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Why Does Japan’s Wartime Ghost Keep Reemerging?

The ritual offerings made by Japanese Cabinet members and lawmakers at the Yasukuni Shrine in April once again brought Japan’s troubled wartime past back into the spotlight. An all-too familiar routine followed, with Beijing urging Japan to “make a clean break from militarism,” and Tokyo playing down the offerings’ significance by stressing the private nature of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s honoring Japan’s war dead.

The criticisms directed at the Japanese government for failing to atone fully for its past misdeeds also engender strong anti-Japanese sentiments in Chinese society. A steady stream of these sentiments can be found on Chinese microblog Sina Weibo, for example. Reacting to the death of a 104-year-old in the south China island province of Hainan who, in her youth, had been forced to serve the invading Japanese military as a “comfort woman,” one netizen wrote: “The witnesses are becoming fewer and fewer. The Imperial militants think the bitter history will be wiped with their passing,” using the Chinese slang term for the Japanese Imperial forces. “I will sternly tell them ‘no way’!” Another wrote: “I want to destroy Japan. I only have hatred toward them.”

Conversation

05.16.16

Escalation in the South China Sea

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Tellingly, a recent PEW survey found that only 12 percent of Chinese have a favorable view of Japan; 53 percent of respondents say they have a very unfavorable view of Japan. The data also shows that, in addition to Japan’s belligerent past, the biggest obstacle to better relations is the territorial dispute China has with Japan over islands known in China as Diaoyu, and as Senkaku in Japan.

It is China’s position that the islands were returned to China as islands “affiliated to” Taiwan after the end of the Second World War. According to China, Japan acquired the islands after the Qing dynasty’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

Yet at the same time, other countries that also suffered under Japanese occupation appear to have moved on. In fact, according to the same PEW survey, Japan is viewed most favorably in the Asia-Pacific region, with the positive opinion of respondents from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia exceeding 80 percent. The questions that arise, then, are why Chinese citizens hold Japan in such contempt, and whether the claim that Japan has not come to terms with its wartime past is justified.

The Yasukuni Controversy

Let us begin with the catalyst of most tensions: visits by high-ranking officials and politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. There is in fact merit to the grievances shared by many in China. To this day, at the Yushukan Museum, located on the Yasukuni Shrine complex, Japanese soldiers who fought in China in the 1930s are glorified as martyrs for the Imperial cause. Moreover, the origins of the war are distorted and Japan’s wartime atrocities are omitted.

For instance, blame for the fighting that erupted outside Beijing in early July 1937 around the Marco Polo Bridge (Lugouqiao) is assigned squarely to the Chinese side. “The prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in China,” one museum exhibit sign notes, helped “spread the small incident of Chinese shooting at Japanese troops … into a full-scale engagement covering all of North China.”

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A Newly Translated Book Revisits Japan and China’s Wartime History

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Equally disconcerting, the “Rape of Nanking”—in which, by some estimates, the Japanese army massacred more than a quarter of a million people during a six-week rampage—is called an “incident,” just as it was in the 1930s. Moreover, nothing can be found in the museum about the widespread and systematic atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers. Included in its representation of the aftermath of the fall of China’s then-capital, Nanking, the exhibition allows that General Matsui Iwane, commander of the Japanese forces there, punished those committing “unlawful acts” with “strict military discipline.”

This was the same General Matsui convicted by the Tokyo Tribunal for failing to prevent the Nanking Massacre, a failure, in legal terms, to fulfill his “command responsibility.” Matsui is enshrined at Yasukuni together with the souls of 13 other convicted war criminals; their war criminal status goes unmentioned at the adjacent museum. It is not hard to understand that when Cabinet members pay their respects to Japan’s war dead at the shrine it sets off emotional reactions in China. These visits legitimize, or at the very least gloss over, what these men did.

A More Nuanced Story

Nonetheless, the Yasukuni Shrine controversy is not as black and white as it may seem at first blush. The Yasukuni complex is a privately-owned religious institution. Even if it wanted to, the Japanese government could not easily get involved in the affairs of the shrine. The Japanese Constitution, drafted by the Americans after World War II, provides for a strict separation of church and state as well as robust free speech rights—a commitment strongly supported by the public. This allows the far right-wing group that owns the Yasukuni complex to espouse, and trumpet, their version of the truth.

A second reservation touches on the underlying claim that, with the election of conservative nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japanese society as a whole has become more nationalistic. According to Jeff Hall of Waseda University in Tokyo, who specializes in conservative activism and Japan’s war memory, only about 30,000 Japanese actively engage in nationalist activism. He estimates the number of tacit supporters to be in the hundreds of thousands. Yet it is the demonstrations of the few that are the loudest and get picked up and amplified by the international media, constructing the perception abroad of a resurgence of nationalism in Japan.

The 2012 election that brought Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power can be explained by the lack of a credible alternative and public frustration with Japan’s long-stagnant economy. After a period of ineffective and unstable government under the Democratic Party of Japan, to many citizens a return to the LDP—campaigning on a promise to revitalize the economy—seemed their best bet.

