China on Thursday threw open to journalists for the first time a museum in this north-eastern city — where the Japanese occupation of China first began in 1931 — that showcases the atrocities committed by invading forces and also describes the grandfather of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – at the time a Japanese leader – as “a Class-A war criminal.”

The opening of the “September 18 Museum” to journalists came amid rising tensions – and an increasingly heated propaganda war – with Japan, triggered by competing claims over disputed East China Sea islands, and complicated by continuing disagreements over wartime history.

The museum takes its name from the date of the “Mukden Incident,” which marked the start of the occupation. It was in this cold north-eastern city, earlier known as Mukden, where Japanese troops, Chinese scholars say, staged an explosion of a Japanese railway line in 1931 as a pretext to launch a full-blown invasion. The Japanese occupation of China, which lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945, remains an emotive issue in China today.

Chinese state media frequently highlight atrocities committed by invading troops, such as the “Rape of Nanking” that left, according to Chinese estimates, more than 300,000 people killed. The question of history has begun to occupy increasingly prominent attention in bilateral relations seventy years on.

China has accused Mr. Abe, a Conservative politician who took office in December 2012, of attempting to rewrite history and downplay atrocities. Mr. Abe recently angered both China and South Korea – which also faced Japanese occupation – by becoming the first Japanese leader in seven years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japan’s civilian war-dead but also enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals, including officials behind the Nanking massacre.

Although Mr. Abe expressed “severe remorse for the past” and pledged “never to wage a war again,” the visit brought condemnation from Beijing and Seoul. This contested history is on display in the sprawling campus of the museum, which declares as its mission “Taking history as lesson, anticipating peace and guarding against the rebirth of Japanese Imperial militarism.”

Somewhat controversially, its exhibits include a display of Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served for three years as a senior official in the Manchukuo puppet government installed in Shenyang following the invasion. Kishi was initially charged with war crimes but was subsequently cleared of the charges by a Tokyo tribunal. He later rejoined politics and went on to become Prime Minister in 1957.

The exhibit, however, says, “He is a first degree war criminal. He was once head of the industrial ministry of the Manchukuo government. He was later Japanese Prime Minister in 1957 and 1958.” A guide pointedly explained to visitors that the official was “the grandfather of the Japanese Prime Minister Abe.”

The display reflects perceptions among many Chinese officials that Mr. Abe is a “revisionist” bent upon denying wartime history, and also rewriting Japan’s pacifist Constitution and reviving militarism – claims that Japan rejects. Tokyo has itself expressed anxiety over what it sees as a threat from China’s own massive military modernisation and assertiveness in disputes with several neighbours.

“I think we can see the influence of his grandfather in the Prime Minister’s own outlook,” said Wang Jianxue, a historian and scholar affiliated with the museum. “His grandfather spent three years here as a vice minister. Only if we learn this history,” he added, “can we appreciate today’s peace.”

Mr. Abe has written that he felt “strong repulsion” at suggestions that his grandfather was a war criminal suspect. “Because of that experience, I may have become emotionally attached to ‘conservatism,’ on the contrary,” he wrote in his book “Toward a Beautiful Country”, according to a report in the Japan Times.

The Chinese government is showcasing this war time history even as it ratchets up international pressure on Japan. The Shenyang museum was refurbished in 1997 and cost 100 million Yuan to build ($ 16 million), according to curator Jing Xiaoguang. He said it receives 8 million visitors a year, with school students accounting for around 60 per cent.

Exhibits display mass graves and include gruesome photographs, showing the severed heads of Chinese lining Shenyang’s streets and torture in camps.

“From that day on the Japanese invaders went on to commit numerous massacres of unparalleled savagery and committed innumerable criminal acts,” says one plaque. “The Chinese people suffered more than 5,000 days and nights of hatred and terror.”

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