Why they hate the Japanese

We were in a local history museum when ‘Shine Far’ looked right at me and said, “I hate the Japanese.” It still surprises me how matter-of-fact and unapologetic some of our Chinese acquaintances are about their feelings toward the “little Japanese devils” (小日本鬼子). Some of teachers at our school have requested in the past to not teach the few Japanese students at the school, two of whom are an older couple we’re acquainted with.

In philosophy and ethics classes I heard the joke more than once that everything eventually has to do with the Nazis. In my education, the Nazis were the proof and symbol of evil in the world, and were always finding their way into thought experiments, ethical dilemmas, debates regarding human nature, and arguments over the existence and nature of God. There was also this unspoken rule I grew up with – that perhaps the most un-politically correct thing you can do is treat the Nazi Holocaust as anything but the greatest evil ever committed by humanity, and you sure shouldn’t cheapen it by comparing it to other events.

The Rape of Nanking is the representative historical event for all of Japan’s atrocities in China during WWII. The book by the same the name calls it “the Forgotten Holocaust of WWII,” and then proceeds to make the case for not just holding the brutality of “the Rape” as generally comparable to the Holocaust, but even surpassing it in certain aspects:

“Nothing the Nazis under Hitler would do to disgrace their own victories could rival the atrocities of Japanese soldiers under Gen. Iwane Matsui” (historian Robert Leckie) (p. 7).

…the Japanese treatment of their POW’s surpassed in brutality even that of the Nazi’s. … the Rape of Nanking was not the kind of isolated incident common to all wars. It was deliberate. It was policy. It was known in Tokyo. For that matter, it was front page news in the world press (p. 173).

The events related in the book are beyond brutal; part of you dies inside just from reading it. I don’t know how anyone could make a movie that would be possible to watch. But there is quite a “Schindler’s List”-type story here. In the midst of brutality for which language cannot possibly convey any adequate expression, the oddest assortment of Westerners – Nazis and missionaries – combined forces to form a safety zone within the city and save hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives. These heroes risked their own lives multiple times during the Rape, and suffered physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives; one eventually committed suicide. Ironically, these Westerners originally chose to stay rather than evacuate, thinking that the greatest danger to the civilian population would be the retreating Chinese soldiers, and that the Japanese were more or less trustworthy (as occupying armies go) and would restore order and basic infrastructure once they’d captured the city. Instead, the Japanese military intentionally sunk the warship that was carrying the foreigners who had chosen to evacuate, and then went on to rival and perhaps even surpass the Nazis.

Japan as a nation still refuses to acknowledge what happened* [see comment #4].

Sixty years later the Japanese as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking — not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion. In a disgraceful compounding of the offense, the story of the Nanking massacre is barely known in the West because so few people have tried to document and narrate it systematically to the public (pp. 219-220).

It’s not in their textbooks* [see comment #4]. Germany had to face the music, but some of Japan’s commanding officers went on to lead decorated lives of honour and privilege. Academics in Japan still vigorously deny the charges.

…Germans have incorporated into their postwar political identity the concession that the wartime government itself, not just individual Nazis, was guilty of war crimes. The Japanese government, however, has never forced itself or Japanese society to do the same. As a result … many in Japan continue to treat the war crimes as the isolated acts of individual soldiers or even as events that simply did not occur (p. 200).

Compounding the situation is China’s current administration, which has always spun the war with Japan, and Chinese public sentiment, in beneficial ways, stoking hatred of a common, nationalism-galvanizing enemy when it’s convenient to do so. Museums, like the one we visited with ‘Shine Far,’ play an important role in this:

The first rooms of the spacious museum depict China as a victim of Japanese aggression, but as the visitor moves towards the exit, he is treated to an interpretation of China as almost the lone victor on World War II in Asia.

The two factors widely credited with ending the war get only cursory treatment.

The Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Northeast Asia in the summer of 1945 is mentioned in passing, and America’s nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not at all.

… It’s more promoting the internal unity under the guidance of the party. [Full text]

The older Japanese couple who were in our language school last semester made it a point to host special meals with their Chinese colleagues and closer acquaintances, during which they would personally apologize on behalf of their country for what happened. They still live in China and still do this, though they’ve now moved to a city in the south. Some of our school’s teachers originally requested to not be assigned to them when they first enrolled, solely because they were Japanese. Their request was not granted – in fact, our school’s American administrator confessed to me that his teachers’ requests may have influenced his decision to assign those teachers to the Japanese couple – but after a few weeks the teachers actually thanked him for doing it. One of these teachers recently returned from a trip she’d made just to visit them, and came back talking about how great she thinks they are.

China marked the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking last Thursday.

9 thoughts on “Why they hate the Japanese”

  1. I’ve had Chinese students go beyond just “I hate the Japanese” to advocating Japanese genocide in rants and even classroom thought experiments. My favorite example of the latter was the student who said he wished he could go back in time to Qin Shihuang’s court and convince one of Qin Shihuang’s advisors (the name escapes me) not to travel east and found Japan. “Then, Japan would never exist.” It’s long struck me as a twisted little outlet for middle class Chinese angst. (And Korean angst too.)

