When a group of Chinese and Japanese academics gathered in Beijing late last year to hammer out a consensus on the historical issues that bedevil ties between their nations, the initial results were modest.

The 20 leading historians spent much of their time on lengthy introductions, agreeing to only a set of vague principles for future discussions and to holding a second meeting in Tokyo next month.

The humble start highlighted the scale of the challenge facing the scholars, standard bearers of an unprecedented effort by Beijing and Tokyo to narrow historical differences centred on Japan’s 1931-45 invasion and occupation of much of China.

Agreed during a landmark visit to Beijing last year by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new prime minister, the bilateral “research committee” is intended to bring stability to ties by putting the contested history of the nations’ relations in the hands of historians instead of politicians.

The committee aims to produce a draft account of Sino-Japanese contacts over 2,000 years in time for the 30th anniversary of the two countries’ peace and friendship treaty in August next year.

But FT interviews with the leaders of the two delegations make clear that real consensus is likely to prove elusive when it comes to such bitterly contested issues as the incidents that sparked Japan’s 1937 invasion of the Chinese heartland and the occupation that year of Nanjing.

Many Japanese have long asserted that China over-simplifies and exaggerates the level of Japanese wartime brutality, while China sees such criticism as an attempt to whitewash war crimes.

“Part of the joint research report may have to include separate statements from each side on their positions,” says Bu Ping, head of the Chinese delegation.

“However, I hope shared views will make up more of the document,” says Mr Bu, who is director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

While Beijing’s main interest is wartime issues, the Japanese side is keen to ensure that plenty of time is spent looking at events before and after the invasion.

“History is a mirror. But if we only look at the war era, it becomes a distorted mirror,” says Shinichi Kitaoka, professor at Tokyo University and head of Japan’s delegation.

Japan wants to explore the prewar period, when it became involved in China at the tail end of a battle for colonial influence among western powers. It also hopes discussion of postwar events will highlight Japan’s aid to China and more than 30 prime ministerial apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression.

Japanese scholars are also likely to dispute China’s long-standing claim – literally carved in stone on a memorial in the city – that 300,000 people were killed in Nanjing. Scholars considered moderate in Japan estimate the true toll at a small fraction of that total.

However, Mr Bu says the number of dead is an emotional issue in China and one that cannot be resolved in the time left for the committee to report. He argues the committee must avoid getting bogged down by the small-picture approach of some Japanese historians.

“The main thing in resolving differences on historical problems is not to focus on specifics, but to make judgments on the big issues,” Mr Bu says.

Alongside such challenges, the committee must deal with doubts about the freedom of enquiry available to Chinese participants, given Beijing’s censorship of official historical research.

Mr Bu dismisses such doubts, although his status as a Communist party secretary suggests he is unlikely to challenge political orthodoxy.

The search for academic agreement could also be derailed by renewed political problems. Mr Abe’s visit to Beijing was made possible because he was able to put aside the question of whether he would visit Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine.

Some Japanese officials have suggested that Mr Abe might still be able to visit the shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead including a handful of convicted war criminals, if he goes without publicity.

But a Chinese person close to the scholars’ committee says even a low-key visit would “destroy joint historical research”.

In spite of such potential difficulties, the committee can help improve the political atmosphere, says Gerald Curtis, Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University.

“They won’t be able to reach a unified view of what happened, but they might reach more of an understanding of each other’s position. I think it’s a very good thing.”

And the mere existence of the committee offers a potentially pivotal opportunity for politicians to take history off an already challenging diplomatic agenda.

“Our aim is to depoliticise history so that leaders of both countries . . . can say: ‘We have asked our historians to discuss this’,” says Prof Kitaoka. “Then they can concentrate on real issues related to our present and to our future.”

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