Entertainment, Society

An unwelcome episode

A new row over the depiction of conflict with Japan


Dramas about Japan’s wartime army are prone to stoke controversy

In April the Chinese government introduced a law banning “glorification” of the “Wars of Aggression” – a term for the two Sino-Japanese conflicts fought between 1894 and 1945.

More specifically the legislation was designed “to protect China’s heroes and martyrs” by banning positive interpretation of Japanese behaviour in the period.

It can be applied pretty liberally: to text books or television dramas, and even to people who like dressing up as Japanese troops.

Soon afterwards a Taiwanese TV drama portraying the Japanese imperial army in a positive light drew widespread criticism on the mainland.

However, the channel’s decision to take the show off the air after two episodes then led to accusations on the island that its executives were kowtowing to Beijing.

“We don’t want external political powers interfering in our media,” a spokesman for Taiwan’s National Communications Commission was quoted as saying.

Dai Ah TV denied that pressure from Beijing caused the cancellation.

Jiachang’s Heart tells the story of Lin Chih-hui, a young woman from a rich family in then-Japanese-ruled Taiwan who runs away to serve as a nurse for the Japanese army as it invades Hong Kong and Guangdong.

Scenes from the show’s trailer depict Chinese forces as boorish and Japanese imperial soldiers as deeply honourable. It also shows Lin crying when Japan is defeated in 1945.

Viewers in mainland China – where a trailer of the show was circulated online – were soon decrying the makers of the drama as “traitors” and “fascist slaves”.

“How can you treat this as an honour, not a shame?” asked one furious Sina Weibo user. “Don’t you know how many of our forefathers died during the Japanese Wars of Aggression?” fumed another.

“It is obvious from the 15-minute trailer that the first half of the series is kissing up to Japan,” agreed the Global Times in an opinion piece published soon afterwards.

China’s Qing rulers ceded control of Taiwan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895. The island was then ruled by Tokyo until the culmination of the Second World War. At the end of China’s civil war in 1949, Nationalist forces retreated there and set up a rival government to the Communist government in Beijing.

The difficult relationship between Beijing and Taipei today means that any debate about Japanese rule of Taiwan is coloured by contemporary politics. The official narrative in mainland China is that the Japanese were cruel, rapacious invaders. As the new law in April shows, the government works actively to keep memories of the atrocities of that time alive.

In Taiwan, however, the interpretation of Japanese rule – or the narratives around it – is more varied. Some talk about the period as being a “successful occupation” and many Taiwanese at the time identified more closely with Japanese culture.

“We call on the people on both sides of the Strait to try to look at each other’s historical memories with more empathy. Only by constantly increasing understanding can we avoid the accumulation of negative emotions,” asked the Taipei-based China Times.

The newspaper also pointed out that large parts of northeastern China were occupied by Japan during the same period and that many people there have some form of Japanese ancestry or links to Japan.

Some are ethnic Japanese children who were given to Chinese families as their parents fled the arrival of Soviet troops in 1945

Fangzheng, a small town in Heilongjiang, has a small cemetery containing the remains of other Japanese people who died trying to escape. The town’s ties to Japan have served it well in the past with many of its residents going there to work. Many signs in the town are in both languages too.

But with April’s new law, the town government has been ordered to alter the emphasis of the cemetery so that it better shows the “Chinese people’s spirit of persistence and resistance against Japan’s aggression”.

Even outside of formerly occupied areas there is a phenomenon named jingri, that is people who consider themselves as ‘spiritually Japanese’, (see WiC410 for how Smartisan’s founder ran into problems after being cast by netizens as a jingri). A spate of people posting photos of themselves wearing Imperial Japanese outfits – or dressing their pets as Japanese soldiers – was part of the reason that Beijing pushed through the new law.

During the Two Sessions parliamentary meetings in March the Foreign Minister Wang Yi also castigated the jingri as “the scum of the Chinese people”.

The People’s Daily maintained the offensive, accusing people who dress up in Japanese uniforms of “historic nihilism”.

“[These photos] have glorified the Wars of Aggression, damaged the dignity of the country and hurt the feelings of the nation,” it said.

In news that will make the newspaper feel a little better, Beijing has scored further diplomatic success by persuading two more countries – Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic – to break formal ties with Taiwan and recognise the People’s Republic of China instead. Burkina Faso’s decision to sever relations has left Taiwan with diplomatic ties to only one African country, the Kingdom of eSwatini (which changed its name in April from Swaziland), and only 18 diplomatic allies in total, mostly small, poor nations.

Back in Taiwan the row over the historical drama has been costly for Dai Ai TV, which made 35-episodes of the period piece, which was meant to be its blockbuster for 2018.

The original excuse for its cancellation – that it might “re-traumatise some viewers” – sounded pretty weak and channel bosses then changed tack, saying that they were concerned that some of the scenes in the series “could trigger altercations between different ethnic groups”.

“This would go against the network’s founding purpose, which is to promote harmony in society. It thus decided to stop broadcasting the series to avoid causing potential conflict,” a spokesman from the broadcasting regulator said.

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