Watch out, Japanese people!
Slideshow: "Our Man in China"
A virtual tour of China's skyscrapers, fashion trends, and beer festivals, with photos and narration by James Fallows.
To get into a talk with a Japanese intellectual or statesman is sooner or later to ponder the effects of World War II. When will Japan emerge from the war’s shadow as a “normal” nation, with a constitution written by its own people (versus the one created by Douglas MacArthur) and with a bona fide army, as opposed to something that has to call itself the “Self-Defense Force”? When will the Chinese and Koreans—and for that matter the Singaporeans and Filipinos and Australians—stop mau-mauing Japan with their wartime complaints? What special mission and message does Japan have for the world, as the first and only country to have suffered a nuclear attack? Will Japan’s view of America always be skewed into an inferiority/superiority complex, because of the U.S. role as conqueror in the war? The process is similar to discussions in Germany—except that Germans tend to be preemptively apologetic about the problems their forebears caused the world, and Germans make no special claim to suffering like Japan’s.
The process is not at all similar to discussions about the war on this side of the Sea of Japan. I put this item first because for me it has been the most startling. “Frankly, we hate the Japanese,” an undergraduate at a prestigious Chinese university told me, in English. The main difference between his comment and what I heard from countless other young people was the word frankly.
Why should this be surprising, given the centuries of tension between China and Japan? Mainly because of the people who expressed their hostility in the most vehement form: students in their teens and early twenties. They had not been born, nor had their parents (nor even, in many cases, their grandparents), when Japanese troops seized Manchuria in the 1930s, bombed and occupied Shanghai, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians during the Rape of Nanking. Wartime memories die hard, but you expect them to be most intense among actual participants or victims, and therefore to fade over time. Israeli teenagers aren’t obsessed with today’s Germans. I was not able to spend much time at universities talking with students when I was in China in the 1980s, but I don’t remember anything comparable to today’s level of bile.
The breadth of hostility surprised me for another reason. For years I have been skeptical of the idea of an anti- Japanese resurgence in China, viewing it as government-manufactured sentiment designed to deflect potential protest toward external enemies and away from the Chinese regime. In a new book called China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego gives a detailed account of occasions when the Chinese government has deliberately drummed up anti-Japanese sentiment—or damped it down, when it seemed to be getting inconveniently robust.
In a country where media and education are as carefully controlled as they are in China, all public opinion is to an extent manufactured. “The students are excited,” a professor at a leading Chinese university told me. “They can be calmed down.” Still, I don’t view anti-Japanese sentiments as a ploy anymore. “You say anything at all about Japan [on a blog or computer bulletin board], and there will be 10,000 posts immediately,” an official of a Chinese high-tech firm told me. “The mob effect can get out of control.”
Partisans of Baidu, the main local search-engine company (which is listed on NASDAQ and has Americans as its main investors) recently ran a blog campaign touting it over Google. One illustration was Google’s supposed inability to return any results for searches on “Nanjing Massacre” (or “Nanking,” the older Western spelling) whereas Baidu returned plenty. There was a technical reason—Google’s servers are outside China and thus must cross the government’s “Great Firewall” to send results to users in China. The firewall routinely screens out references to “massacre,” as in “Tiananmen Square massacre,” and so it blocked Google’s results. Baidu’s servers and resources are all inside the firewall, and have been pre-scrubbed to remove references to Tiananmen and other prohibited topics. Google has since made adjustments so that it too can report on Nanking, but the episode showed the sensitivity of the issue.
The main trigger for renewed Chinese protest against Japan has been the (idiotic) persistence of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s former prime minister, in paying ceremonial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo, where fourteen Class-A war criminals from World War II are among the 2.5 million Japanese war dead the shrine honors. Koizumi recently stepped down after five years in office, but his successor, Shinzo Abe, has refused to rule out continuing the visits. When I’ve asked Chinese students what they want from Japan, they often say an end to the Yasukuni visits and “an apology.” Formal apologies have in fact been offered many times by Japanese officials, and even by the current emperor. If the Chinese are looking for something like German-style ongoing contrition, this is not in the cards. Twentieth-century history, as taught in Japan, holds that Japan itself was the ultimate victim of the “Great Pacific War,” because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is one tantalizing further twist to the syndrome. When I have asked young people why they should be so wrapped up with events seventy years in the past, the reply is some variant of: “We Chinese are students of history.” There are certain phrases you hear so often that you know they can’t be true, at least not at face value. Yes, China’s years of subjugation by Western countries and Japan obviously still matter. But the history that is more recent but less often discussed is that of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, when the parents of today’s college students were sent into the countryside and often forced to denounce their own parents. In an eloquent new book called Chinese Lessons, John Pomfret of The Washington Post recounts the ways that his classmates from Nanjing University, where he was an exchange student in the early 1980s, bore the emotional and even moral imprint of those years. They’d been made to do things they knew were wrong, and they found ways to rationalize away that knowledge. So far every student gathering I’ve been to has included a volunteered reference to the evil Japanese, and none has included a reference to the evils of Chairman Mao (whose picture is still on every denomination of paper money) and his Cultural Revolution.