At 9:35 a.m. Thursday, Shanghai’s state-owned Xinmin Evening News newspaper tweeted a reminder to its 1.8 million followers on the Sina Weibo microblogging service: “The Japanese surrendered 68 years ago today!”
The tweet honored the roughly 35 million Chinese who died during the war and included five black-and-white images from the time, including a photo of an Imperial Japanese Army soldier standing over a trench filled with the bodies of Chinese civilians, and another of Japanese soldiers loading Chinese into trucks.
Images such as these would be emotionally charged in any country that suffered a foreign invasion. But in China, where there’s a long-standing national consensus that Japan has never truly apologized for the war, they have ongoing resonance.
In recent weeks, it has only grown stronger with news that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to revise the pacifist Constitution and that Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso may have suggested sarcastically the country should follow Nazi Germany’s example on amending the charter.
Then there was the launch of Japan’s biggest naval vessel since World War II — a ship that shares its name with one involved in the Japanese invasion of China.
These events, combined with a year of diplomatic and military tension between Beijing and Tokyo in the East China Sea, and the memory of nationwide anti-Japanese riots last year, made the run-up to this year’s surrender anniversary particularly tense.
Making matters even worse was the question of whether Abe would make a controversial visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine,. In past years, senior political leaders, including then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s, have visited the shrine, angering Chinese and South Koreans.
On Aug. 7, The People’s Daily, the flagship publication of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that a visit this year would serve as an expression of a perverted political mindset still grounded in the 1930s: “As deviant right-wing views grow stronger, all sorts of words and deeds involving blatant denial, beautifying aggression, and condoning abuses of human rights manifest themselves in Japan.”
The consequences of this outlook, the editors wrote, will be international marginalization and opportunities for China to seize the moral high ground in disputes: “Aug. 15 is the anniversary of the day on which the people of Asia finally succeeded in freeing themselves from the ravaging effects of Japanese militarism. We wish that right-wing Japanese politicians would amend their view of history, and stop stirring up trouble and anger.”
Abe is no doubt keenly aware of the cost of further conflict with China — the bilateral dispute over the Japan-held Senkaku Islands cost the domestic economy dearly in 2012. So, late Wednesday, he announced he wouldn’t visit Yasukuni but would instead send a sacred tree branch purchased with personal funds.
However, he made clear his ministers would be free to attend the shrine. Two Cabinet members, as well as Koizumi’s son, were photographed entering Yasukuni early Thursday morning.
By the time most Chinese were waking up, those images were already circulating online. The Xinmin Evening News included three of them with the five black-and-white images from the war in its morning tweet. Curiously, though, despite having 1.8 million followers and a photo set perfectly tuned to ignite anger, the tweet failed to garner much interest.
By late Thursday afternoon, it had been forwarded less than 100 times and generated fewer than 20 comments. By contrast, The People’s Daily tweeted nine far more graphic wartime images of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese without any reference to Yasukuni visits past or present. The post received more than 36,500 forwards. The most striking reaction to Thursday’s Yasukuni visits has been how little interest they seem to be generating on Chinese social media.
Unlike in the past, at no point during the day did “Yasukuni,” “815” — commonly used shorthand for the surrender day— or other associated words appear on Sina Weibo’s trending topic list or the “hot search term” list at Baidu, China’s leading search engine. This may be by design: Trending and hot topic lists in China are often censored to downplay certain topics.
But even with what appears to be a free discussion of the anniversary and Yasukuni, there’s a decided lack of online anti-Japanese anger of the sort that has characterized disputes between the two countries in the past.
What accounts for this indifference? Certainly there’s no lack of grass-roots Chinese enmity toward Japan. Rather, it seems that China’s online communities aren’t particularly worked up about how Japanese commemorate their war dead.
Instead, many Chinese commentators are wondering when their government will do more to honor China’s war dead.
One of the more pointed comments was made by Zhou Pengan, a semifamous Communist Party official in Anhui province who tweeted to Sina Weibo: “Chinese always react violently when Japanese politicians visit the Yasukuni shrine. But Chinese should realize that the spirits of the soldiers are heroes in the eyes of the Japanese.”