    The more I’ve heard the comparisons between German government apologies and Japanese government non-apologies, the less sympathetic I am to that position. It ignores the cultural milieu at play: the Germans are culturally Christian and therefore inclined towards atonement while the Japanese are culturally Confucian and therefore disinclined towards admitting mistakes for fear of losing face. (Individual Japanese may feel a sense of shame at World War II, but the conservative patronage networks within the Japanese government allow no such flexibility.) I grew tired of listening to students make that comparison so I asked why Chairman Mao never apologized for the Cultural Revolution. It shuts them up.

  2. That is really interesting. Beyond this book, and a scan of the wikipedia article, I hadn’t done a lot of thinking about Nanking. I would love to hear your cultural contrast re: atonement and collective face batted around by some Asian culture scholars. I suppose it’s already been done, somewhere. Makes sense to me, but I’d love to see various reactions from Asians.

  3. The life (and death) of the author, Iris Chang, is nearly as interesting as the book she wrote. Much time has passed since I researched her life, but I do recall that she committed suicide. She was working on yet another grim tale about the treatment of her people, the Chinese. The commonly held belief is that she was so deeply and emotionally involved with the deaths of her people, life became too unbearable for her and she ended it. Another young, hugely talented individual exits the world. Sad.

  4. The Japanese government has offered some forms of apology over the years to China.

    (1972) Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka
    (1992) Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa
    (1995) The Emperor of Japan
    (1995) PM, and National Diet of Japan in the Murayama Danwa document

    (1998) KUNIHIKO SAITO THE Ambassador of Japan “…We do recognize that acts of cruelty and violence were committed by members of the Japanese military and we are very sorry for that. And we understand that the memory of those who suffered lasts long, and I personally think that this is a burden which the Japanese people will have to carry for a long time. As to the incident in Nanking, we do recognize that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military, and I’d like to point out that Japanese school textbooks mention – all of them – when I examined about 20 available textbooks – all of them mentioned this incident in Nanking…We make conscious efforts to teach our younger generations about what happened before and during World War II.

    An Educated (yet conservative) Japanese response to Irish Chang’s book:

    The Nanking Massacre in print: A recent Bibliography;

    Nihonshi B (Japanese History B). Tokyo: JikkyÙ Shuppan, 1998. Used by 7% of high schools. From the section “The Widening Spread of the Sino-Japanese War” (pp. 318-19):

    “Just after that, on July 7 [1937], fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese forces at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Peking (Beijing)–the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. A temporary cease-fire was reached on the scene, but the Konoe cabinet determined to send in troops with the idea of giving China a punch, suppressing the anti-Japanese movement, and securing northern Chinese resources and markets; this was called the “North China Incident.” The fighting spread to Shanghai in August (the Second Shanghai Incident), and the affair was renamed the “China Incident” in September. Without declaring war, Japan embarked on an all-out invasion of China–the Sino-Japanese War.

    Contrary to Japanese expectations that the country could be subdued with a single big thrust, China, which had forged an anti-Japanese national front, resisted fiercely. Japan sent in massive forces, and in December they occupied Nanking (Nanjing), the capital of the Nationalist government. On that occasion the Japanese troops killed many Chinese, including soldiers who had surrendered or been captured, and went on a rampage of looting, burning, and raping. This was internationally censured as the Great Nanking Massacre. In the few weeks before and after the occupation the number of deaths, including combatants, is estimated to have been at least one hundred and several tens of thousands.”

  5. (1)I think that the western media also aggravates some of the problems. How often do they report good news about either China or Japan? Good news doesn’t sell papers.

    (2) Another thought is some of the reactions from people of both sides may be simple ‘face’ or a knee jerk re-action and not a heartfelt feeling.

    After all how does one account for the high numbers of Chinese tourist, students, and immigrants in Japan? Obviously, those people aren’t holding any strong animosity toward Japan. I don’t want to be guilty of painting the picture too rosy so I’ll stop here.

    (3) Cross cultural communication problems are another issue. Chinese are far more direct than their Japanese counter parts. Japanese vagueness is sometimes an attempt to be comprehensive and other times an attempt to try to make all sides of an issue happy. The law as well as contracts(often verbal rather than typed) in Japan are far more vague than would be allowed in the west. Needless to say when Japanese apologize their apologies will probably not be exhaustive. Here’s one more interesting link that illustrates the problem of communication between different cultures in action: )

    At some point I’d like to get back to you about the Confucian heritage thought.

  6. Thanks for those links. I’m adding an edit to this post.

    I have no doubt that both sides manipulate this to their own ends (if I felt totally free to write how I wanted, I would have given more emphasis to the section starting with “Compounding the situation… .”)

    I wonder how much the Confucian heritage of both countries extends and exacerbates this situation. Contrasting it to post-WWII Germany is tempting. Lin Yutang talks about how “face” often prolongs lawsuits that otherwise would have concluded, simply because neither side is willing to take a symbolic hit. He touches on this in a fun quote here: What do the Olympics mean to “their China”?

    1. I don’t disagree, and I’m glad that there are people around to point that out, but I try to make sure that pointing that kind of stuff out stays outside the scope of this particular blog. Wish I could post it.

  7. I’m late to the party –I China Hope on a monthly basis and catch up, it appears.

    I guess all nations have to come to terms with their past deeds in their own way, or fail to. For instance, Turkey has long officially denied the Armenian genocide was a genocide — recently a group of famous Turks petitioned for that recognition.

    I know my own nation has unacknowledged blood on it’s hands — look at the Spanish-American war and the Philippines, the theft of Hawaii, Palestine, or Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost nobody admits that it’s wrong unless somebody else is doing it, but it’s OK for us.

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