“We hate the Japanese.”
“We don’t like Japanese people.”
It is surprisingly common for Chinese people to make statements like these in otherwise polite conversation. These words are often spoken as rote repetition, with a lack of emotion that comes from expressing a sentiment that is so commonly expressed as to be cliche. These statements tend to be delivered with an argumentative impunity which seems to say, “Why wouldn’t we hate Japan?”
As a fresh wave of anti-Japanese sentiment just broke across China, I decided to look into the roots of the animosity this culture so loudly expresses for Japan and delineate its boundaries. My questions here were very broad, but they generally provoked very poignant and simple responses.
“Why do Chinese people not like Japanese people?” I asked a group of Chinese college students in a cafe in Taizhou.
“Because they are devils!” one girl shrieked as the others laughed.
Meanwhile, another girl walked through the coffee shop chanting “China! China!” while pumping a fist in the air as though cheering for an Olympic athlete.
Then a young man, with a little more stoicism, said one word in English:
He meant WW2.
Because of what they did to us in World War Two.
This is the main and, from what I can tell, sole reason behind China’s animosity for the Japanese. I’ve never heard another explanation in all my years in China, and it’s spoken as though anyone who knows what the Japanese military did in China during those war years would not disagree with this reactionary sentiment.
The Nanjing Massacre Museum
There is a focal point in China from which to investigate the history of Japanese aggression in China during the Second World War, and that place is the Nanjing Massacre museum.
The Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre sits on the site of a mass grave where 12,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers were dumped haphazardly after being murdered by the Japanese military. It sits by Jiangdong gate, an area that is now full of modern high-rise apartments, shopping malls, and highways. From looking around this area it is difficult to image that it was the scene of some of the most atrocious events in human history a little over 70 years ago.
I walked into the museum and made way through the outdoor exhibits. They consisted of testimonials from survivors, sculptures, and a wall that had the names of some of the victims carved into it. I then turned a corner and walked down a set of stairs into a cool, dark hall. A sign by its entrance urged visitors to be quiet and respectful, and I came to a start when I found out why: a section of the mass grave was uncovered and left exposed for visitors to see what it held inside.
Skeletons were laid out in disarray over an area that was not unlike the archaeology sites I spent my youth working on. The excavators peeled back the earthen blanket that covered the bodies for decades and dusted off the bones, leaving them as an in-situ reminder of the atrocities that put them there. It was here that I could see, raw and direct, what had happened during the Nanjing massacre. Some of the remains were disfigured with incisions and bullet holes, others, so the excavator’s notes detailed, had nails hammered into their skulls or pelvises premortem.
250,000 to 300,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians were slaughtered by the Japanese military in Nanjing during a six week period at the end of 1937. Tens of thousands were killed and tossed into mass graves like the one I was looking upon, while others were tossed into the Yangzi River, burned in giant bonfires, or just left to rot where they fell. Women, children, the elderly, monks, and nuns were not except to the carnage as the Japanese indiscriminately slaughtered civilians with complete impunity.
In addition to the murders, 20,000 incidents of rape were estimated to have occurred during the Japanese occupation of Nanjing alone.
I know not where to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet … People are hysterical … Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases. -Reverend James M. McCallum, witness to the Nanjing occupation.
On and on, the exhibits in the museum went like this, showing evidence of one of the worst massacres and wholesale human rights abuses ever recorded in human history. There were photos that showed babies with bullet holes in them, bayoneted children, raped and mutilated women, men with their arms tied behind their backs being led to slaughter, piles of corpses filling mass graves and clogging the banks of the Yangzi River. Where the Germans were systematic in their WW2 era exterminations, the Japanese were indiscriminate: civilians, unarmed and surrendered soldiers, women, children, babies, everybody seemed to be fair game. They truly did act as devils.
Much of the primary evidence — photos, videos, diary testimonies — used to show what had happened during the Nanjing Massacre were taken by foreign residents and journalists, or even the Japanese themselves.
The Chinese visitors in the museum for once were neither chattering nor toying with their mobile phones. They were demure, obviously occupied with and disturbed by the scenes they were looking upon. Most were visibly upset, some appeared angry, many had eyes that were glazed over with tears. I have never seen the Chinese so introverted before. They were in their holocaust museum.
