China and the World

The weight of history

Anti-Japanese sentiment continues to grow with new Abe military policy

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“I surrender”: elderly dance troupe target the Japanese

Venture onto China’s streets and into its parks in the early evening and you are likely to see groups of elderly women ballroom dancing. To foreign observers, it can sometimes feel slightly surreal. But in Beijing’s Dongzhimen district last week, the sight was odder still, when a troupe of retirees suddenly introduced rifles into one of their routines.

The dance came to life when a man announced over a loudspeaker that it was time “to defeat the Japanese devils”. At this point a man appeared wearing a Japanese soldier’s hat from the Second World War. Instantly, the dozen women surrounded him, pointing their guns at him, and then marched him away, reports the Beijing Times.

A reporter from the New York Times was there too and said that onlookers were “rapt” by the performance.

“The routine may be fake,” wrote Bree Feng in the newspaper, “but the tensions it captures are very real, fuelled by a state media machine that ensures that accounts of Japan’s war crimes in China are never far from the public’s mind.”

This week marked the 77th anniversary of the start of the conflict with Japan, with President Xi Jinping attending a ceremony to mark the Marco Polo Bridge incident which sparked the war. As he told the thousand attendees on Monday: “No one can revise history and truth. Chinese people who made great sacrifices [during the war] would never allow anyone to play down Japan’s wartime atrocities.”

Xi added in a nationally-televised address: “Unfortunely, nearly 70 years after victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the anti-fascist war, there is still a minority of people who ignore the historical facts, who ignore the tens of millions of lives lost in the war, who go against the tide of history, deny and even beautify the history of aggression and harm international mutual trust.”

The China Daily reckons this year’s events have special significance because “rightist politicians in Japan have tried to rewrite history, portraying the war as a military conflict in which Japan was forced to engage so as to liberate Asia from white colonialism. They also continue whitewashing the atrocities Japanese aggressors made during the war.”

This very interpretation of this fractious period of history landed a Japanese executive in trouble last week, after Kataoka Masataka riled workers at his Guangdong factory by seeming to deny that Japan had even invaded China. His opinion (that it was more of a liberation) led more than 1,000 employees to walk off the production line – which makes electronics for Hitachi, Panasonic and Sony – and go on strike. Kataoka was blockaded inside the meeting room in which he’d made his inflammatory statement.

Local authorities were then brought in to sort out the dispute. According to a statement from the Chang’an township government, Kataoka later bowed to his staff, apologised and retracted his remarks.

While the Chinese government discourages historical scrutiny of the eras surrounding the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, its attitude to the war with Japan is to call for as much reollection as possible. Last week, 450 files captured from the wartime headquarters of the Japanese military police in Changchun were released from the state archives for the first time (the files were found in the 1950s during construction work). These were translated from Japanese and offer first-hand accounts of Japanese violence, say Chinese archivists. Among the many examples being cited in the local media is a letter written by a soldier in which he describes bayoneting a civilian, kicking him down a riverbank and feeling “very happy” as the corpse floats away. Later he admits to killing two others in a similar fashion.

Aside from the release of these historical sources, the State Archives Administration also published 45 files on Japanese “war criminals” last week. China Daily is even running a regular section featuring two of the war criminals a day. Each comes with a grainy passport photo and makes for pretty grim reading (the profiles are based on written confessions made to a Chinese court in 1954). For instance, among the various crimes attributed to Suzuki Keiku, a lieutenant general, is the murder in May 1942 of 1,280 farmers in Daizhuang village. Some were buried alive.

What is significant is that these documents are being put forward for public attention. Tensions with Japan have been worsening for some time, particularly over disputed islands in the East China Sea. But last week a new Rubicon in the relationship seemed to be crossed when the government of Abe Shinzo announced a major new interpretation of the security provisions of Japan’s 1947 constitution. For the first time this would permit Japan’s Self Defence Forces to operate abroad and outside the narrower remit of the defence of national territory.

Abe has argued that the move is necessary to strengthen Japan’s military cooperation with the US and to enter into defensive agreements with other countries in the Asia-Pacific. But in China the initiative is viewed as the first step in Japan’s remilitarisation and an end to Tokyo’s commitment to pacifism.

Of course, arguably it is the rise of China that has made Abe and other Japanese politicians believe that they need a stronger military. An article in the Sankei Shimbun, for example, says the upgrading of Japan’s security arrangements is necessary to “curb the rise of the regional power and prevent it wantonly running about”.

No prizes for guessing who that ‘regional power’ is.

The China Youth Daily, on the other hand, sees Washington’s hand behind the constitutional change, with the overstretched superpower hoping to contain China through a more expansive commitment from the Japanese military.

Given Tokyo’s past behaviour and its reluctance to make wartime apologies, the “US is playing with fire”, the Global Times then suggested.

History, it seems, weighs heavily on most interpretations of the current situation. One blogger – whose 130,000 followers on weibo mostly read him for his regular comments on military matters – compared events to 1936 when Britain and France did nothing when Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland and violated the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler argued it was necessary for Germany’s self-defence too, the blogger said. The failure to respond led to German rearmament at an even more aggressive pace.

Dai Xu, a PLA senior colonel, also wrote online that Japan could never be China’s friend. His belief was that Tokyo had merely hidden its belligerence for the past six or so decades and that its true ambitions to become a military power once more were finally out in the open.

Others hurried to agree. The People’s Daily website was one of many voices to call for a strengthening of China’s own armed forces. Rather chillingly it justified the military build-up with the maxim that “only those who dare to make war can make peace”.

Most disturbingly of all, Chongqing Youth Daily published a map this week, featuring mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in an article that mentioned the possibility of war and asked: “Have we been too nice to Japan?” In response, the Japanese foreign minister lodged a formal protest at a news conference: “It is truly thoughtless to depict a mushroom cloud. As a politician from Hiroshima, I cannot tolerate it.

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