Japan-China relations are in trouble, again. The latest recriminations began with the fierce booing of a Japanese soccer team in Chongqing in July of this year. Few of Japan’s many indignant commentators seemed to know that this large central China city had been the defenseless target of relentless Japanese bombing raids for most of the war years. Its people were reduced to living in caves.
The commentators also like to zoom in on former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin as incurably anti-Japan. Few realize his formative years were spent in Japan-occupied Shanghai, which also suffered badly.
Anyone who knows China knows the depth of genuine Chinese dislike and even hatred for Japan. Japanese conservatives and rightwingers have lately begun to blame this on what they see as exaggerated emphasis on Japan’s 1937-45 wartime atrocities in communist China’s school textbooks. (They do not tell us how this alleged anti-Japan bias in the schools meshes with Beijing’s strong efforts to curb anti-Japan comments on the Internet and in the Chinese media. Nor do they explain why anti-Japan feeling is just as strong in noncommunist Hong Kong, which has different textbooks.)
Educated Chinese do not need textbooks to remember the record of Japan’s wartime behavior. It is Japan’s unwillingness to remember that is the problem.
Tokyo insists that it has apologized to China, repeatedly, for wartime misbehavior. But can the apologies be taken seriously? When former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka told former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that he was sorry for the meiwaku (trouble) Japan had caused China, Zhou is reported to have said angrily that meiwaku is what you say when you spill tea on a lady’s dress.
If Japan was truly repentant, it would have done something to punish or at least ostracize the people who committed the worst atrocities in China. But the men responsible for the ghastly Unit 731 germ warfare and vivisection experiments on tens of thousands of Chinese prisoners returned to respectable positions in Japanese society. Some were even able to use their experiences to create a large medical company, notorious for its corrupt links with Japanese officialdom.
Others such as Ryoichi Sasakawa and Toshio Kodama, responsible for dreadful looting across China, were able to use their ill-gotten wealth to gain positions of enormous political power in postwar Japan. Sasakawa was given the monopoly on motorboat-race gambling, whose revenues still fund the highly conservative Nippon Foundation run by some of Japan’s more virulent anti-China critics.
The last straw for many Chinese is the sight of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in traditional regalia, making his annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Japanese conservatives say every nation has the right to honor its war dead. But Yasukuni does much more than that. Its numerous militaristic displays show a complete lack of remorse for a war that killed up to 20 million Chinese. Beijing has used the issue to put a freeze on any meeting with Koizumi.
True, Beijing in the past has used Yasukuni and other issues to play favorites among Japan’s political leaders. But this time its distress could be genuine. In its efforts to calm domestic anti-Japanese sentiment, it tries to insist that the Japanese are a peace-loving people and that the war guilt rests lie solely with the 14 Japanese leaders convicted of A-class war crimes. Yasukuni is said to enshrine the souls of those 14 wartime leaders.
True, cultural factors help explain some of Japan’s war-guilt problem. Many critics of Japan point to Germany’s ability to admit war guilt. But this is easy when you can put all the blame onto Nazi leaders and exonerate the rest of the German nation. To ask the more communalistic Japanese to condemn wartime leaders and atrocities is in effect to ask them to deny their nation.
Maybe that is what they should do, and what all the rest of us should do when our soldiers commit atrocities, whether it is in Iraq or Vietnam or what have you. But we all know that is not going to happen.
Japanese particularism is also a factor. Somehow the fact that Japan also suffered from the war — the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki especially — is supposed to wipe out guilt for the far greater and earlier sufferings that Japan imposed on other peoples.
But culture is only part of the picture. The anti-Japan soccer outbursts in China as well as recent territorial disputes have excited Japan’s powerful rightwing into anti-China passions almost on a par with the militaristic past. Bitter denunciations of China and the Chinese people have become regular fare in rightwing media and pulpits.
Support for a U.S. military confrontation with China, hopefully over Taiwan, is urged. The so-called China School — Chinese-speakers in Japan’s Foreign Ministry with some experience of China — are now treated with the same contempt and suspicion as the Chinese experts purged from the U.S. State Department by McCarthyist pressure in the 1950s.
The rightwing is pouring praise on the recent Japanese translation of a viciously anti-China book by a prewar U.S. diplomat, Ralph Townsend, entitled “Ways that are Dark: The Truth About China.” It contrasts an allegedly dirty, devious Chinese nation with the trustworthy, hardworking Japanese, and bitterly criticizes the then-U.S. government for opposing Japan’s attacks on China.
Townsend ended up in a U.S. wartime jail, accused of treason. But for the rightwing here, he is a hero.
The territorial frictions are especially worrying. Even moderate Japanese take it for granted that Japan’s claims to the disputed Senkaku Islands and economic control lines in the East China sea are totally valid and that China’s not totally unreasonable claims are in fact totally unreasonable.
Some very large changes in the Japanese mentality will be needed if Japan and China are ever to live in peace with each other.