Why Japan Misreads China -- And What To Do About It

Anti-Japan protesters tear Japanese military flags during a demonstration over what they say is a growing Japanese aggression
Anti-Japan protesters tear Japanese military flags during a demonstration over what they say is a growing Japanese aggression on fishing waters in East China Sea near a group of Japanese-controlled disputed islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, also claimed by China and Taiwan, outside the Japanese trade office in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. The protest was to mark the 68th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

BEIJING -- Confrontation between Japan and China over the perception of their shared history continues to only deepen nearly 70 years after the end of World War II.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Sun Ge, a leading Chinese scholar of Japanese social thought who has actively promoted exchanges between intellectuals of both countries, shared her views on the wisdom of leaving it up to the states and politicians alone to argue history and the possibility of rapprochement between a victimized nation and the responsible nation.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Mutual distrust between Japan and China is not likely to go away any time soon. What do you have to say to that?

Sun: Japanese often say, “China is a very vibrant country, but it lacks freedom of speech.” They say China is prospering in economic terms but its citizens remain poorly civilized, their human rights are slighted, and their life is difficult under a dictatorship.

The problem is they have this foregone conclusion before they ever see what China is really like. That is a sort of Cold War thinking.

China certainly has restrictions on freedom, but it has freedom in the sense that you don’t have to respect conformity as you typically do in Japan. Individuals who think for themselves in a realm that is neither pro nor anti-establishment are definitely growing in number. Those people have really diverse voices, perceptions and ideas.

A sense of superiority in terms of social life is engendering a discriminatory attitude. The notion of the Japanese that “food ingredients are dangerous if they are from China” has attained a status of ideology. Japan has its own problems, such as false labeling of production areas, but somehow they don’t apply the same standards of thought.

Q: Are there no problems on the Chinese side?

A: China, which was colonized by great powers of the world, has lived a history with a strong sense of inferiority. That has also fueled a backlash in the form of resentment. The Chinese cannot look at other countries without thinking about the status of their own nation. They are not yet ready to face foreign nations on an equal mindset and out of genuine curiosity. They also have bitter feelings about Japan, which used to sit on the periphery of Greater China but has now become one of the world’s leading nations.

A sense of superiority (on the one side) has never struck an emotional balance with a sense of inferiority (on the other side). In other words, the Japanese and the Chinese have never had matching social mentalities.

Q: The anti-Japanese protests that swept across China two years ago shocked many Japanese. What do you think?

A: Chinese society is not so much discontented with Japan as with its own government, which it sees as “weak-kneed.” While I don’t share that view, there certainly is an atmosphere that facilitates the mentality to believe that it should stand firm against Japan, which refuses to squarely face its past.

During the anti-Japanese protests, however, one message made the rounds among young people: “Diaoyu (the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea) belongs to China, and Sola Aoi (a sexy Japanese actress) belongs to the world.” The Chinese of the manga generation have an affinity toward Japan via mass culture. The same can be said of tourists who have visited Japan.

Antipathy runs deep toward the Japanese administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but the “anti-Japanese” stance on the level of state politics is detached from the real feelings of life. The understanding of Japan by contemporary Chinese is really complicated, as it rests on both antipathy and affinity that lie on those different levels.


Q: The view of Japan is toughening over the perception of shared history. What is your take on that?

A: Japan and China have fairly different time frames for viewing their postwar processes, and their perceptions differ with each other. Many Japanese thought their postwar processes were over when Japan signed a peace treaty with Taiwan in 1952, but for Chinese on the mainland, postwar processes with Japan only began (when diplomatic ties were normalized) in 1972.

The honor of the state took precedence over compensation issues under the Cultural Revolution of the time. But Japan did not apologize enough. When Chinese society started to change in the 1990s, the private sector, which began to stand on its own feet, started making compensation and other claims.

Meanwhile in China, people of certain generations had very vivid experiences and awareness of having been victimized. Many were killed in places other than Nanjing (where mass killings took place in 1937). Aren’t the Japanese, without giving their thoughts to the sentiment of the victims, assuming that the Chinese are controlled by their government?

The sensible people in Japan, who admit their country is responsible for the war, have only argued domestically with right-wingers who deny that view, and their solidarity with the victims has been less than adequate.

Q: How do you believe we should approach the issue of victimization in war?

A: Efforts are going on in China to collect the testimony of different victims, such as those who were made into comfort women (who provided sex for Japanese troops) and those who lost their health to germ warfare. It is a historic responsibility of those in a victimized nation to remember such experiences. Peace rests on such efforts. I want people to know that those efforts are not intended for retaliation.

