China’s festering war wounds

It’s a subject that isn’t going away any time soon – the ongoing animosity between China and Japan. What’s really behind it? An inferiority complex on the part of the Chinese? An outlet the CCP exploits to shift focus away from its corruption and incompetence? This long article looks at these and other potential factors; pardon me if I include a lengthy excerpt.

On a sweltering August morning in the northern outskirts of China’s capital, tour guides lead parties of visitors down a narrow shaft into a cool network of tunnels under the village of Jiaozhuanghu.

A notice at the entrance explains that, beginning in 1943, local Communist guerrillas dug the tunnels to provide sanctuary and conceal their movements in the hit-and-run war against patrolling Japanese troops. A section of the tunnels, restored and enlarged for the visitors, connects firing positions, underground meeting rooms and field kitchens.

At the end of the tour, an outdoor restaurant advertises meals of guerrilla rations billed as “anti-Japanese food.”

It has been 60 years since Japan’s invading army of two million soldiers laid down its arms in China, but Jiaozhuanghu and scores of other well-funded memorials and museums in the country play a part in nurturing widespread resentment over Japanese wartime aggression and atrocities.

This enduring sense of grievance, inflamed by rising nationalism in Japan, remains the biggest obstacle to a stable, long-term relationship between East Asia’s traditional dominant powers.

Despite thriving trade and investment, disputes over Japan’s attitude toward its wartime behavior have this year sent political ties plunging to their lowest point since the two sides established diplomatic relations in 1972. And, as both seek to translate their economic power into international influence, there is potential for more serious friction.

“There will be long-term tension between China and Japan,” said Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “And, in the short term, the relationship will continue to get worse.”

This trend has surprised many students of Chinese-Japanese relations.

“If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have said they were working through this,” said Stephen MacKinnon, a historian at Arizona State University. “Part of the problem is this muscular nationalism in China and also in Japan, particularly among the young.”

“There is this whole question of who won the war,” said MacKinnon, the historian. “There has been a downplaying of the fact that China did not really win the war, not that they totally discount the role of the U.S. in the Pacific.”

While China has made huge economic strides in recent decades, some analysts believe that a persistent sense of inferiority arising from this conflict explains some of the stridency in popular Chinese attitudes to Japan.

While this alarms some analysts, others believe the importance of economic ties will force both governments to restrain excessive nationalism.

China in 2004 displaced the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner, according to Japanese government figures, with two-way trade reaching $211 billion. Japan is China’s third-biggest trading partner behind the European Union and the United States.

There are also strong cultural and intellectual ties that could provide a counterweight to political tension. Even Chinese who harbor strong antagonism toward their neighbor can combine this with an enthusiasm for Japanese food, fashion, electronics and cars.

Others argue that some of the popular Chinese outrage over Japan’s conduct is an outlet for pent-up frustration over corruption and repression that people are unable to express. Even so, the growing antagonism has some experts worried about the longer-term outlook for peace and stability in Asia.

“People say another war is impossible, but I don’t know,” MacKinnon said. “We don’t live in a rational world, do we?”

No, we certainly don’t live in a rational world (hold on a second, let me write that down). Just look at our invasion of Iraq, what we lost and what we gained! As to the reasons for today’s blind rage, I think it’s a constellation of reasons that this article hit upon fairly well. A lot of it’s justified rage, a lot of it isn’t. And while the rage itself is understandable, the willingness — often eve
even eagerness — with which they allow it to become such a dominant factor in their lives is troubling to a world waiting hopefully for signs of China’s maturity.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

I dont think enthusiasm for consumer goods will help anything. Even in the Middle East people go to McDonald’s and drink Coke.

In China I never ran across the idea that Japan never really lost to China, it was the Americans that defeated them. It certainly goes against all the propaganda/movies/tv shows I saw. But then I never really pressed the topic with anyone.

