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Japan’s war crimes still make paper-selling headlines in China, 69 years after WWII

by Ben Dooley

Kyodo

On Aug. 15, 1945, at precisely noon, Emperor Hirohito took to the airwaves to announce the unconditional surrender of Japan’s military to Allied Forces.

The radio broadcast in Japan signaled the end of World War II and years of bloodshed.

For most of the world, the Emperor’s announcement is now old news. The United States stopped celebrating Victory over Japan Day in 1975.

But that’s not the case in China. Media coverage of the “War of Resistance Against Japan,” as it is called here, has reached a fever pitch this summer as the country observes several major anniversaries related to the conflict.

Take, for example, a recent story published by the state-run Xinhua News Service: “Japanese policeman confesses to torture of Chinese.”

A person who scanned the day’s headlines without reading further could be forgiven for thinking the story of Shigeo Hachisuka’s war crimes was breaking news.

In fact, it happened in 1943 when Japanese forces still occupied a large part of Northeastern China, then known as Manchuria.

Although war tales have long been a popular subject for TV shows and movies, stories based on Hachisuka’s confessions and others like it — released as a 42-part series by China’s State Archives Administration — have been virtually inescapable this summer, running daily on Chinese television and in print.

And they may continue for the foreseeable future. The archives, which contain at least 253 files on Japanese war criminals, announced on Wednesday the release of 10 additional dossiers to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

This isn’t the first time Chinese newspapers have featured such confessions. They initially appeared in 1956, according to Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at the University of Leeds who specializes in Sino-Japanese history.

But there was one major difference: at that time, the documents were intended to illustrate the humane and effective methods used by China’s Communist Party to reform Japan’s most hardened war criminals. The confessions were a “before picture” that demonstrated how much the prisoners had improved under the party’s care.

This time around, they serve a very different purpose: chastising Japanese conservatives, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for their revisionist views on Japan’s role in the war.

The Abe administration has come under fire in China and South Korea for comments that deny Japan’s responsibility for wartime atrocities such as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the Imperial Japanese Army’s use of sex slaves, euphemistically referred to as “comfort women.”

“They don’t like Abe, they don’t like what Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is doing,” Cathcart said, referring to the governing party led by Abe.

The confessions and similar stories are “all about painting them in the worst possible light,” he said.

“When you get Japanese speaking up publicly and saying no, this didn’t happen and we shouldn’t be sorry about it … it’s not surprising that Chinese will want to publicize those messages in order to discredit the Japanese right,” said Peter Gries, director of the Institute for US-China Issues at the University of Oklahoma.

Increasingly, newspapers and magazines have received pressure from government representatives to run stories that cast the Abe administration, and Japan, in an unflattering light, according to one Chinese reporter who asked to remain anonymous while discussing this sensitive topic.

However, not all of the war stories are pushed by the government, according to Kecheng Fang, a former reporter who studies Chinese media. Some outlets bash Japan because it’s good for business: “Part of the reason why there seem to be more anti-Japanese reports is because these reports can make money.”

“There are some party mouthpieces, but there are also some market-oriented media,” he said. “Some of them must follow the Communist Party’s rules, but some of them are just making money.”

Anti-Japanese stories sell papers to “readers who hold a strong nationalistic feeling.”

“Most interesting things you’re not allowed to write about. But the one thing that has blood and stirs up the passions that you can pretty much do without any worrying is the anti-Japanese war,” according to Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a research service that specializes in Chinese media.

Although the Chinese government may encourage unfavorable portrayals of Japan in support of its own agenda, the evident popularity of such topics has created its own set of dilemmas, according to Gries, the Institute for US-China Issues director.

“It’s a double-edged sword. The more you publicize it, essentially you feed the fire of popular nationalism,” Gries said.

The resulting feedback loop can create a situation that raises unreasonable expectations for government action against Japan, Gries said, when in fact, Beijing would most likely prefer to see an overall improvement in relations.

“In a way, the Chinese government has become a victim of its own propaganda,” Gries said.

  • Ron NJ

    Maybe if Japan stopped collectively trying to sweep everything under the rug, educated its people, and fully accepted and acknowledged what occurred, others might be able to drop it. Until that case, expect it to keep being drug back out over and over again – it’s not beating a dead horse if the horse is still alive, wrapped up in a rug you’ve tossed in the closet you’ve conveniently hidden the key to.

    • Yamatosenkan

      Japan officially acknowledges all war crimes and has apologized numerous times. Go to the official website of MOFA or the Wikipedia list with dozens of Japanese apologies. It takes two to tango, China should learn from European nations such as France and Britain and accept Japanese apologies and move on and make relations in East-Asia better.

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  • Yamatosenkan

    Since China has embraced capitalism, what legitimizes the rule of the communist party? The answer is nationalism based on an anti-Japanese platform.

    It is no coincidence that the embrace of free-market capitalism in China since the 1980′s coincided with a strong emphasis on “patriotic education” and heavy anti-Japanese propaganda.

    As the gap between rich and poor rises in China, there is an increased need to focus on external enemies. The CCP also needs anti-Japanese propaganda to deflect attention from internal problems, such as its rampant corruption, environmental damage, civil unrest, ethnic divisions, not to mention its own brutal occupation of Tibet.