“How do you feel in this place?” I asked a young Chinese man that struck up a conversation with me.
I could not understand his response, but his gesture said it all. He raise a hand up to his head as if to say, “too much.” Then in English he said, “We have to come here.”
But Nanjing was not where the story of Japan’s atrocities in China started or ended. Wherever the Japanese military went they left a similar trail of murder, rape, pillage, and carnage as they took over large parts of the country. In addition to conventional weapons, they used chemical and biological agents — many of which were “tested” on civilian population centers. Japanese germ warfare alone, which included cholera, anthrax, and plague is estimated to have killed at least 400,000 Chinese civilians.
These bombs enabled Japanese soldiers to launch biological attacks, infecting agriculture, reservoirs, wells, and other areas with anthrax, plague-carrier fleas, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and other deadly pathogens. During biological bomb experiments, scientists dressed in protective suits would examine the dying victims. Infected food supplies and clothing were dropped by airplane into areas of China not occupied by Japanese forces. In addition, poisoned food and candies were given out to unsuspecting victims and children, and the results examined.
In 2002, Changde, China, site of the flea spraying attack, held an “International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare” which estimated that at least 580,000 people died as a result of the attack. The historian Sheldon Harris claims that 200,000 died.
Nazi-esque medical testing, including human vivisection, killed and/ or seriously maimed thousands more at Unit 731 and other similar facilities set up around China.
Prisoners were subjected to other torturous experiments such as being hung upside down to see how long it would take for them to choke to death, having air injected into their arteries to determine the time until the onset of embolism, and having horse urine injected into their kidneys . . . In other tests, subjects were deprived of food and water to determine the length of time until death; placed into high-pressure chambers until death; experimented upon to determine the relationship between temperature, burns, and human survival; placed into centrifuges and spun until death; injected with animal blood; exposed to lethal doses of x-rays; subjected to various chemical weapons inside gas chambers; injected with sea water to determine if it could be a substitute for saline; and/or burned or buried alive.
The military tactics used by the Japanese in China during WW2 count as some of the most heinous in modern history. China was not just defeated by the Japan, China was humiliated. A humiliation that continues to be a blemish on the culture more than sixty years later. When I ask why the Chinese maintain a strong animosity for the Japanese, this is the reason.
The final thing that you see when exiting the Nanjing Massacre Museum is a large monument of a woman holding a child that has the word “peace” written in large letters upon its base. It is my impression that this is the last sentiment that many Chinese people feel towards the Japanese upon exiting this memorial. But it is difficult to blame them for this feeling: if this was something that had happened to my country during my grandparent’s era, if the things I saw in this museum were culturally familiar to me, if I had just looked at photos of my city razed to the ground and of piles of corpses of my people, I must admit that it would probably be difficult for me to exit such a place feeling completely level headed and culturally sensitive.
The continuation of animosity
“Reviving war memories keeps the nation united against Japan, and behind the party.” -Liu Xiaobo.
On a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum in 2004, Chinese president Hu Jintao said, “This is a good place to carry out patriotic education. We must never forget the patriotic education of the young, and this tragic history must also never be forgotten.”
They call it National Humiliation Education, and its a required course that every Chinese student must takes. Its lessons focus on the various humiliations that China faced at the hands of foreign powers throughout history, and come to a crescendo when focusing on Japanese aggression during the Second World War. It’s a curriculum that encourages patriotism and national cohesion, and the effect seems to plant a seed of animosity in the country’s youth against Japan in particular.
Chinese kids can be forgiven for thinking Japan is a nation of “devils,” a slur used without embarrassment in polite Chinese society. They were raised to feel that way . . . Starting in elementary school children learn reading, writing and the “Education in National Humiliation.” This last curriculum teaches that Japanese “bandits” brutalized China throughout the 1930s and would do so today given half a chance. Although European colonial powers receive their share of censure, the main goal is keeping memories of Japanese conquest fresh. -Why China Loves to Hate Japan
Whenever China needs its population to come together, whenever support for a new leader is wanted, whenever a wave nationalism and the mania of having an enemy could be used to heal a political fracture or cover up a governmental blunder, a button is pushed and the Chinese start protesting Japan.