Part of the problem not mentioned is that there is the “joke” that Chinese men want an American home, a chinese cook, and a Japanese wife. Japan beat up Korea and China, but then re-emerges as the most powerful country in Asia. Even though they hate them, they want to emulate them- a bit like some of the anti-Americanism around the world, except 10 times as intense.

August 14, 2005 @ 9:32 pm | Comment

A whole lot of awfulness and atrocities happened in China in the 20th Century. If I were the CCP I too would be pretty eager to keep the people’s eyes firmly focused on those committed by the Japanese, lest the people start to ask critical question about what happened under the rule of the Great Helmsman.

August 14, 2005 @ 9:58 pm | Comment

You forgot to mention that Chinese today are probably having the best life in the last 150 years of Chinese history.

August 14, 2005 @ 10:22 pm | Comment

Wawa, many Chinese are, you are right. That has nothing to do, however, with the festering hatred of Japan. In fact, it makes it more troubling, since as people become more prosperous they tend to give up their old obsessions and move on. Isn’t China ready to do the same?

August 14, 2005 @ 10:27 pm | Comment

I don’t really know, there are a lot people that are still alive who suffered the atrocities commited by Japanese, my grandparents for example. I’m in no postion to tell those people to shut up and move on.

August 14, 2005 @ 10:40 pm | Comment


Which says a lot more about the ultimate degeneration of Chinese culture than it does about the quality of the country’s current leadership.

August 14, 2005 @ 10:42 pm | Comment

Wawa, the alarming thing is how today’s youth are so obsessed with this issue, 60 years later. More so than the grandparents!

August 14, 2005 @ 10:49 pm | Comment

“As people become more prosperous they tend to give up their old obsessions and move on”

I’m not so sure, Richard. I’ll have to look into 1914 to see if that holds true. My impression was that the French, Italian, German, and Russian people (as well as Austro-Hungarian, etc) of that period were relatively prosperous. Yet something went terribly wrong.

August 14, 2005 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

The start of WWI was about empire, not petty obsessions. It was political and territorial, not emotional. I’ve done a lot of study into the causes of both world wars. WWI wasn’t about grudges and feuds except for the catalyst, the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand.

The one thing that opened the door for the Nazis and their appealing to old prejudices was hunger in the wake of the depression. No economic crisis, no 3rd Reich.

August 14, 2005 @ 11:46 pm | Comment

There’s a common theme I got while reading the series of articles focusing on the end of the War in the Pacific. It’s so simple, and yet it would explain so much to Japanese still trying to figure out what they have to do to get people to move on. They never bother to discuss the views of those on the other side of the war. I mean, we were always taught (as Richard shows) how economic considerations led people to look to fascism. We look at the other side. But when the Japanese study history, it’s always: “We did this. We did this. We did this. Then we suffered under two horrific nuclear attacks.” Theynever bother to say how what they did affected others. You never read how others perceived their actions. Even in the textbooks that condemn such things as the Nanjing massacre, the Japanese are always the subject: “Japanese soldiers killed many people, of which not all were soldiers.” etc… To quote from an article in todays iht:
“…experts say Japan’s real failure is not an inability to apologize. Rather, it is Japan’s refusal to include outside voices, particularly those of its former victims, as it discusses its own role in the war. Experts say that taking the victims’ perspectives seriously is the only way Japan can convince the rest of Asia to trust it again.”

What has Japan ever done to show they take Chinese concerns, for example, seriously?

August 15, 2005 @ 2:41 am | Comment

I’ve tried very hard not to make comments on discussions about Japan and WWII. I can’t deny the feelings of my parents’ generation towards their wartime experience. But at the same time I can’t share their animosity towards the Japanese because I have many Japanese friends and we share very similar values. I am very surprised by the amount of interest that the blogs on WWII and Japan have generated. I am even more surprised to read some of your comments. It seems some of the comments made here by presumably Chinese readers are very different from the kind of WWII experience that my parents used to talk about. My dad lived in rural area in the southern part of China during the World War. My mum lived in Macau. They very seldom talked about the Japanese or the “crime” of the Japanese during the war. Their wartime experience was more about hunger and survival…..Just a thought.

