The Sino-Japanese Relationship: (apologies to Facebook) It’s Complicated

(A Guest post by Yajun)

Over the last four days, CCTV has had comprehensive coverage of the massive earthquake which struck Japan last week. Despite the ongoing NPC and CPPCC meetings China, CCTV still filled more than half of its morning news time with the latest information from Japan.

Chinese leaders and the Ministry of  Foreign Affairs expressed China’s sympathy to its neighbor immediately after the earthquake, and a Chinese rescue team arrived in the disaster zone over the weekend to assist their Japanese counterparts in the relief and rescue efforts.

It seems that Chinese government has decided to put historic conflict and recent territorial disputes aside for a time, show its humanity, and return the favor of Japan’s help during the Wenchuan earthquake three years ago.

However, China’s public opinion doesn’t always match the government’s magnanimity, and there is a debate, online and off, about how China should react to the news of Japan’s disaster. There are those who say Japan got what it deserved and cite the atrocities committed against China in World War II, and saw the earthquake as something to be celebrated, but most people feel that at this moment of great tragedy, we should put history aside and reach out to the Japanese people.

Even though the anti-Japanese opinion often makes the loudest noise online and the best story (as in the demonstrations against Japan in 2005) I am glad to see most people taking a different and more compassionate view.  But I am also not surprised that this debate occurs in China today, we have such complicated feelings and opinions regarding Japan. Sometimes, these opinions are even totally contradictory. Japanese people could be ruthless killers, twisted psychos or extremely polite people who value efficiency, discipline, and creativity.

Many Chinese people first learn about Japan from “patriotic” education in elementary schools. I remember when I was a kid, “resist Japan” movies were part of the school curriculum. In those black and white movies produced 30 or 40 years ago, Japanese soldiers were always described as short, cunning and ruthless people. They were not portrayed as human, but as aliens or killing machines.

Chapters and chapters of history text books provide detailed information about the pain and disastrous consequences that Japanese invasions inflicted on the Chinese people. Museums display exhibits showing how Japanese troops used Chinese civilians for grotesque and cruel bio-medical “research.”

Despite the official line, there are a range of opinions among Chinese, some of which break down along geographic lines.  The grandparents of my colleague from Changchun, part of ‘Manchukuo’ during the war, think Japanese soldiers were much better and more disciplined than KMT soldiers. When Changchun was occupied by Japan, ordinary people felt that life was orderly and safe, but after the war, KMT soldiers brought looting and corruption. Contrast this with Nanjing, where many people had their family members brutally killed or raped during the infamous Nanjing Massacre. In places like this, old hatreds run deep.

It is hard for many foreigners to understand why China’s resentment towards Japan is still so strong after seven decades.  If one compares the Sino-Japanese relationship today with, say, Germany and France, it seems that narrow minds are the only explanation for lingering Chinese resentment.

But of course it is more complicated than that. Imagine that a single group of people is held up for public scorn and criticism, with museums and the media displaying images of cruelty and evidence of evil, and now imagine these are the only images you have of this group for most of your life. Sadly, this is fertile ground for hatred to spread.

The lack of comprehensive and open information fuels the resentment. For example, the Chinese public always hears about Japan’s Prime Minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, but Japan’s apologies to Chinese people are never reported in China. Most news coverage focuses on the flood of Japanese products into China, but no one mentioned that Japan has provided more foreign aid to China than any other country.

Fortunately, times are changing. Young people of my generation grow up with Japanese fashion, music, soap operas, and cartoons. Tokyo Love Story showed us how romantic Japanese people are. It inspired fantasies for an entire generation. Tokyo is also a Mecca of fashion for many young people.

With such a large number of ordinary Chinese using the Internet, more and more young Chinese rely on their own critical thinking and information that they find online, rather than rigid patriotic doctrine, to shape their opinion towards Japan. For example, after this earthquake, many online articles applauded how calm and well organized Japanese people are and compared the solid Japanese buildings with the shabby schools in Sichuan.

The anti-Japanese mood in China is not going to disappear soon, but I believe that in the near future we will see more and more rational thinking about the Sino-Japan relationship.