JPRI Critique Vol. 13, No. 1 (January 2006)
Why the Chinese are so Anti-Japanese
by Shaohua Hu
Current tension between China and Japan may be attributed to several factors. Many Chinese still hate the Japanese because of their historical animosity, and for this to dissipate sixty years may not be long enough. Many victims of Japanese imperialism are still alive. When they pass from the scene, anti-Japanese feeling may be buried with them. Who today still actively hates Genghis Khan? However, China's current anti-Japanese education adds oil to the fire. Since the end of the Cold War, Beijing has used nationalism to shore up popular support. As a result, younger Chinese are often more anti-Japanese than older ones are. Finally, many Chinese blame the Japanese for not being apologetic enough and even whitewashing and glorifying their militarism.
While acknowledging the importance of these explanations, I want to highlight two root causes for Chinese hatred: one factual, the other psychological. The single most important fact is that WWII is only one of many episodes of Japanese aggression. History shows that Japan always played the aggressor except when Chinese and Koreans were mobilized to join the Mongols' ill-fated invasion of Japan in the late 13th century. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Japanese pirates repeatedly harassed the Chinese on the coast and even along the Yangtze River. At the end of the 16th century, the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi invaded Korea as a first step to conquering China. He dreamed about moving the Japanese capital to Beijing. The Koreans requested that China come to their assistance.
In modern times, no foreign powers did more harm to China than Japan did. As early as 1874, Tokyo sent an expedition to punish the native Taiwanese, who had killed some shipwrecked Japanese. Having met fierce resistance, Japan then used diplomacy to extort huge compensation from Beijing. In 1894 when Beijing was invited to suppress the peasant rebellions in Korea, Tokyo also sent its troops. A defeated China was then forced to cede territories, including Taiwan, pay reparations that were larger than two-years' governmental revenue, and allow Japan to build factories in China, which heralded more foreign economic dominance. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought mainly in Northeast China, and a victorious Japan inherited Russian privileges there. During the Boxer rebellion, Japan contributed about one third of the allied force that attacked Beijing. WWI further benefited Japan at China's expense. Japan made the 21 demands to expand its power in China, and later occupied Germany's colony in Shandong. In the late 1920s, Japan supported the Northeast warlords to block Chinese unification. The aftermath of the Great Depression and the rise of Japanese militarism set the stage for further Japanese aggression. In 1931, Japanese troops conquered Northeast China, and in 1937 plunged all of China into war. The eight-year war devastated the Chinese economy and cost millions of Chinese lives. Even today, Japanese atrocities are vivid in Chinese memory, from the "Rape of Nanking" to Unit 731, which used living persons to test germ warfare.
Chinese dislike of Japan is also strengthened by psychological factors. Many Chinese regard Japanese as ingrates. Historically, Japan borrowed much from Chinese civilization, including institutions, its written language, architecture, and even clothing. According to a Chinese saying, "if A teaches B for one day, A will become a father figure for B's entire life." By contrast, Japan, as a student nation, seems never to have missed an opportunity for harassing, bullying, and invading China.
China finds it hard to swallow its pride. By looking at the components of national power, few would have predicted Japanese dominance over China. Japan possesses a much smaller territory and is more deficient in resources. The Chinese outnumber the Japanese many times over and even looked taller than the Japanese. Even today, Chinese often call Japan "little Japan" and Japanese pirates "dwarf bandits." The comparison obviously aggravates China's embarrassment and frustration.
Equally important, unlike Americans, the Chinese have not satisfied the primordial urge to take revenge. Many people hope that China and Japan will mend their relationship the way France and Germany did. France and Germany were often at each other's throats in modern times, but became allies after WWII. This comparison is invalid, however, because the relationship between France and Germany was more reciprocal in that they invaded and defeated each other. Initially, France played the aggressor. Louis XIV launched his country's German wars, and Napoleon crushed the German states. But the former failed to acquire a natural border, and the latter met his Waterloo. In the late 19th century, Germany turned to aggression. In 1871, Prussia defeated France, and established the German empire. Later, Wilhelmite Germany devastated France, and Hitler's troops overran France. But Germany eventually lost both world wars. By contrast, Japan has almost always been the aggressor and victor in relation to China. This makes it hard for Chinese to let go of their victim mentality.
In an age of nuclear weapons and economic interdependence, another war between China and Japan would be disastrous. It is important for both nations to recognize the difficulty of reaching reconciliation and they should therefore redouble their efforts. Just as Japanese should be more remorseful about their aggression and more sensitive to Chinese feelings, Chinese should be wise and confident enough to forgive the Japanese people without forgetting past aggression.
Shaohua HU is an assistant professor at Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y. A former fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, he is the author of Explaining Chinese Democratization (Praeger, 2000).