August 15, 2005 @ 2:43 am | Comment

This just in: Japanese PM says the following:
“I renew my determination that Japan will never again follow the path to war,” he said. “Japan caused huge damage and suffering to many countries, especially the people of Asia, with its colonisation and aggression,” Koizumi added. “Humbly accepting this fact of history, we again express our deep remorse and heartfelt apology and offer our condolences to the victims of the war at home and abroad,” he said, adding he wanted to build relations of trust with Asian nations.

Will it makes any difference? Will Chinese media quote these words? Will anyone in China even know he said it? Or would they rather keep insisting that Japan won’t apologise sincerely?

August 15, 2005 @ 3:36 am | Comment

The issue of how different generations of Chinese commemorate the war makes me think of a thesis I once wrote about militarism in pre-WWI Germany.

That time there existed something called “Kriegsvereine” (war-societies). First veteran-societies of the Prussian-French war, they over time also opened to people who had only served their military service after 1870/71. Till the beginning of WWI these societies became the biggist privatly organised societies in Germany, having approximately 3 000 000 members.

One might ask what that has to do with todays China. Well, the interesting part is how their rethorics changed over time.
In the initial phase the war was commemorated as a heroic struggle but those veterans who had experienced what a war can be like also told about the cruelities of war and where in no way war mongering. This changed when young men who had never fought a war but grew up with the war storrys of their fathers and grandfathers joined these societies. Maybe due to a feeling of inferioty toward the veterans those youngsters where far more radical and eager to fight a war themselves.

I have the feeling that these youngsters are in some kind of way compareble to those younsters in China who never experienced a war but grew up with the heroic stories about the anti-japanese war, and now are those who are most anti-japanese. Not able to show their patriotism on the battlefield they try to show it by radical rethorics. Just a thougt.

August 15, 2005 @ 4:10 am | Comment

And I could imagine that the same pattern also exists in Japan.

August 15, 2005 @ 4:48 am | Comment


You have your answer in the thread above. Bengfing already says it isn’t sufficient.

August 15, 2005 @ 4:49 am | Comment

Looking at the google news indewx regarding the apology, every related item relates to it except, you guessed it, Xinhua which instead omits any reference to the apology but emphasis how that group of officials visited the Yasukuni Shrine “which honors 14 notorious Class-A war criminals responsible for Japan’s aggression war against its Asian neighboring countries”. Although Koizumi didn’t go, he did go to “the tomb for the unknown war dead at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery” and has made several trips already to Yasukuni.
“Koizumi made his most recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Jan. 1, 2004, the fourth since he took office in April 2001.”
It goes on to say that “(i)t is regarded as a symbol of Japanese militarism.” but not bothering to specify by whom. By the way,
“Japan’s aggression inflicted great sufferings.”
Apology? What apology?

August 15, 2005 @ 6:23 am | Comment

Remember, in China, their are no other voices other than the paternalistic State-imperialist CCP. No wonder mainlanders behave like they do, they have little chance for independent thought:

A blood-curdling nine whole chapters in the main Chinese history textbook (middle-school) are devoted to Japan’s aggression against China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, no mention at all of, for example, China’s massive attempted conquest of Japan during the Yuan Dynasty. Also not a single word about the Han Dynasty’s conquest of Vietnam or China’s 1000-year brutal military occupation of Vietnam. That’s over 1,000 years not, er, 14 years.

Just a fact.

August 15, 2005 @ 7:26 am | Comment

Also, when Japanese PM Kakuei Tanaka tried to apologise directly to the Great Helmsman himself for WW II in 1972, Mao brushed him off, saying the “help” provided by Japan’s invasion of China made the Communist victory in 1949 possible, which, Mao said, was far more important for the Chinese people than what happened during WW II.

Looks like Japan-baiting wasn’t a priority in 1972 like it is now.