The Japanese have their own experiences of having been victimized. The memory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was revived following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. I believe many Japanese, not just in Fukushima, are pursuing who were the victims and who should be held responsible.

The memory of the people who were forced to commit collective suicide in Okinawa could also be understood in the same way as the memory of the people who were massacred in Nanjing. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa and Nanjing are all entangled with international situations and in postwar contexts. Work to organize those contexts together will lead to the pursuit of war and postwar responsibilities beyond the framework of nations.

Q: You are saying that the issue of the victims and those responsible should be approached from the viewpoint of “human beings” instead of the framework of “nations,” correct?

A: It will certainly be necessary to sort out the victims and those responsible in terms of nations. But interstate relations alone do not help get down to the essence of history. Humans are like dolls at the mercy of power when viewed from the perspective of nations, but they are by no means like dolls when seen from the viewpoint of down-to-earth life.

I realized that this past spring, when I visited the Manmo Kaitaku Heiwa Kinenkan, a peace memorial museum on settlers to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, in Nagano Prefecture.

Q: What precisely did you “realize”?

A: Many of the settlers who emigrated to northeast China after the Manchurian Incident of 1931 were impoverished Japanese farmers, but they obtained affluent lives by taking land from local farmers, whom they employed. But they also experienced great hardships when Japan’s defeat in war obliged some of them to commit collective suicide and drove others into abject penury. The museum preserves such memories just as they are.

Some Chinese farmers helped Japanese at the time. Others took pains to adopt and raise Japanese orphans. As human beings, they lavishly represent moral audacity and magnificent humanity. They embody strength well beyond description by the single word of being “victims.” The war orphans are not just “poor Japanese” but have the precious cultural background of having “crossed borders,” which ordinary Japanese do not have. These things become uninterpretable if we only have the dichotomy of victims and those responsible.

The Japanese settlers, who initially had a sense of superiority and a discriminatory mind-set, came to realize, after enduring their own hardships, that the Chinese are no different from themselves as human beings. These phenomena do not easily come into view as long as we approach history in terms of states.


Q: Why do you think the Chinese farmers extended a helping hand to the Japanese, who had oppressed them?

A: To put it simply, it was about “tianxia (all under heaven),” which is a sense of public justice, or a system of morals that dictate human relations. That is a piece of life ethics that has been alive since olden times in the realm of the common people, not within the dynastic authorities of China. People used to say that farmers of China do not fear the demise of a dynasty but do fear the demise of “tianxia.”

You should extend a helping hand even to an enemy child if there is a young child facing a crisis--that sort of sense was probably manifested all the more straightforwardly because the farmers had hardly any formal education.

Humans are not simple beings. They sometimes put up resistance but are sometimes obedient. Still on other occasions, they ignore the state. They vary in different ways. There do exist human relations of the common people that have nothing to do with state politics.

Q: Do you think the life ethics of the common people still exist in China today?

A: “Tianxia” exists in China today. Its relations to the modern state system are never straightforward, so there are inevitable confusions.

The Japanese tend to look through a Western prism at China’s society and dismiss it, for example, as being under “a rule of humans, not a rule of law.” But I believe mutual understanding will deepen only when they look at that sort of logic in China’s history without preconceived ideas.

Q: What do you think we can do in the capacity of individuals to defuse the tensions between Japan and China?

A: It’s just about a bit of curiosity. You can only have the curiosity to try to understand other countries and other people from an equal perspective while fighting arrogance, prejudice, discrimination and other sorts of social mentalities that you could contract if only you were not careful.

In olden times, people were mobilized for war from areas where mutual cultural contact was scarce. There is a growing collection today of personal exchanges between Japan and China in different forms. You can only accumulate your cultural understanding on the basis of your personal experiences.

Information is available everywhere in this age of the Internet, but this is also an age when you tend to shut yourself up in your own, favorite pseudo-world. The emotional pattern for exchanges of short messages tends to simplify your thoughts. A similar phenomenon also exists in China.

What about dumping all prearranged assumptions into a waste bin and mutually discovering these unknown worlds, which Japan and China each represent?

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Born in 1955 in China’s Jilin province, Sun Ge has studied sociopolitical thought in Japan, such as that of Yoshimi Takeuchi (1910-1977).

Sun, a researcher with the Institute of Literature in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has also served as a guest professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo and in other posts.

She has published books in Japanese, including “Rekishi no Kosaten ni Tatte” (Standing at the crossroads of history).

This piece also appeared in The Asahi Shimbun AJW.