False Equivalence Watch: East Asia / Mea Culpa Edition

It's not just for Americans any more.

A reader with a Japanese family name writes:

I know that false equivalence is a favourite topic of yours. Therefore, I'm going to suggest that when you wrote the following, you might have been indulging in a little false equivalence of your own:

"Japanese leaders have made repeated inflammatory visits to the wartime Yasukuni shrine; Chinese state media have run nonstop anti-Japanese war dramas on TV; both sides have pushed the dispute over the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands. You can also think of officials in each country who would back off (and have, in the past few months) if the hostile attitudes threatened to provoke actual hostilities."

I agree that visiting the Yasukuni shrine is not the most tactful thing one could do. I also agree that there's some ugly right-wing rhetoric coming out of Japan. But how is this at all equivalent to the venomous, wide-spread and officially-sanctioned anti-Japanese propaganda, the resulting, seething hatred and the subsequent, anti-Japanese riots that we have all seen? There's a marked difference in degree, as far as I can tell.

Fair point. There is an asymmetry in Chinese-Japanese relations.

Japanese politicians have frequently pandered to part of the Japanese nationalist right wing by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, above. (To oversimplify: this would be like a German leader going out of his or her way to visit Nazi-era shrines.) The Japanese educational and media systems, based on what I've observed and learned, so thoroughly downplay the history of the 1930s and 1940s that most Japanese citizens naturally view their country as the major victim of World War II, because of the atomic bomb. The result is genuine puzzlement and ignorance about why older Chinese, Singaporeans, Filipinos, but again mainly Chinese might bear a grudge.

On the Chinese side, much as the reader says, the government tolerates and/or fosters flat-out hate-Japan propaganda. Ordinary Japanese people can be affected by passive lack of awareness of their country's history. Ordinary Chinese people can be affected by deliberate agitprop. 

Both of these are unfortunate, but they're not really "equivalent." China's government is more culpable than Japan's in drumming up and maintaing ill-will. On the other hand, when it comes to the specific issue of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands, I think it's fair to say that the governments have been roughly comparable in ramping up (and when needed damping down) hostilities. Thanks for the clarification.  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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