Troubled history stretching back decades fueling Japan-China tensions

Yasukuni Shrine, Nanjing Massacre, territorial dispute all part of equation



Strolling through China’s sprawling memorial to a 1937 massacre by Japanese troops, a 64-year-old retired teacher said the incident remains an open wound.

“Japan is a country without credibility. They pretend to be friendly, but they can’t be trusted,” Qi Houjie said as a frigid wind swept the austere plaza of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

Across the waters, Japanese visiting a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that enshrines 14 convicted war criminals among 2.5 million war dead say they are tired of the continual complaining by Chinese, underscoring a gradual hardening of attitudes toward their neighbor.

China criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday for having a “wrong attitude to history” after he sent a traditional offering to Yasukuni Shrine at the start of its three-day spring festival.

“Yasukuni Shrine is a damaging element to Japan’s relations with its neighbors,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said. “It is a negative asset for Japan. If the Japanese leaders are willing to continue carrying this negative asset on their back, the negative asset will become increasingly heavier.”

Such statements do not sit well with Ayumi Shiraishi, a 28-year-old hotel employee who decided to see Yasukuni on a recent trip to the Japanese capital. “The harsher they criticize, the more strongly I feel it’s not their business,” she said of the Chinese.

“It’s a matter of the prime minister’s belief, as he has said, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

The Tokyo shrine and the memorial hall in Nanjing are physical embodiments of divergent views of history that still strain China-Japan relations 70 years after World War II ended.

They complicate America’s objective of maintaining peace and stability in the Pacific, as President Barack Obama starts a four-country Asian tour in Japan this week. The implications are potentially serious, particularly over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyus in China.

Following Japan’s nationalization of the uninhabited islets in September 2012, violent protests targeting Japanese businesses and brands broke out in many Chinese cities, inadvertently underscoring the vital economic relationship between the sides that continues to defy the political chill.

More recently, last December to be exact, Abe set off a diplomatic firestorm by visiting Yasukuni. Soon after, newly installed officials at NHK drew fire when one denied the Nanjing Massacre — in which China claims 300,000 civilians and disarmed soldiers were murdered — happened and another downplayed the Imperial Japanese Army’s use of sex slaves, an issue that has also chilled Japan’s relations with South Korea.

In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called those statements “regrettable” and said they do not represent the government’s views. The government apologized to the former sex slaves in 1993 and more generally for its “colonial rule and aggression” on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995.

Such explanations carry little weight among a Chinese public raised on highly negative portrayals of Japan.

No perceived slight is too obscure to go unnoticed.

When a smiling Abe posed in a fighter jet last year, Chinese observers were quick to note that the plane was marked 731, the number of a notorious wartime chemical and biological weapons unit. Abe’s office said it was pure coincidence.

The constant hectoring is one factor sparking a backlash among Japanese, said Sven Saaler, a professor of modern Japanese history at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“I don’t think there is such a strong shift to the right, or such a strong resurgence of nationalism, but anti-Chinese sentiment has become very strong,” Saaler said.

The latest Pew Research Global Attitudes survey from last July showed just 5 percent of Japanese felt positively toward China.

Shiraishi said she was inspired to visit Yasukuni and its war museum by a recent movie based on a novel by Naoki Hyakuta, the NHK adviser who said the Nanjing Massacre is a fabrication. She said the film caused her to question the history she learned at school that portrayed Japan solely as an aggressor.

“In order to challenge unfair claims from China and South Korea, we have to acquire a proper understanding of our own history,” she said.

In contrast, 60-year-old retiree Masao Nakajima said he’s no fan of revisionist views of the war and thinks Abe’s visit to Yasukuni was a mistake.

“Prime Minister Abe should have been more careful about the impact of his actions. I don’t want him to go again as long as he is prime minister,” said Nakajima, after exploring Yasukuni’s spacious grounds. The least Japan can do is not “do things that we know would offend the victims.”

Hardening views among young Japanese may also partly be a symptom of insecurity about widespread perceptions that their country is in decline, experts say.

China’s accusations against Japan are undercut by its own selective approach to history and manipulation of nationalism to shore up ruling party support, critics say. Official histories exaggerate the communist role in fighting the Japanese while minimizing that of the rival Nationalists.

China also downplays Japanese attempts to make things right, including its official apologies for the war — at least 25 by one Chinese scholar’s count — and nearly $36 billion in financial assistance provided by Tokyo in the postwar decades.

Instead, Beijing is doubling-down on the anti-Japanese narrative. It recently opened a memorial hall venerating Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who killed Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and the first resident-general of Korea on a visit to China in 1909; proclaimed days to commemorate the Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s surrender; and is backing a lawsuit against a pair of Japanese companies accused of using Chinese slave labor.

Those moves serve China’s goals of winning domestic support and diminishing Tokyo’s regional role, but also build support among Japanese for leaving their postwar pacifism behind, said Rana Mitter, professor of modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University.

“As a result, you end up with two different discourses that simply cannot meet at the middle,” Mitter said.

Such sentiments find a natural home at the massacre memorial, with its displays of wartime artifacts, including an actual mass grave, and constant references to Japanese cruelty.

Zhang Ya, a 20-year-old student visiting the hall with friends, said that when it comes to history, “I don’t have good feelings toward the Japanese.”

While no one wants a shooting war over the disputed islets, Japan shouldn’t underestimate Chinese resolve, she said.

“We must take back the Diaoyu Islands,” Zhang said. “Japan knows very well we won’t give them up like cowards.”