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China and Japan disagree on WWII


Both Japan and China have emerged as major world powers in recent years.  They trade extensively with each other and one finds many Japanese tourists in China and even more Chinese in Tokyo.  But below this amicable surface, however, deep hostile feelings remain dating back to Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and early 1940s. One can witness this ever-present hostility at each nation’s major war memorial: Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing

Historical memories also play a key role in the sour relations that exist today between China and Japan.  Today if one visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo or the Museum for the War of Resistance Against Japan next to the Marco Polo Bridge, one can see very different interpretations of World War II in China.  Of course, everybody knows the outcome of the war – Japan was totally defeated and driven out of China – but not before its army of six million men had brought incredible destruction to that nation.  Japanese casualties were high, but it was much worse for the Chinese.  Estimates of Chinese war dead vary greatly, from as low as fifteen million to as many as thirty million, mainly civilians. 

Japan’s goal was to force the Chinese to accept their occupation of Manchuria and to install a puppet Chinese government that would acquiesce to Japan’s war aims.  The Japanese, realizing their severe numerical inferiority vis-à-vis the Chinese, determined to use their superior military technology to cower the Chinese.  The Japanese determined to create a reign of terror, at times killing any living thing in their way–men, women, children of all ages and even farm animals.  There were many atrocities, but none so famous as the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre of 1937.

When one visits Yasukuni Shrine in the Kudanshita area of downtown Tokyo, as I did in May 2006, one gets a very slanted view of the War.  The theme of the museum next to the shrine is that the Japanese were the “good guys” and that the Allied Powers were the “bad guys.”  We are told that Japan’s unselfish goal was the liberation of Asia from the Western imperialists.  Japanese soldiers fought hard for this liberation and Japan did lose the war and did suffer horribly the agony of defeat.  But, ultimately, Japan was the victor because its war goals were achieved–the western powers made a futile attempt to recover their colonies and their influence in Asia, but the Japanese victories in the early stages of the war had unleashed the forces of nationalism in all these Asian countries which ultimately led to their liberation.  There were no displays or mention of the Nanjing or any other massacres in China and a prominently displayed book that I purchased in the museum bookstore went to great lengths to deny that the Nanjing massacre had never occurred.  Apparently, all of the pictures that Chiang used in her book, The Rape of Nanjing and in other works by other authors used were fakes, doctored as Allied propaganda to humiliate the Japanese.  Despite Japanese denials to the contrary, there is plenty of firm evidence to show that the massacre happened just as it was reported. A colorful film running continuously in the museum’s theatre, “Lest We Forget,” is a tribute to Japan’s WWII heroes who died liberating Asia from the West.

Unfortunately, Japanese students are not told the truth about their nation’s colonial expansion in northeast Asia early in the twentieth century or of its murderous and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at conquest in China and Southeast Asia during World War II.  When I was teaching for a year at Doshisha Women’s College outside of Kyoto, students taking my American culture class were amazed to hear a negative view of Japan’s involvement in World War II and emphatically denied that the Nanjing massacre had ever occurred.  I got similar responses from the many Japanese students at my college in Virginia who are horrified to watch videos showing Japanese massacres of Chinese during the War.  (But if one looks at American education, we are taught very little about the genocide inflicted on the American Indians and the horrible conditions experienced by Black slaves across the United States, North and South)

There is also the on-going controversy over the official visits of Japanese prime ministers to the shrine which not only honors the Japanese war dead, but 14 Japanese military leaders convicted by the Allies for their war crimes, many of them occurring in China.  Both South Korea and China strongly protest these visits and there are frequent riots in these countries every time a Japanese prime minister shows up at the shrine.  Former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made six such visits to the Shrine, one as late as the summer of 2006, just before he left office. 

The Chinese version of the war on display at Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing is very different.  Fighting broke out at Marco Polo Bridge during the summer of 1937 that led to Japan’s massive invasion of the mainland.  The bridge itself, which dates back nearly a thousand years, is beautifully preserved, although one can see occasional bullet holes.  Oddly, the river over which the bridge crossed has long since dried up, but the now very green riverbed adds considerable charm to the spot.

The Museum for the War of Resistance Against Japan, which I visited in mid-July, 2006, next to the bridge is a very modern structure full of exhibits commemorating China’s historic resistance to the Japanese invaders.  One sees many exhibits of Japanese forces cheering “Banzai” as they shoot Chinese civilians while other photos show piles and piles of corpses of Chinese soldiers and civilians murdered by the Japanese.  The terrible destruction of the Nanjing massacre is shown graphically in a whole range of pictures that show heroic efforts of the Chinese people to fight against the Japanese aggressors.   The real heroes, of course, are the Chinese Communists led by Mao, although there are pictures of Nationalist troops and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek who also fought the Japanese.  Interestingly,  there are statues and memorials to certain other foreigners who fought the Japanese on behalf of the Chinese including American general Claire Chenault, who greets you as you walk through the front door.

Books on sale in the gift shop resemble those at Yasukuni Shrine, except of course in this case the Chinese are the heroes and the Japanese are villains.  One finds endless discussions of massacres by Japanese troops, especially the Nanjing massacre.

The Chinese interpretation of World War II history is the exact antithesis of what one learns in Tokyo.

It is unfortunate that both sides have become captives of history.  Those who fought in World War II have now almost entirely died out, but the Chinese press every day contains articles denouncing Japan, forever reminding the reader what Japanese forces did three generations ago.  Many rightist politicians in Tokyo are just as negative in their attacks on China.  It is sad to read these comments, but if you want to really see what these two great powers really think about each other, go to these two museums.

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