Ask Mei

Do Chinese really hate the Japanese?

China’s love-hate relationship with Japan

What do the Chinese think of the Japanese? On the one hand, we see anti-Japanese rhetoric in the press all the time. On the other hand, we read about record number of Chinese flocking to Japan to shop. (British reader, London)

The Chinese sentiment toward the Japanese is one of the most complicated yet also most telling features of the national psyche today. On the one hand, the Chinese resent and even hate the Japanese because of their wartime atrocities, but on the other hand, they also admire and envy their smaller neighbour’s miraculous economic development, advanced technology and most of all, its civility and orderliness (the latter being in sharp contrast with China).

When talking about the Second World War, most Westerners know about the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, D-Day and Midway, but they tend to forget China, where the war lasted the longest and was among the bloodiest. The anti-Japanese war not only cost China between 15-20 million lives (depending on which estimate you use), it destroyed China’s basic infrastructure and also traumatised the country and made even the most soft-hearted people resent and despise the Japanese (see WiC286).

On top of that, the Chinese government has done a thorough job in recent decades of reminding its citizens of the “humiliations” imposed on China by foreign forces in the century before the Communist Party took power. This ‘patriotic’ strategy has been used to legitimise the Party’s rule. The nation most vilified by the campaign? Unquestionably Japan.

However, since China’s open-door policy in the late 1970s, millions of Chinese and Japanese have met and interacted with each other and gained first-hand knowledge of the other’s country. Plus, the high-quality of Japanese goods – such as its well-designed cars – and its pop culture have swept through China and captivated younger generations of Chinese and well-informed intellectuals.

My own attitude toward the Japanese also underwent a sea change during my university years. I grew up in northeast China, where the Japanese ruled the longest (1931-45), and learned about the horrific things that happened under Japanese rule, including using Chinese people for medical and bacteria experiments. So I was raised thinking the Japanese were monstrous human beings. But when I encountered a group of Japanese students at Peking University, I found them to be the most innocent, polite and harmless people I’d ever met, especially the girls who would be terrified to even see dead chickens (or pig heads) in a butcher’s shop. So my sentiment toward the Japanese changed. I still resented the Japanese invasion of China during the war, but I appreciated my Japanese friends just the same way I appreciated my Chinese, American and British friends.

Another example is also telling. One of my old friends is a wise and compassionate Buddhist. Over 10 years ago, he said: “Should China be strong one day, the first thing we should do is to take over Japan.” Five years ago, he visited Japan for the first time and he was utterly shocked. “When I first visited Taiwan, I thought Taiwan is 50 years ahead of mainland China in terms of civility, spirituality and cultural heritage. Now I think Japan is 100 years ahead of us,” he told me. In fact, he became so fascinated with Japan that he bought a beautiful courtyard house outside Kyoto and made the place a spiritual and intellectual sanctuary for himself as well as family and friends.

Given the history, it’s not surprising that on the one hand, you see anti-Japanese rhetoric in the mainstream media and even hear it in private conversations. But on the other hand, a lot of Chinese like and even admire modern Japan, especially for its clean environment. But if I have to sum up, as a nation our attitude to Japan remains schizophrenic. Tokyo’s continued failure to properly apologise for Japan’s wartime atrocities, mean the broad mass of Chinese find it easy to become incensed with the Japanese whenever a foreign policy dispute occurs – particularly as we Chinese are sensitive to earlier Japanese incursions on our sovereign territory. That’s why it remains one of the most incendiary bilateral relationships in the world and continues (sadly) to pose a very real threat to the region’s stability.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at askmei@weekinchina.com


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