in China-Japan relations seems false. Although the Joint Statement was crucial for Sino-Japanese relations in shedding light and bringing attention to many issues in Sino-Japanese relations, the ‘history problem’ began long before 1970. To determine a specific event as the ‘history problems’ origin would be a difficult considering the complexities of both China and Japan’s national memory and identity. However, I firmly believe that the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war marked the beginning of ‘the history problem’ in Sino-Japanese relations, whereas the Joint Statement of September 1972 was merely a catalyst to resolve the problems that these two countries have avoided for decades.

1 Gustafsson, Karl, ‘The ‘History Problem’ in Sino-Japanese Relations: What’s the Problem?’, (Oct 31, 2017)

2 Dreyer, June Teufel, ‘Choreographing a Delicate Dance’ (March 6, 2017)

3 Hook, Glenn D. ‘Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security’, (Psychology Press, 2005)


4 Ibid.

5 Hook, Glenn D. ‘Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security’, (Psychology Press, 2005)

6 Kraus, Charles, ‘Debating the Sino-Japanese Normalization, 1972’, (April 3, 2017)

7 Drifte, Reinhard, ‘The Japan-China Confrontation Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – Between “shelving” and “dispute escalation”‘ The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vo l. 12, Issue 30 , No . 3, July 28, 2014

8 Pan, Zhongqi, ‘Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: The Pending Controversy from the Chinese Perspective’ Journal of Chinese Political Science, vol. 12, no. 1, 2007


9 Fravel, M, ‘Explaining Stability in the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands Dispute’

10 Pan, Zhongqi, ‘Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: The Pending Controversy from the Chinese Perspective’ Journal of Chinese Political Science, vol. 12, no. 1, 2007

11 Deng Xiaoping, quoted in Chi-kin Lo, China’s Policy toward Territorial Disputes: The Case of the South China Sea Islands (London: Routledge, 1989), pp.171-72.

12 Sneider, Daniel, ‘Textbooks and Patriotic Education: Wartime Memory Formation in China and Japan’, Asia-Pacific Review, 2013 Vol. 20, No. 1, 35– 54.

13 Ibid.

14 Sneider, Daniel, ‘Textbooks and Patriotic Education: Wartime Memory Formation in China and Japan’, Asia-Pacific Review, 2013 Vol. 20, No. 1, 35– 54.


15 Shin, Kawashima. ‘The three phases of Japan China Joint-History Research: What was the Challenge?’, Asian Perspective, Vol. 34, No. 4, 2010, pp. 19-43.

16 Deans, Phil, ‘Diminishing Returns? Prime Minister Koizumi’s Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in the Context of East Asian Nationalisms’, Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.


19 Kraus, Charles, ‘Debating the Sino-Japanese Normalization, 1972’, (April 3, 2017)