The Anti-Japanese Demonstrations in China

Boston, Mass.

“Japanese pigs get out!”

“Stinking Japanese!”

“Kill the Japanese dogs!”

All over China, rock-throwing, window-smashing crowds have gathered in recent weeks to attack diplomatic offices, Japanese electronics shops, Japanese restaurants (mostly owned by Chinese), exchange students, anything and anyone associated with the Land of the Rising Sun.

A History of Reasons to Demonstrate

There’s nothing new about anti-Japanese demonstrations in China.

They’re a staple of modern Chinese history, a mostly rational response to a long record of abuses. Just six years after the establishment of the modern Japanese state (1868), several thousand Japanese troops occupied part of Taiwan, which Qing China claimed as its territory, ostensibly in order to punish islanders for abusing Ryukyuan fishermen. China, although it had long regarded the Ryukyuan kingdom as a vassal-state, had accepted Japan’s claim that Ryukyuans were Japanese nationals. But it had declined to pay the indemnity Japan demanded, and so suffered this invasion. To get the troops withdrawn, China forked over an indemnity that helped pay the costs of the attack. Twenty years later Chinese and Japanese forces clashed in Korea. Fighting spilled over into Manchuria, and following their victory the Japanese demanded and received Taiwan as a war-prize. This became what one Diet member termed Japan’s “colonial university.”

The Japanese regime coveted the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria as well, and received concessions there by treaty, but Russia desiring the same concessions organized France and Germany to block the deal. Japan had to give it back to China, or rather sell it back. (Liaodong soon went to Russia.) During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Japan sent half of the 45,000 allied troops that quashed the anti-foreign movement and relieved the besieged foreign legations in Beijing. In 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War Japan acquired Russia’s Manchurian concessions (as well as southern Sakhalin). The first Chinese movement to boycott Japanese goods followed a few years later.

In 1915 during the First World War, taking advantage of a provision in its naval treaty with the United Kingdom, Japan opportunistically seized German possessions on the Shandong peninsula as well as in the south Pacific. It submitted a list of demands (the “Twenty-One Demands”) to the Chinese government, which had they been accepted in toto, would have reduced China to the status of a Japanese satrapy. Western intervention caused Japan to moderate its terms, but the humiliation and international acceptance of Japan’s actions produced the May 4th Movement in 1919. