China, Japan end first joint study session on history

Updated: 2006-12-27 19:42

BEIJING - Chinese and Japanese scholars on Wednesday finished the first in a planned series of historical study groups ordered by their governments amid fresh efforts to mend strained ties and reduce bitterness between the former World War II enemies.

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Twenty academics - ten each from China and Japan - met in Beijing for two days focusing first on the basic format and dates of future talks, said Shinichi Kitaoka, a University of Tokyo professor and head of the Japanese delegation.

Kitoaka said the talks so far were "serious, frank and friendly" but that they had yet to delve into specific historical events such as the Nanjing Massacre - a particularly painful subject that the two sides have sharp differences on.

Nanjing suffered a rampage of murder, rape and looting by Japanese troops in 1937 that became known as "The Rape of Nanking," using the name by which the city was known in the West at that time.

Historians generally agree the Japanese army slaughtered at least 150,000 civilians and raped tens of thousands of women. China says that as many as 300,000 people were killed.

Japan avoids giving death toll estimates and conservative lawmakers and academics still try to whitewash the event, fueling simmering resentment among Chinese over Tokyo's wartime behavior.

Kitoaka told reporters that the study groups were a government-funded exercise but that "at least on the Japanese side, we have freedom of speech, academic freedom, totally."

He said his impression was that the Chinese academics would also be able to talk openly about sensitive historical issues.

Nearly all the Chinese scholars are staff from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. Three are history professor from the elite Peking University.

"I can say they are freer than you imagine," he said, without elaborating.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Tuesday that the talks were aimed at helping both sides "correctly understand the accurate historical facts and lay a solid foundation for better future China-Japan relations."

Former Japanese President Junichiro Koizumi upset Beijing by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni war shrine which has strong links to Japan's militarist past. The shrine honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including executed war criminals from World War II.

Japan and China also have territorial disputes involving underwater oil and gas reserves, and are at odds over Japanese school textbooks which some say whitewash atrocities committed by the country's soldiers in Asia.

But relations have improved since Koizumi's departure, and new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in late September, met President Hu Jintao in Beijing in October in the first summit between the countries in five years. The leaders decided at that meeting to establish the historical study groups.

Kitoaka said there would be two study groups, one looking at relations between the two sides during pre-modern times and another focused on contemporary ties.

The Chinese delegation is headed by Bu Ping, director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The scholars are to meet again in March and December of next year and will have a final meeting in June, 2008.

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