China and the World

Bad neighbours

After 700 years of acrimony are Sino-Japanese relations looking up?

Bad neighbours

He likes Hello Kitty too...

Rivalry between China and Japan dates back some time. In 1274, China’s Emperor Khubilai Khan established an ‘Office for the Chastisement of Japan’. Chastisement took a more practical turn in 1281, when he sent an invasion fleet of 4,400 ships.

The Japanese returned the favour in 1592 when Toyotomi Hideyoshi dispatched a huge invasion force to conquer Korea, and then China. As Hideoyoshi informed the Koreans: “Why should I sit chafing on this island? I will make a leap and land in China and lay my laws upon her.”

Mutual misunderstanding between the two powers by this stage was well entrenched. The Chinese viewed the Japanese as a nation of pirates, who were barely civilized, let alone to be treated as equals. Ming China’s Wanli emperor sent an envoy to Japan that made clear Japan’s subordinate, vassal status: “You, Hideoyoshi, are hereby instructed to comply with our commands and stand ready to fulfill your obligations to our throne as a loyal subject and cheerfully obey our imperial commands.”

Neither Khubilai Khan’s nor Hideoyoshi’s invasions were ultimately successful, but they laid the foundations for the more recent events of the 1930s and 1940s, when an already tense historical relationship escalated to a whole new level.

The most recent period of Japanese aggression still resonates with the average Chinese and it does not take much to enflame passions. Take, for example, an incident this year at Wuhan University when a Chinese mother and daughter dressed up in Japanese-style kimonos to view the cherry blossoms. An angry mob soon gathered to jeer at them and drove them away. In an online poll, 46,000 netizens (or 47.6% of those who voted) supported the mob’s actions, stating: “Wearing kimonos to admire the sakura cherry blossoms is an injustice to the martyrs who died resisting the Japanese.”

China’s obsession with this period of history shows in popular culture too. Readers of WiC will have noted that some of the nation’s most popular TV shows – such as My Colonel and My Regiment (see WiC9) and Four Generations Under One Roof – deal with the Sino-Japanese war. So too does the recent movie Forever Enthralled (WiC12), which sees opera star Mei Lanfeng defy Japanese attempts to exploit him for propaganda purposes.

However, the most controversial film to deal with the topic recently is Nanjing Nanjing. The subject matter is raw – by China’s estimate 300,000 civilians were killed in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. Previous dramas about the massacre have portrayed the Japanese as monsters. But Lu Chuan’s movie has depicted the individual Japanese soldiers with a degree of empathy. The Chinese director says: “I cannot make myself love the Japanese troops, but I try to understand them.”

The movie, which earned Rmb68 million ($9.9 million) in its first week, is an attempt to heal some of the historical scars. “I can feel how estranged the two people are,” says Lu, but there are three choices: “First, we destroy Japan. Second, Japan destroys us. Or the third way is we try really hard to understand each other. I think we should choose the third way.”

Last week’s Beijing summit between China’s and Japan’s prime ministers, Wen Jiabao and Taro Aso, emphasised a similar spirit of cooperation. Plans to jointly develop a next generation mobile telephone standard and work together in energy and environmental matters were among the more positive steps announced. But, as Wen conceded, the history issue remained “very sensitive” and “the improvement in our bilateral ties is hard-won.” He urged both “to carefully handle the direction of their development.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.