Foreign policy have been known to change regularly in put it mildly:

In the 50’s mainlanders were told to love the Soviet Union but then in the 60’s told to hate it. India was warmly regarded as a great partner to China in 50s and then hated and invaded in the 60s. Vietnam was “as close as lips and teeth” in the 60s then villified and invaded by Chinese armies in 1979…..and so it goes on.

Therefore, the differences between Mao and Jiang/Hu towards Japan isn’t anything new in China. Whatever serves the current political agenda.

August 15, 2005 @ 7:33 am | Comment

I have a slightly different theory. China is facing some very serious social and economical problems at the moment. So the anti-Japanese sentiment is resurrected so that the angry public can have another target to vent their anger. This takes the steam off the Government and the CCP.

August 15, 2005 @ 7:49 am | Comment

Are today’s youth obsessed with this issue, in my opinion no, they are too busy with their lifes.

I actually think China has moved on because I don’t equal move on as forget.

I rarely heard my grandparents talked about Japanese, it was only through rare outburst of emotion that I knew the scar is still there.

And who really cares how many chapters of history text book is devoted to Japan’s aggresion, it was just one of the many many books that you have to read through your education. For me, I could barely remember anything specific in the book, all I could remeber is that Japanese did horrible things in China during that period which I don’t think any of you would argue with me about that.

Probably to your surprise, outside the history textbook, I heard more about fostering good China-Japan friendship and almost nothing I could remember about hatre of Japanese from the Government. Ever since the 80s, there were a lot of Japanese movies that were very popular in China. I used to love playing the game of “go”, and I bought a lot of those books wrriten by great Japanese players. My parents’ house are full of Japanese appliances. I have a friend who went to Japan and it never crossed my mind that he shouldn’t go there. Japanese was taught in college and heck, even I went to one of those class myself.

Recent events are more alarming, but as in a Chinese saying, “you need two hands to make a clapping sound”. You guys have been so used to whip up China that maybe you didn’t see or ignore the helping hand of Japanese government in this. Things like textbook revision, PM’s visits to the shrine while denying it caused all the international outcry, same day cabinet visit to the shrine and PM’s “sincere” apology, defense white paper aiming at China etc. Should we say provocation?

It is in both nations’ best interest to foster good relationships, recent escalation on both sides really is very alarming and I even start seeing editorial talking about the unthinkable. Let’s hope the cool heads will prevail.

August 15, 2005 @ 8:11 am | Comment

Fair point Fat Cat but I think they are both connected (i.e. the doctored textbooks, govt control of information connected with social friction and letting off steam).

I mean, it makes it entirely possible for the govt to manipulate the population if it directly and strictly controls the information to which the population has access. This way (and as we saw during the recent anti-Japan riots) the govt can turn it on and off like a water tap.

No a single book criticising the CCP’s monopoly on power in China has been published since 1949. HOwever, in contrast, some of the most trenchant books anywhere in the world on Japanese war atrocities have been written, published, and widely read in Japan.

Beijing makes the mistake that because its textbooks all toe the party line, then Japan’s do as well. But they don’t of course.

August 15, 2005 @ 8:33 am | Comment

Thanks for this reasonable comment.

When I was reffering to Chinas youngsters I meant only those how participate in those anti-japan forums, not the Chinese youth in general. Most of my Chinese friends also don’t have problems with Japanese.

August 15, 2005 @ 8:38 am | Comment

Isn’t “Go” a Chinese game, originally?

August 16, 2005 @ 5:20 am | Comment

To be a strong industrial nation,Rob resource is necessary,So Japan did it then became rich,why Japan to be a developed country,Why most of Japanese could accept education and Chinese could not?The reason is Japan robbed China .Germany did the same in Euro and Japan in Asia.So Japan must answer for its behaviour. Anti-Japan?why not,We take back what we losted because Japan had not pay off their debts

August 20, 2005 @ 11:34 pm | Comment

Your site is realy very interesting!

September 16, 2005 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

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