China and the World

Temple of disquiet

Furore in Nanjing over Japanese war criminals


Xuanzang Temple: in the news

Buddhist temples across China are doing an emergency inventory of who is listed on their memorial halls or spirit tablets after a shrine in Nanjing was found to contain tablets bearing the names of five Japanese war criminals.

The gold plaques bearing the names of Japanese army officers were discovered in the Xuanzang Temple in Nanjing in February after a keen-eyed visitor noticed them.

However, it was only this month that an investigation was launched after photos of the plaques appeared on social media leading to public outrage.

The explanation thus far appears to be this: a 32 year-old woman by the name of Wu Aping paid a monk to enshrine the tablets in 2018 claiming the names were those of her friends.

Wu moved to Nanjing as a child and had been horrified by the stories of the notorious Japanese massacre in the city in 1937 (official Chinese estimates put the number of civilians slaughtered by Tokyo’s soldiers at 300,000).

Those images apparently haunted her through several bouts of poor mental health as she grew up, and when she discovered Buddhism, she decided to apply a concept known as “resolving grievances” to rid herself of her suffering.

According to her interpretation this meant she should pay for the names of the five Japanese officers from the Second World War to be added to the memorial wall at Xuanzang.

The names she added were: Iwane Matsui, the commander of the Japanese forces occupying Nanjing, who was tried by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and executed in 1948; Hisao Tani, the commander of the Japanese Army’s Sixth Division; Takeshi Noda and Toshikai Mukai, two captains who held a competition to become to the first to slay a hundred Chinese: and Gunkichi Tanaka, a company commander in the Sixth Division who killed more than 300 civilians and prisoners of war in Nanjing.

Wu also paid to have a sixth tablet bearing the name of Wilhelmina Vautrin enshrined at the temple. Ms Vautrin was an American Missionary and president of Ginling College – she gave thousands of Chinese shelter as Nanjing came under Japanese attack.

Glorifying Japanese aggression has been illegal in China since 2018 when it emerged that there was a tiny subsection of Chinese society who enjoyed dressing up as Japanese soldiers or who believed that China would be more developed if Japan had won the Second World War and been allowed to retain its Chinese territory.

That this “spiritually Japanese” sub-culture had emerged was a huge shock to the Chinese authorities given that the national education system devotes considerable time in the history curriculum to teaching about the suffering wrought on China by Imperial Japan.

Later a second law was passed explicitly banning the posting of photos to social media of people dressed up as Japanese soldiers.

Wu – who is thought to have acted alone – faces up to 10 years in prison under the first law, the China Youth Daily said.

Yet the repercussions won’t end there. Chuanzhen, the temple’s abbot, has been dismissed and at least three other officials have been punished. Meanwhile, the National Religious Affairs Administration this week ordered that all religious institutions in China “conduct self-review and self-rectification”.

It also ordered all local religious authorities to enhance management and “strengthen their education on patriotism, collectivism and socialism… to prevent similar cases in the future,” the Global Times reported. Many onlookers marvelled that a temple in Nanjing – of all cities – could have accepted the tablets without anyone recognising the Japanese names on them.

The furore over the tablets emerged only days after China’s internet had been deluged with comments about the assassination of Abe Shinzo. To the shock of many outside the country large numbers of netizens expressed their delight over the murder of the former Japanese prime minister.

One of the reasons why Abe was so unpopular with swathes of the Chinese population was because of his visits (while in office as Japan’s leader) to the Yasukuni Shrine which honours 14 war criminals (who overlap with those that Wu had enshrined).

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