In November 1994 Japan’s diplomats described their country’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor as “deeply regrettable”. More bizarrely the foreign ministry said that its apology was directed not at the US, but to “the people of Japan”.
That led the Washington Post to ask: “Why does the Japanese government feel the need to apologise to its own people for deceiving another nation half a century ago?”
The answer? In this case what the diplomats were describing as “deeply regrettable” was not so much the bombing itself, but the fact that they had failed to break off diplomatic negotiations with Washington beforehand.
For a country obsessed with etiquette, this was a terrible breach of procedure.
Nuances like this seem fairly typical in some of the discussion of Japan’s wartime record. And the country’s prime minister Abe Shinzo took another unusual line on Japan’s belligerence last week, in an address to parliament. During the war, Japanese armies reached as far as Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia. Vast swathes of China were also occupied. Yet Abe told lawmakers that their presence in these countries did not necessarily constitute an invasion.
“The definition of what constitutes an ‘invasion’ has yet to be established in academia or the international community,” Abe said. “Things that happened between nations look different depending on which side you view them from.”
The remarks “infuriated Japan’s neighbours by seeming to question whether his country really invaded China and Korea during the Second World War,” Canada’s Globe and Mail reported.
“It’s like saying Hitler’s invasion of Poland wasn’t really an invasion. If a German chancellor had said the same thing, he or she would have had to resign,” South Korean political scientist Ko Sang-tu told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
The Chinese were predictably furious too, with the remarks only further inflaming anger at last week’s visit of a record 168 Japanese parliamentarians to the wartime memorial, the Yasukuni Shrine.
“The controversial visits once again prove that Japan is the troublemaker and provocateur in East Asia,” insisted the Global Times. “Japan has once again been the one that breaks the uneasy regional balance.”
Tensions also simmered once more over the disputed islands that China calls the Diaoyus and Japan the Senkakus after Chinese surveillance ships chased away a group of Japanese vessels in contested waters.
So it’s not hard to see how a young Chinese basketball player also got caught in Sino-Japanese crossfire last week. That’s after it emerged that Li Minyang had quit China to play in Japan.
The young basketballer actually left her Beijing Shougang team in October 2010, claiming to be going on sick leave. But she never returned and last week the Chinese Basketball Association revealed that Li had taken Japanese citizenship and is playing for Japanese team Chanson V-Mag.
The even bigger shock was she’d changed her name to Sugiyama Miyuki.
Media reports in China said the 18 year-old would also be eligible to play for Japan’s national team within three years.
All of this provoked fairly spirited responses on weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. None was more strident than that of Li Xin, China’s national youth team coach.
“No matter if she has a Chinese or an ugly Japanese name, she will be spurned by everybody who loves Chinese basketball for her unpatriotic behaviour,” the coach scowled. In a post which was later deleted she then lashed out further: “This is the scum of Chinese basketball.”
Sohu Sports says coach Li had more to say, including that the young player used “deceptive practices to go to Japan, which hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” befor adding rhetorically “do you think the feelings of the Chinese people are a trifling matter?”
The Chinese Basketball Association has also written a letter of protest to its Japanese counterpart, currently without reply.
“Li’s transfer to Japan without notifying her Chinese club was a violation of the rules and has severely distorted the sports transfer market,” CBA senior executive Duan Lian, said in an interview with the China Daily.
Given the extent of anti-Japanese feeling in China, the announcement of the player’s ‘defection’ was always going to play on nationalist nerves. One Anhui business tycoon appealed to the player, telling media he’d double whatever salary Li (or Sugiyama) is making in Japan if she comes home to play in China.
But not everyone on weibo blamed the basketballer for her decision. The news also triggered a renewed debate about China’s state sports system and the way that athletes can receive meagre pay during their careers and are often neglected after they retire .
Some saw it less as a cause for Japan-bashing, and more for a little introspection about the state of the nation.
“It is her own freedom to go anywhere,” wrote one netizen. “We should instead think of our own problem: why our country cannot retain its people.”
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