On September 3, 2015, China will hold a spectacular military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of China’s V-J Day, the end of WWII. Heads of State from 30 countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye (despite American displeasure) will attend.
“The celebrations are not targeting Japan, nor the Japanese people,” according to Zhang Ming, vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nonetheless, it is Japan, which signed its surrender on September 2, that is the face of WWII for the Chinese and Korean people.
I have found that the China-Japan relationship is little understood in the West. It’s not a good relationship. And the animosity is in the paper nearly every day. (Many Japanese companies have announced they are repatriating their Chinese manufacturing capacity back to Japan although the rise in Chinese wages rather than political tenisons is the common explanation.) My Chinese wife literally refuses to go there and there is constant bickering as to which country has rights over the uninhabited islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands and the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands in the now volatile South China Sea.
Every Chinese can tell you about the Nanjing Massacre in which tens of thousands of Chinese civilians were slaughtered and Chinese women were raped by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese have a different interpretation of what happened, of course, and some conservative Japanese politicians, as I understand it, go so far as to deny it ever occurred.
I refuse to call it the Chinese version, however, because even though I wasn’t there everything I have read from respected scholars supports that version of events and I don’t want to in any way disrespect what happened there.
Perhaps no issue upsets the Chinese more, however, than the Yasukuni Shrine and the fact that Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continue to pay respects there. The degree to which this one issue bothers the Chinese has baffled me since arrival – out of ignorance, not disagreement – but a scholar with the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xie Yun, recently wrote the most revealing explanation I have found so far. Some Japanese scholar will surely challenge this interpretation but understanding has to start somewhere and this all sounded pretty logical to me; so let’s start here.
To most Westerners Yasukuni Shrine honors those who have died in war, not unlike the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. It seems undisputed, however, that 14 convicted WWII Class-A war criminals are also buried there.
More symbolically, according to Xie, Japanese leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi made Shintoism the national religion of Japan in the late 16th century to counter the growing spread of Catholicism in Japan.
As Xie explains, Shinto is an ideology that advocates aggression and expansion and Toyotomi used it to assign Japanese “deities” to all things in an effort to promote Japan as the center of Asia, challenging the universalism of Catholicism. This, in turn, purportedly gave root to the expansionist policies of Japan that resulted in two all-out but failed attacks on the Korean Peninsula.
During the late Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan the country signed treaties with many Western powers that were considered overly advantageous to the West. As a result, the narrative goes, the Shinto religion was reformed into the Bushido spirit and Ito Hirohumi and other key members of the Meiji Restoration (imperialism) came to believe that Japan should offset losses to the West through military expansion into neighboring Asian countries, thus saving both power and face.
Eventually this ideology evolved into militarism and Tennoism and the Yashukuni Shrine were integral parts of that transformation.
Unlike Germany, Japan never officially renounced expansionism after its surrender in WWII. Both South Korea and China, in fact, believe that Japan has never adequately apologized for the agony it caused those countries (including the enslavement of ‘comfort women’ to work the brothels built for the benefit of the invading Japanese soldiers).
Some scholars, in fact, have argued that Shinto is a core element of Japanese culture and folk customs and must be protected if the US wants to make its global leadership acceptable to Japan.
Thus, as Xie concludes, “Shintoism is not by any means a modern ideology…Instead, it is a military ideology coated with a strong religious color, with Tennoism on one side and the Yasukuni Shrine on the other.”
In the end this is one of those issues where the distinction between fact and perception is not all that meaningful. The perception is there and widely held in China.
And with good reason. Even former Japanese PM Tomiichi Murayama has stated, “A visit (to Yasukuni) by a Japanese prime minister is a clear violation of the peace treaty Japan signed with its neighboring countries after WWII.”
On a completely unrelated but interesting note in these days of stock market turmoil: In China if a stock price is up they show a red arrow next to it. If it is down they show a green arrow. Red, of course, is a celebratory color in China due to the legend that the mythical beast, Nian, that arrived on the first day of the Chinese New Year and ate all of the crops and livestock, as well as some of the villagers, especially children, passed over a child dressed in red, making the color ubiquitous with both the holiday and good luck of every variety.
Above Picture Credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com
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Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.