Anti-Japanese sentiment is not a new phenomenon in China. The recent assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe shined a light on how pervasive anti-Japanese sentiment remains in China.
As leaders of the world expressed shocked and regret over the former prime minister's assassination, Chinese social media users expressed joy and celebrated the death of Abe.
Some restaurants in China offered discounts to mark the 'happy' occasion. Others celebrated the attacker as a 'hero'. Some visitors of Chinese pubs dressed up as the assassin.
A Chinese journalist reporting about the assassination from Japan was humiliated and castigated for shedding tears.
The roots of anti-Japanese sentiment can be traced back to Japan's invasion of China. For centuries, the Chinese have viewed themselves as the 'Middle Kingdom'. Japan adopted Buddhism, the script in which Japanese is written today, and many other cultural practices from China.
To the Chinese, Japanese culture was always a downstream of 'superior' Chinese culture. Japan's invasion of China was humiliating and horrifying. After the invasion, most Chinese were left wondering — "how can this tiny island which is inferior to us, invade us?"
Successive generations of Chinese policymakers capitalised on this national trauma and humiliation to forge a new contemporary Chinese identity, with the shared experience of trauma uniting the Chinese.
Students in Chinese schools till this day have to relive the horror of the rape of Nanjing at the hands of imperialist Japanese. The unwillingness of contemporary Japanese politicians such as Shinzo Abe to acknowledge the war crimes adds more fuel to the anti-Japanese sentiment. China is not alone.
The unwillingness of Japanese politicians to acknowledge the existence of comfort women during Japanese occupation of Korea is even to this day a major source of resentment again Japan in South Korea. Comfort women were Korean women who were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese occupying forces.
Whilst the callous comments in China, following Shinzo Abe's assassination seem petulant and uncivilised to most of the world, the refusal of Japanese politicians to acknowledge war crimes seems immoral to the Chinese. And unlike most societies which suffered European colonialism, where the time of suffering is perceived as something that happened in the distant past, in China, due to the 'patriotic education', the time of suffering seems very recent.
“In the minds of those who celebrated his death, Abe was not a human being who was tragically killed but a symbol of unremorseful Japanese imperialism,” says Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch to the FT.
“Official propaganda has been instilling hatred of Japan due to its world war two crimes and the image of Japan as an enemy has taken firm hold in most people’s minds, despite the large amount of aid and investment Japan has provided to China since the start of [China’s] reform period,” says Henry Gao, a China expert at Singapore Management University.
China's relationship with Japan is far from simple. Few years ago, when anti-Japanese demonstrations over the Senkaku Islands gripped China, Japanese anime remained popular in China.
Japanese cartoons still remain extremely popular in China. It is not uncommon for Chinese students to read about Japanese atrocities in China and then head home to watch Pokemon during lunch.
During the anti-Japanese demonstration over Senkaku, many Chinese demanded a boycott of Japanese brands. Some, however, continued to visit Japanese clothing brands to purchase the collection of the latest season, stomping on a Japanese flag on their way into the store.
If you visit Tokyo, you will notice that the most common language in streets after Japanese is Mandarin. Thanks to geographical proximity, middle class Chinese tourists love to visit Japan. The sight of young Chinese sipping green tea in their water bottle whilst visiting Japanese tourist sites is rather common.
What is also common is the view amongst these same Chinese tourists of Japan as an 'attack dog' of the Americans. The proverbial 51st state of the US, with no backbone of its own, no guilt for the war crimes and an unwillingness to accept reality and respect the resurgent China.
If Japan ever succeeds in changing its constitution, then this anti-Japanese sentiment will translate into China's official policy as well. The fear of a militarised Japan triggers the unpleasant wounds of the past. One would imagine that with the passage of time, anti-Japanese sentiment will dilute in China. For better or worse, the opposite has happened, thanks to the rising level of nationalism in China. As of now, it seems unlikely that the anti-Japanese sentiment will dilute any time soon.
Although the recent barrage of comments after Abe's assassination were a cause of embarrassment for China, it certainly is more convenient for Beijing to have the Chinese populace's ire directed towards a foreign nation instead of the CCP.
James Palmer, deputy editor of Foreign Policy mentions an interesting incident in his Twitter thread which grants a glimpse into the nature of anti-Japanese sentiment in China.
"Back in 2017 a young woman in Nanjing is having nightmares about the Nanjing Massacre. in a *extremely* misplaced act of spiritual compassion, she decides, it seems, that the souls of the Japanese who participated in the massacre need to be prayed for, so she pays for five memorial tablets at a Buddhist temple in Nanjing - four of which are Japanese war criminals who were involved in the massacre, and one of which is an American missionary who saved people.
"Now the temple monks who she pays for this obviously have no idea who these people are. Japanese names rendered in Chinese look Chinese, basically, and while these are known war criminals, they're not, like, Hitler level famous. Think SS officer.
"She goes back to her work as a nurse and eventually leaves to become a Buddhist layperson. The tablets sit there for five years, nobody notices, until some keen-eyed tourist spots them and takes a picture highlighting who the names are. instant online fury. 600 million views on Weibo! Contentions that this is a Japanese Plot to desecrate the memory of the dead. a huge hunt begins in Nanjing, the monks are all punished, so are *nine* local officials.
"This leads to a wave of anti-Japanese anger. a bunch of cultural events get cancelled. It also causes the religious affairs department — now part of the United Front Work Department since 2018 — to issue orders for all temples to conduct self-rectification, etc. In the meantime the government successfully tracks down the woman who paid for the tablets, and charges her with the usual 'picking quarrels and making trouble' for 'we want to arrest you but you didn't actually commit a crime'.
"The discovery that this was one misguided Chinese person does not seem to have done a lot to quench the anger, though there has been a certain amount of frustrated pushback over the anime conventions being cancelled, etc.
"Anyway what this means is that if you are a Buddhist, and you now want to go pay your local temple to pray for your granny's soul, they now have to send the name to the local government and probably also do, as it were, due diligence themselves."
He also said: "It's worth thinking about what the constant retelling of atrocity and vengeance stories does to people, especially in the degraded forms of popular entertainment."
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