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By Ben Thirlway


In schools and art galleries, the Chinese learn to revile Japan

Ben Thirlway is a writer and teacher living and working in Wuhan, China

A recent photographic exhibition at a
university in China reminded me, yet again, of the deep animosity borne by many Chinese against Japan.

The exhibition featured graphic photographs of the Rape of Nanking in 1937, an episode of butchery by Japanese troops against Chinese civilians notable even in a campaign marked by savagery and atrocity. Of all the scars left on the Chinese psyche by the war, the Rape of Nanking remains the most prominent.

I heard many a university student walk away from the show muttering that they hate Japan. Encouraged by the government, this kind of xenophobic sentiment seems to be part of every Chinese person’s patriotic duty. What really tipped me to the fact that the exhibition was more about propaganda than education, though, were the photographs of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 2002, and the numerous pictures of modern Japanese military capability. These irrelevant photographs served only to persuade the viewer of Japan’s heartlessness and as a warning that it could happen again.

Ask nearly any Chinese on the street about their Asian neighbor and you’ll hear the phrase “I hate Japan.” A look at the wild scenes of violence and protest in Beijing following Japan’s victory over China in a soccer match last summer is only further display of the country’s misdirected patriotism.

So, what are the root causes behind this amazingly strong hatred? Let’s look at China itself—a large, unruly, fractious country comprising around 200 distinct ethnic groups. Abandoning Communist ideology in its drive for material wealth and prosperity, China’s government has resorted to stirring up nationalism in a bid to maintain a sense of identity and purpose. Part of this is the program of “Patriotic Education,” where every student is taught not only about China’s glorious past, but also about how brutality and colonial exploitation by Japan and the Western powers prior to the Communist takeover in 1949 have held back China’s development. Hatred of Japan is fostered—indeed, encouraged—as the greatest manifestation of patriotism possible. Thus, when you hear “I hate Japan,” what you’re hearing is the Party line.

That aside, let’s not pretend that Japan is entirely blameless. The Rape of Nanking, and indeed most of the war, is whitewashed from its history textbooks, and students are taught little or nothing about Japan’s militaristic past. Reparations have been grudging at best. At times, there’s outright denial that the Rape of Nanking ever happened. The attitude from Tokyo seems to be, “Ignore it and it will go away.”

Yet it’s important to realize that Chinese hatred survives—even thrives—among the young because the government will not allow it to die. By making almost any interaction with the outside world a matter of national honor, China continues to nurture the us-and-them mentality. In one sense, China is right to keep the memory alive, for to consign these events to the dustbin of history is to hand a victory to those in Tokyo who would just as soon see the affair dead and buried to avoid any admission of guilt, let alone an apology.

Remembrance, not hate, is the way forward. China’s education system is little better than brainwashing, and is, unfortunately, largely successful. Every visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by Koizumi is howled down in China’s (state-run) media, which portrays them as calculated insults to the memories of China’s dead. I believe, personally, that the prime minister is merely paying his respects to Japan’s war dead, the vast majority of whom were conscripted soldiers brainwashed into notions of loyalty to the Emperor and sent out as cannon fodder to satisfy the imperial ambitions of a few power-hungry individuals. That the dead include a small number of war criminals should not detract from a leader rightfully respecting the memory of millions of young men who died for their country, albeit for a wrong and misguided cause.

Challenge a Chinese person about their feelings, and they will say that they only hate Japan, not individual Japanese people. For the sake of Northeast Asian relations, I hope that this is the beginning of a step forward and that they can shake off these shackles holding back the Sino-Japanese relationship. However, the examples set by the Chinese leadership, as well as by prominent Japanese (Governor Ishihara comes to mind), are not encouraging.

In these hierarchical societies, such hatred starts at the top—and from the top is the best way it can start to be undone. It would also help, however, if at the grassroots level we can all try to form constructive and friendly links, for the hatred borne by both sides is not set in stone.


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