Remembering Chiang Kai-shek in Japanese Media

Written by Robert Hoppens.

Image credit: IMG_9882 by Louis Lin/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Just before midnight on April 5, 1975, Chiang Kai-shek (b. 1887), long-time leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and president of the Republic of China (ROC), died at his home in Taipei at the age of 87. Around the world, Chiang’s death occasioned media retrospectives on his long career and speculation about the future of Taiwan, where his government had spent the last quarter-century in exile. 

This was especially so in Japan for several reasons. First, relations with China and Taiwan were among the most contentious issues in post-war Japanese politics, raising questions not just of foreign policy but historical consciousness, war responsibility and Japanese national identity. This made the “China problem” a significant front in the battle between left and right, progressives and conservatives.

Second, the salience of the “China problem” was increased in 1975 as Japan had only recently, in September 1972, normalized relations with China, establishing official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and cutting official ties with the ROC on Taiwan. This meant that Japanese reactions to and coverage of Chiang’s death and funeral were eyed closely by Beijing as an early test of the new diplomatic relationship. At the same time, despite the maintenance of unofficial economic and cultural relations, relations with Taiwan were still tense due to the Japanese “abandonment” of Taiwan, with the two sides embroiled in a bitter dispute over air links and the treatment of ROC national symbols. Thus, the death and funeral of Chiang Kai-shek offered an opportunity for the ROC and its conservative supporters to push back against the Japanese government China policy. 

Finally, the Japanese response to the death of Chiang Kai-shek was shaped by a cult of personality around Chiang Kai-shek that Japanese conservatives had long promoted to counter the China policy and historical narratives of their leftist pro-PRC opponents. Although the idea of a cult of personality is more commonly associated with communist leaders like Mao Zedong, scholars like Jeremy Taylor have examined the construction of a cult of personality around Chiang Kai-shek in Republican China and Taiwan. Japanese conservatives, with the cooperation of Chiang Kai-shek and Nationalist leaders, developed a corollary to the cult in postwar Japan in the form of a highly moralized historical narrative focused on the personal virtue and magnanimity of Chiang Kai-shek after WWII.

Conservative champions of Chiang argued that the Japanese had a “moral duty” (恩義 Ch: enyi; J: ongi to support Chiang and the ROC on at least four counts. Firstly, after the Japanese surrender, Chiang had called on the Chinese to refrain from retribution against Japanese in China, to “repay malice with virtue” (以德報怨Ch: yidebaoyuan; J: toku wo motte urami ni mukuiru), and allowed the more than two million Japanese soldiers and civilians in China to return to Japan safely. Secondly, Chiang had declined to participate in the military occupation of Japan after the war, thereby avoiding a divided occupation of Japan and sparing Japan the fate that befell Germany, Korea and Vietnam. Third, Chiang had waived Chinese claims to war reparations in the negotiations for the peace treaty in 1952. Fourth, Chiang had argued for the postwar preservation of the Japanese imperial institution in meetings with the Allied leaders. This mantra was repeated, often nearly verbatim, in any discussion of Japan’s relations with China, becoming a foundational mythology of Japan’s postwar relations with Taiwan that, whatever its veracity, by 1974 had become commonplace even in mainstream Japanese media coverage of Chiang’s death. 

In reporting Chiang’s death, most of Japan’s major news publications, including the Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri and Nikkei newspapers, refrained from referring to Chiang Kai-shek in their headlines by his title, “president” (総統 Ch: zongtong; J: sōtō), out of consideration for the new relationship with the PRC. Referring to Chiang Kai-shek as a head of state could perhaps be interpreted as recognizing the ROC as a state, transcending the “unofficial” nature of relations with Taiwan and offending the PRC’s one-China principle. This consideration often brought them in for ridicule for lack of backbone or autonomy in dealing with issues related to China.

On the other hand, as Ikei Masaru has shown, although the major newspapers refrained from using Chiang’s title in their frontpage headlines, they did use it in their articles. Moreover, the Asahi, the most leftist of Japan’s major newspapers, referred to Chiang as “President Chiang Kai-shek” in the title of its editorial. Moreover, the coverage of all of Japan’s major newspapers was generally positive, and all repeated the “repaying malice with virtue” narrative. For example, the Asahi opined that the Japanese had not forgotten Chiang’s magnanimity at the end of the war when he called on the Chinese to “repay malice with virtue,” which allowed more than two million Japanese to return safely from China. Likewise, the Mainichi cited Chiang’s generosity and “repaying malice with virtue” in lamenting the diplomatic necessity of breaking relations with Taiwan in the normalization with China. Moreover, it concluded that it would be understandable if Chiang felt that the Japanese had “repaid virtue with enmity” (仇をもって徳に報いたCh: yichoubaode; J: ada wo motte toku ni mukuita). 

