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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 6, 2005)

Japan Becoming Increasingly Wary of China

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

As the physical damage caused by a month-long series of anti-Japanese demonstrations is methodically being repaired across China, there are strong indications that Japanese sentiment about the Middle Kingdom will not be so easily mended. The violent eruption of anger directed against Tokyo appears to have seriously harmed Japanese perceptions of its giant neighbor and generated a growing anti-Chinese mood. Unless leaders on both sides work hard to improve the situation, ties between the two peoples look set to deteriorate still further.

For the moment, bilateral tensions appear to be easing, especially after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for Japan's wartime wrongdoings in Jakarta before the Asia-Africa summit. Since then Beijing has adopted a tough policy towards unauthorized demonstrations, discouraged a boycott of Japanese goods, and toned down its own anti-Japanese rhetoric.

Significantly, there were no anti-Japanese demonstrations in mainland China on the sensitive May 4 anniversary, which marks anti-Japan protests that took place in Beijing on that date in 1919. The May 4 movement became a symbol of resistance to foreign domination and this year a heavy Chinese police presence around Japanese facilities ensured there were no demonstrations.

The current lull in hostilities is allowing ordinary Japanese to reflect on the recent unexpected turn of events. While there is a diverse range of opinions on the issue, the consensus is that China's image has been severely dented.

The display of raw, and sometimes violent, anger directed at Tokyo has forced a great many Japanese to reappraise their biggest trading partner. In general, people are extremely uneasy over how future relations will develop with what is now considered a highly volatile and threatening neighbor.

Sayuri Uchida, an office administrator in her thirties, captures the current sense of Japanese anxiety. She explained, "Seeing angry crowds of young Chinese attack Japanese property does not make you feel positive about China. You could see real hate in people's eyes. I used to feel our countries could be friends, but now all I feel is scared."

The Japanese media has repeatedly shown images of angry groups of Chinese youths viciously attacking Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses. The most frequently broadcast pictures are of the Japanese consulate in Shanghai that sustained considerable damage in a violent onslaught.

Tens of thousands of angry protesters hurled barrages of rocks, bricks, bottles, paint and rotten fruit at the building as Chinese police looked on passively. Walls were covered in paint, windows smashed and the grounds plastered with tens of thousand of projectiles. The once gleaming consulate looked a complete wreck, shocking the Japanese public.

Even the most apolitical of Japanese could not fail but get a powerful message from such disturbing images. Kaori Sugimoto, a young university student, confessed, "I never realized how much some Chinese people really hate Japan until now."

Initially, the intensity of the anger, and sheer scale of the protests simply overwhelmed many Japanese, who were just not prepared for such outbursts. However, as the days have passed many ordinary people, who previously never thought much about relations with their giant neighbor, have become gravely concerned.

Kazushi, a medical doctor in his mid-thirties, asking not to be identified further, captures the thoughts of many, "I haven't really paid much attention to China. After watching the attacks on Japanese targets, I felt very alarmed. If the Chinese government allows that level of violence against us, China is not safe for Japanese people. It's a potential threat to our country. We will have to be very careful."

As a direct result of the stormy protests, thousands of Japanese canceled holidays to China. Alarmingly, the country's reputation has not just suffered a spectacular nosedive among the adult population, but young Japanese, who are normally immune to such bilateral turbulence, are also reacting negatively.

Yuki Honma, an 18-year nursing student, summed up the feelings of many young people. She commented, "Before, China never really registered big on my radar. I thought it was a friendly country, so I am confused. I can't understand why so many young Chinese are so angry with Japan about a war that happened long before they or I were born. Why do they want to hurt Japanese people for things that happened 60 years ago?"

A senior Japanese diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, expressed a view common among policymakers, "What worries me is that the situation could easily spin out of control. Beijing is playing a very dangerous game. The nationalist fires it has unleashed could so easily become uncontrollable, burning not only us but them as well."

Hiroshi, a teacher in his mid-forties, explained why a lot of Japanese feel China has no right to lecture them. He pointed out, "Japan is a democratic country, its leaders are openly elected and there is press freedom. We can express our views without fear of persecution or imprisonment. None of this applies to China. There you have no genuine elections, no free speech, just an undemocratic Communist Party."

What is also noticeable about the recent tensions is that they have begun to generate a growing anti-Chinese mood. While it is still small and tame, compared with its fire-breathing Chinese counterpart, it nevertheless has the real potential to further inflame bilateral passions.

Masahiro Kikuchi, an office worker in his early forties, articulated a lot of these increasingly common sentiments. He said, "China deliberately exaggerates what happened during the war to try to keep Japan down and hide its own problems. We have apologized for the war, but has the Chinese government said 'sorry' to the parents of the students it murdered in Tiananmen? Has it admitted that Mao Zedong killed millions in the Cultural Revolution?"

He also commented, "China is just a bully. If you submit to their unreasonable demands once, they will just make more and we will end up apologizing every week."

Kenji, who runs a car repair business, voices another common Japanese grievance: "The Chinese complain about Japanese history textbooks distorting history, but the Chinese are much more guilty of whitewashing their own history than we could ever be."

Akira Ishii, a retired restaurant owner, is even more critical. He said, "An unelected dictatorship with blood on its hands is in no position to instruct Japan in matters of history, apologies or anything else ... I don't think we need to apologize to China. We have already done too much. It's regrettable that Koizumi recently apologized in front of [Chinese President] Hu Jintao. After what the mad Chinese mobs did to Japanese property, China should apologize to Japan and not the other way around."

At the recent Asia-Africa summit in Jakarta, Koizumi expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for Japan's wartime actions. The gathering was attended by Hu, who met Koizumi after he delivered the apology.

Voices at the other end of the spectrum feel that some of the blame for the trouble lies with Japan, but even these moderates are concerned about how relations with China will develop. Ryoji Yamauchi, president of Asahikawa University, explained, "The exploitation of historic issues by Chinese leaders for political advantage is totally unfair, but we have to acknowledge that they could not do this if there were not some genuine grievances underlying their claims."

One of the main focal points of friction is prime ministerial patronage of the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine. The establishment honors Japan's war dead, but is also dedicated to 14 convicted Class-A war criminals. Koizumi's annual visit to the controversial shrine has angered the Chinese public and enraged its leaders who believe such pilgrimages demonstrate that Tokyo is not genuinely sorry for the atrocities it committed during its brutal occupation of China. Both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have warned Koizumi not to visit the shrine in 2005. He has not visited this year.

Yamauchi commented, "While I absolutely condemn the damage done to Japanese interests in China, the blame for creating the tense environment that allowed this to happen falls heavily on Koizumi. He has been the most nationalist leader in recent memory and his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have deeply offended many Chinese and greatly boosted Japanese ultra-nationalists."

He concluded, "It is extremely dangerous to ignore Chinese historic sensitivities. Unless Koizumi grasps this, mutual perceptions between our peoples will rapidly deteriorate. If he doesn't realize this fatal error soon, Koizumi will put both countries on a destructive collision course. An outcome that will result in immense harm for us all."

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 3 May 2005,, and is republished with permission.

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