Why China Loves to Hate Japan: Denouncing the erstwhile invader may provide an ideological buttress for China’s own leadership


10 December 2005 – Copyright Time
You don’t have to look far to see why Chinese grow up
learning to hate Japan. Take the forthcoming
children’s movie, “Little Soldier Zhang,” which
Beijing-based director Sun Lijun says he made having
“learned a lot from Disney.” The film chronicles the
adventures in the 1930s of Little Zhang, a cute
12-year-old boy feeling his way through an unfriendly
world. But the resemblance to Pinocchio ends there.
After Japanese invaders shoot Little Zhang’s
grandmother in the back, the boy seeks revenge by
joining an underground Red Army detachment. He moves
among heroic Chinese patriots, sniveling collaborators
and sadistic Japanese. The finale comes with Little
Zhang helping blow up a trainload of Japanese soldiers
and receiving a cherished reward: a pistol with which
to kill more Japanese. “I thought about including one
sympathetic Japanese character, but this is an
anti-Japan war movie and I don’t want to confuse
anyone,” says Sun, who will premier his film on
International Children’s Day.
Chinese kids can be forgiven for thinking Japan is a
nation of “devils,” a slur used without embarrassment
in polite Chinese society. They were raised to feel
that way, and not just through cartoons. Starting in
elementary school children learn reading, writing and
the “Education in National Humiliation.” This last
curriculum teaches that Japanese “bandits” brutalized
China throughout the 1930s and would do so today given
half a chance. Although European colonial powers
receive their share of censure, the main goal is
keeping memories of Japanese conquest fresh. Thousands
of students each day, for instance, take class trips
to the Anti-Japanese War Museum in Beijing to view
grainy photos of war atrocities°Xwomen raped and
disemboweled, corpses of children stacked like
cordwood. As one 15-year-old girl in a blue and yellow
school uniform, Ji Jilan, emerged from a recent visit
to the gallery, she told a TIME correspondent: “After
seeing this, I hate Japanese more than ever.”
So it is not surprising that this nationalist
animosity reaches the highest levels of government.
The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, recently created
shockwaves by saying he would refuse to meet with
Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, at a
ground-breaking summit of East Asian nations that
begins Monday. Reasons include rising Japanese
nationalism and a recent visit by the Japanese Premier
to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates
Japan’s war dead, including some war criminals from
the time of Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s.
But underneath that diplomatic spat over history is a
struggle for power and influence in East Asia that is
increasingly straining Beijing-Tokyo relations. “The
China-Japan relationship in the near term is more
tense and worrisome than the potential for conflict
elsewhere in the region,” says Thomas Christiansen, an
expert in Asian security at Princeton University.
Of course, nobody expects China to forget the past.
The war launched by Japan’s militarist leaders killed
an estimated 20 million Chinese. During the Rape of
Nanjing in 1937-38, soldiers butchered 300,000
civilians, according to Chinese figures. Most Japanese
are aware of what happened but their society has never
engaged in the type of introspection common in Germany
after the Holocaust. Carefully worded official
apologies have landed far short of the five-star
kowtow demanded by Beijing, senior Tokyo officials
occasionally deny atrocities and just last April a new
government-approved textbook written by right-wing
groups downplayed the wartime brutality visited on
The problem is that just as Japanese soldiers once
dehumanized Chinese, Beijing’s propaganda often paints
Japanese as pure monsters. Grade school textbooks
recount the callous brutality of Japanese soldiers in
graphic detail, and credit the Communist Party with
defeating Japan. (Another reason for Japan’s
surrender, it says, was the atomic bombs dropped by
the U.S.) More moderate voices are silenced. A 2000
film by one of China’s leading directors, Jiang Wen,
remains banned because it depicted friendliness
between a captured Japanese soldier and Chinese
villagers. Although the film showed plenty of
brutality, censors ruled that “Devils at the Doorstep”
gave viewers “the impression that Chinese civilians
neither hated nor resisted Japanese invaders.”
Why keep up the propaganda onslaught 60 years after
Japan’s surrender? Many suspect China’s unelected
leaders hope to use anti-Japan sentiment to buttress
their own legitimacy. Ever since the Tiananmen
Massacre of 1989, support for the Communist Party has
rested on the shaky foundation of economic growth.
Nationalism, by contrast, could prove more enduring.
“Reviving war memories keeps the nation united against
Japan, and behind the party,” says Beijing-based
writer Liu Xiaobo. It’s a risky strategy. Anti-Japan
sentiment grew into rowdy street protests in Beijing
and Shanghai in April, which the quickly government
suppressed for fear they could spin out of control.
But until China’s leaders have some new pillar of
legitimacy, Liu predicts, “the Japanese will stay
devils in China.”


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