The conservative Sankei newspaper stood out for its coverage of Chiang’s death and funeral. Ikei Masaru noted that Sankei’s coverage of Chiang’s death amounted to a Chiang Kai-shek “special edition.” The Sankei referred to Chiang as “President Chiang” consistently throughout its headlines and articles. In addition to reporting Chiang’s death, the Sankei also printed Chiang Kai-shek’s last will and testament, in which Chiang reiterated the commitment to retake the mainland, on its front page and included a pictorial feature on Chiang. Fuji Television, part of the Sankei media group, aired live coverage of the mourning for Chiang in Taiwan. 

In fact, Sankei had long been in the vanguard of positive coverage of Chiang Kai-shek. Sankei, whose reporters had been expelled from the PRC in the Cultural Revolution, was the only major paper to maintain an office in Taipei after the normalization of relations with the PRC.  At the time of Chiang’s death, the Sankei newspaper was in the midst of the serial publication of a massive biography of Chiang Kai-shek, The Secret History of Chiang Kai-shek, that eventually ran in 650 instalments from 1974 to 1976 and ran concurrently in Chinese translation in Taiwanese newspapers. The work was later published in Japanese in fifteen volumes and an abridged English version in 1981. The project was a response to the deterioration of relations with Taiwan after normalization. It was completed with the full cooperation of and based on sources provided by the ROC government. It is thus not surprising that Sankei president Shikanai Nobutaka was a conspicuous presence at Chiang’s funeral whose attendance was well covered by the Taiwanese media. Shikanai would later fund the construction of a Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Hakone, Japan.

World press coverage of Chiang’s death and funeral were closely followed by the ROC media, including the coverage in Japan. Media in Taiwan reported favourably on media coverage in Japan. ROC media reports repeated the “repaying malice with virtue” narrative and reported Japanese expressions of gratitude for Chiang’s postwar generosity. Media reports noted with satisfaction that these appeared not only in outlets Sankei but even in leftist papers like Asahi. Even today, Japanese media related to Chiang Kai-shek, including The Secret History of Chiang Kai-shek, are displayed in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. 

There were, of course, dissenters to this positive remembrance of Chiang Kai-shek. PRC media reporting on Chiang’s death proclaimed him a traitor and an enemy of the Chinese people and protested the positive appraisals of Chiang in the Japanese press. For example, the PRC objected to comments by Eto Shinkichi, Japan’s leading China scholar who was in China as part of an academic and cultural mission, that were reported in the Japanese press as referring to Chiang as a Chinese nationalist and a hero of the revolution and the war against Japan.

In Japan, too, leftists criticized the hagiography of Chiang in the Japanese media. The journalist Honda Katsuichi, already involved in his own battles with right-wing critics of his work on the Nanjing Massacre, regarded the veneration of Chiang Kai-shek in the media as part of what he considered a creeping trend in Japan toward “fascism.” Honda also reminded the Japanese that the KMT under Chiang had, in fact, carried out war crimes trials that resulted in the execution of hundreds of BC class war criminals in China. So, while Chiang had indeed been generous toward “real” war criminals like Okamura Yasuji, he had been far less so to ordinary Japanese soldiers.

An examination of the Japanese media coverage of the death of Chiang Kai-shek illustrates the extent to which the Chiang Kai-shek cult had penetrated postwar Japanese consciousness. Unfortunately, this history is often forgotten today in discussions of Japan-Taiwan friendship that stress shared democratic values between Taiwanese leaders – many of whom struggle to dismantle the Chiang cult in Taiwan – and Japanese leaders. Indeed, many of the latter were the heirs of those who promoted the Chiang cult in Japan. At the very least, this history should warn us against anachronistically projecting today’s shared democratic values back into the Cold War past. 

Robbert Hoppens is an Associate Professor in the Department of History, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

This piece was published as part of a special issue on Asian Mediascapes of Taiwan.

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