China and Japan must remedy their one-sided views of history

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A tourist from China takes pictures of Japanese traditional masks at a souvenir shop in Asakusa district in Tokyo.

A tourist from China takes pictures of Japanese traditional masks at a souvenir shop in Asakusa district in Tokyo.


REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Recent tensions between China and Japan and several war-related anniversaries would seem to offer a perfect opportunity for my Tokyo-based sister and her husband to talk about the history shared by their respective countries.

She’s from China and he is from Japan. And as China observes the 120th anniversary of the first Sino-Japanese War started in August 1894, culminating in the Japanese army’s humiliating defeat of China a year later, my sister tells me she dreads going home. Squabbling between the married couple has intensified in line with the two countries over their widely different view of history.

Fifteen years into her marriage, she and her husband still haven’t found common ground, or agreed to disagree, over their different backgrounds and viewpoints, mirroring the distrust between the two Asian powers. And each new incident has given them, and the countries they hail from, a lot to argue out. These include Japan’s decision on July 1 to lift the constitutional ban preventing Japanese troops from engaging in overseas combat, the festering territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where several war criminals are buried.

One crucial argument that continues to hang the couple up is China’s persistent demand for an apology from Japan. “Why are you Chinese so adamant about Japan apologizing for the war again and again? Haven’t we apologized enough? Why must you dwell on the past?” my brother-in-law would snap at my sister, insisting that China has ruined the Sino-Japanese relationship.

Japan may apologize, but the leaders are never sincere. The Japanese must consider how the Chinese feel, my sister will counter. Their fights go nowhere because neither one is really listening to the other. Lately, they’ve resorted more often to passive-aggressive silence as they stew in their respective dismay at the other’s “lack of understanding.”

Their quarrels underscore what’s wrong between the two societies — a yawning perception gap over history. Neither side appears willing to cede ground or consider that the other side may have a point. And sadly, that gap is widening, fueling mutual distrust that undercuts the bilateral relationship, at a time of slower economic growth when Asia could really benefit from political stability.

One problem is that many Japanese have relatively little understanding of their own history. Despite all that’s been written about Japan’s past military aggression in Asia, the topic is hardly mentioned in high school textbooks, shaping the thinking of successive generations. Several years ago while working at a Japanese radio station in Tokyo, I was asked by a Japanese producer in his mid-30s why many Malaysians refused to meet him on a reporting trip to Kuala Lumpur, citing Japan’s military past. “What happened?” he asked, truly mystified. Later, he admitted he didn’t know that Japan occupied much of the region during World War II, to the displeasure and resentment of its neighbors.

Many Chinese are equally uninformed. A young Chinese man I met recently in Beijing told me that until he visited Japan a year ago, he thought all Japanese were short, ugly and creepy based on TV war dramas that are a mainstay of state-run networks. Japan is clean, polite and civilized and offers a lot that China can learn from, he added. He further noted that Japanese often see themselves more as victims of WWII than aggressors, a recasting linked to the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In an article entitled “Japanese views on Sino-Japanese sentiments,” Emiko Kakegawa, a Japanese scholar who studied in China, provided one take on this shared — and often willful — misperception. The Japanese tend to view WWII more as the Pacific War and see themselves in equal parts as aggressors and victims, she wrote, while the Chinese mostly think of the war as the Sino-Japanese War and see themselves as victims exploited at the hands of Japan, capped by the Nanjing Massacre. The fact that they’re still surrounded in many places by rusting WWII detritus left by the Japanese army enhances this feeling by the Chinese. This tends to make them particularly angry when Japanese right wing politicians say the Nanjing Massacre never happened.

Fueled by this sentiment and heavily influenced by state propaganda, many Chinese find that in some social circles, hate for the Japanese is considered acceptable, even expected. "To be patriotic is to be anti-Japanese" is a current theme that runs through Weibo and various Chinese blogs. So strong is this Chinese animosity that a Beijing-based Japanese friend has opted not to talk to his Japanese colleagues in Japanese when they eat out fearing harassment and intimidation by Chinese diners. “Total strangers have come up to me before and asked me if I were Japanese,” he said, adding in recent months, he has had taxi drivers refuse to take him, even yanking him out of the cab, after discovering that he’s Japanese.   

Given such deep distrust, the animosity on both sides may get worse before it gets better. Genron NPO, a private, independent think tank that conducts a joint China-Japan public opinion poll every year, notes that ordinary people’s views on both sides mirror the state of diplomatic ties. In 2013, over 90 percent of the Chinese and Japanese surveyed had negative impressions of their counterparts, the highest percentage in the survey’s nine-year history. A major culprit is negative media portrayals by both sides given that most Japanese and Chinese never visit each other’s country or gain much first-hand experience.

The survey also found that many Japanese tend to focus on the China of today, referencing Chinese food and air pollution, while most Chinese focus on the Japan of yesterday, citing the Nanking Massacre and the Diaoyu/Senkagu Islands.

It is inevitable that people interpret history differently and see things subjectively. In order for Japan and China to bridge at least some of their huge differences over history, they must work toward some sort of rough consensus. This is probably best done through non-governmental channels and exchanges, including more tourism, so the two sides can foster more open, objective views about each another and their shared history.

In Arts, Culture & MediaBooks.

Tagged: JapanChinaKaren Ma.