It seems to work. Right now, the Chinese population is ablaze with anti-Japanese sentiment, and the news is all about the Diaoyu Islands and fighting Japan — not corruption in the upper tiers of the government or what is really going on with the new president who is about to come into office.
Hatred for the Japanese is not something that has yet been healed with time. It is not a scenario comparable to how Jewish people today tend to feel towards Germans. To the contrary, anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong in China as the government, media, and education system work together to continuously re-open the wounds of history.
The extent of anti-Japanese sentiment
The people of China say they hate the Japanese and want to fight Japan, but I have to truly question the extent of these sentiments.
There is a difference between hating the idea of culture, nationality, or race and expressing this hatred directly to the individuals of the targeted group. The Chinese public seem to hate the Japanese as a sports team hates an opponent. If this was a genuine hatred that manifested itself openly with action I’m quite sure there wouldn’t be over 130,000 Japanese people living in China right now.
I’ve been traveling in and out of China since 2005, and I’ve met many Japanese people here during this time. When doing so I always try to ask them about their experience of living in a culture that so openly professes animosity towards them. Oddly, none of them have ever said that they’ve been the recipient of any direct hostility. Even during the most recent anti-Japanese flare up, outside of a few minor incidents (one Japanese guy had soup thrown in his face, another was kicked in the streets), relatively very few Japanese people were actually harmed in any way. There seems to be a big separation between the Chinese hating Japan as a country and hating Japanese individuals.
“Do you think the Japanese are different now than they were in WW2?” I recently asked a young, educated Chinese man.
He thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, I think they are different now.”
Japan and China are so interwoven politically and economically that any vital expression of hatred would not be in the interests of either country. There are thousands of Japanese people living in China, Japanese students are going to Chinese universities, Japanese businesses are everywhere, Japanese products are very popular, and Japanese themed restaurants are on the rise. The second most studied foreign language in China is Japanese. Chinese tourists visit Japan in droves and vice-versa. Japan is China’s fifth largest trading partner. Japan gives over a billion dollars in aid to China each year. Japanese people drink in the same bars as Chinese people, eat in the same restaurants, ride on the same subway trains, work the same jobs, sleep in the same dorm rooms.
On the streets of China, Sino-Japanese relations is not a cockfight scenario where you toss a Chinese and a Japanese guy in a room watch them fight. Outside of occasional flare ups, on a day to day basis anti-Japanese sentiment in China takes a backseat to the mutual interests that benefit both countries.
After an extended discussion with a young accounting student as to why he so boldly stated to me that he hated the Japanese, he turned to me and said something that made complete sense given the intertwined cultural influence that his country shares with it’s much flaunted enemy:
“It’s not the Japanese people that we hate,” he admitted. “The people are okay. It’s their officials who we don’t like.”
This sentiment has been echoed to me many times over as I listen to Chinese people say how much they hate Japan in one breath and then ogle over the latest Japanese anime, video game, or technology in the next.
I recently sat next to a Chinese guy on a bus who could only be described as an ultra-nationalist. “I HATE Japan!” he roared. “China needs to fight Japan, we need to go to war with Japan,” he continued staying over and over again.
I stopped him short:
“What do you think of the Japanese people?”
His tone then changed, he looked at me inquisitively and said, “I think they are kind.”
There is a drastic separation in logic here: the Japan that many Chinese say they hate is more the idea of Japan rather than the actual individuals that make up the country. It is my impression that when the Chinese say they want war with Japan it’s more to rectify the embarrassment which pockmarks their history than the true desire to kill Japanese people. On an individual to individual level, the Japanese are, for the most part, treated rather amiably in China — which belies all the anti-Japanese rhetoric and slogans of hate which are being aired fervently across the country.
To learn about an atrocity is one thing, to have it brought up regularly in school, in the media, and in politics as a crutch to manipulate the general public is quite another. History, as it was shown at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, is an example from which to guide the future, not something from which to incite vengeance in the present. None of us come from a culture, a race, or a country that has not committed massacres at some point or another in the past. No matter if you’re from the USA, Chinese, European, a Native American, Maya, Eastern European, Kenyan, Namibian, or Japanese, in the eyes of history we’re all descendants of devils. The Nanjing massacre and the other atrocities that the Japanese committed in China during WW2 stand as extreme examples of the brutality that humans are capable of, but it is still history.