Why Did China Detain a Japanese History Professor?

Historians in the News
tags: China, historians, history professor

The China-related story that most agitated the minds of Japanese academia this fall was undoubtedly the arrest of Iwatani Nobu, a professor of modern Chinese history at Hokkaidō University, detained in early September on suspicion of spying during a trip to Beijing. Professor Iwatani was eventually released on November 15 after intense pressure from Japanese officials, who raised the issue at every possible occasion with Chinese counterparts and demanded a swift resolution so as not to endanger the current positive trend in bilateral diplomatic interactions, as well as a concerted campaign by Japanese academics and intellectuals to bring attention to the issue and petition Chinese authorities.

Despite this welcome conclusion to Professor Iwatani’s ordeal, the whole incident raises serious concerns regarding future possibilities of engagement with China outside of government channels. For one, Professor Iwatani was in Beijing on invitation from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for a conference, and was arrested after a raid conducted by agents of the Ministry of State Security in a hotel room provided by his hosts. This cannot but raise questions about how authorities were informed of his location and who accused him of being a spy. In any case, the grounds for such accusations are very shaky.

Although Professor Iwatani admitted, most likely under intense pressure, to conducting illicit activities in China and to have collected classified documents, one can seriously doubt that he was engaged in any reproachable behavior, to say nothing of espionage. The allegedly illicit material that the Chinese authorities claimed to have seized in his hotel room appear to have been old books and journals relating to the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945 – Professor Iwatani’s area of expertise – that he had purchased at a second-hand bookstore in Beijing as part of any serious historian’s continuous search for new material. The accusations made by the Ministry thus reveal more about the Chinese Communist Party’s anxious attempts to assert narrative control over the way the country’s modern past is depicted and understood than about any purported misdeed by the Japanese professor.

Read entire article at Tokyo Review

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