The China Scare

Though perhaps not the primary reason, and not out of adversarial nationalism, China was likely a factor for many Japanese voters. Only 9 percent of Japanese hold a favorable view of China, the PEW study showed. While the interviews conducted in Tokyo showed a wide range of reasons for this negative view, the common denominator was a sense of insecurity.

This goes to the heart of the Japanese sense of collective pride and identity. After the war, Japan quickly rebounded and became an economic superpower by the 1970s. Long relatively isolated on the islands, the Japanese are now feeling the economic, and increasingly military, challenge posed by their rising Chinese neighbor. And they feel they are losing out.

The View From China: A Matter of Perception

As with all matters of perception, history and truth lie in the eyes of the beholder. In China, that beholder views the shared history with Japan through the lens of the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” the roughly hundred years between China’s defeat in the First Opium War in August 1842 and the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949. The Chinese identity, as Martin Jacques has pointed out, is rooted in the period of the “Civilization State”: the two millennia where consecutive dynasties ruled tian xia, all under heaven.

In sharp contrast with other powerful empires in history, the extension of China’s influence over foreign peoples was often not by force. Rather, it occurred through a set of tributary relationships that acknowledged the cultural superiority of the ruling Chinese dynasty.

These sweeping claims of cultural superiority, and their connection to the Chinese identity, help to explain why the defeats at the hands of the Japanese, whose culture is considered a derivative, and Westerners, long regarded as “barbarians,” were and are especially humiliating.

The Great Reinvention

This doesn’t fully explain, however, why these painful memories are still so powerfully felt today. After all, China is now the world’s second-largest economy, possessing a formidable military. Much can be attributed to the fragile social contract in China and its reinvention after the Chinese Communist Party faced a legitimacy crisis in the late 1980s that culminated in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.

In the post-Mao years, newfound personal freedoms combined with a liberalizing economy led some to believe that China’s reforms could, or should, also entail political reforms. The “D-word” was buzzing all around the nations’ campuses. As we know now, these hopes were unrealized.

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What followed this “crisis of faith” and the crackdown of June 4, 1989, was an effort to instill a new sense of national identity in the younger generation, most notably via the “Patriotic Education Campaign” launched in 1991. Historical antagonism with Japan, whose loans and investments were conducive to China’s economic resurgence, became a central part of the Communist Party’s nationalist mantra.

Besides the anti-Japanese messaging in Chinese education, numerous books, movies, and television dramas on the topic of Japanese aggression have since cultivated the newly created identity of victimhood. Moreover, since 2008, there has been a significant uptick in expressions of both popular and state nationalism with an increased focus on territorial sovereignty.

Both government and Party outlets regularly put out war stories or references that stir up the existing negative feelings toward Japan. More often than not, these news items have an undertone that suggests the possibility of a Japanese invasion happening all over again—thus warranting a more forceful defense posture.

Nationalism: Asset or Liability?

The Guardian aptly captured the effects of this government-nurtured nationalism when it quoted a demonstrator at the 2012 protests near the Japanese Embassy in Beijing as saying: “The government has taught us to be anti-Japanese at school, so if they want us to stop it would be like slapping their own mouths.”

Conversation

09.02.15

What Is China’s Big Parade All About?

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Riot police at the demonstration—one condoned, eyewitnesses said, by the Beijing government—could barely keep the protesters in check. Indeed, once unleashed, this kind of fervent nationalism is often hard to control. With an economic downturn underway, biting one of the hands that feeds China appears to be more of a liability than a handy rallying tool.

China’s economic “new normal,” as President Xi Jinping calls it, will furthermore be hard to reconcile with the national hubris that emerged after China withstood the global financial crisis of 2008 virtually unscathed. Hubris and, paradoxically, insecurity were also apparent during the “victory over Japan” parade in the summer of 2015.

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Parading the People’s Republic

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With the streets of Beijing emptied of people, seemingly all the nation’s televisions beamed the message the Party wanted to convey: China had risen, never to be bullied again. Lest there be any confusion, the State Council put out a statement saying the parade showed China’s “capability and determination to defend its sovereignty and world peace.” Of course “sovereignty” also referred to those Chinese territories not yet under its control, such as the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

A Counterproductive Narrative

Behind all the heated rhetoric, the Chinese, like the Japanese, are insecure. For Japan, it makes articulating what exactly happened in the wars of the 1930s and ’40s difficult to contemplate. China, for its part, has yet to come to grips with its own past and present struggles. Blaming “hostile foreign forces” for China’s misfortunes can only accomplish so much. Moreover, the inherent volatility nationalism brings with it can imperil Chinese social stability, the key driver of government policy. 

China playing the victim to Japan is further counterproductive because it feeds into the narrative of blaming externals, or “foreign forces,” for internal problems. Pointing to challenges a rising China poses to the regional order, certain constituencies in both Japan and the U.S. argue for a less accommodating policy toward China. With domestic pressures increasing as a result of China’s current economic slowdown, a stable and peaceful regional environment should be Beijing’s primary goal.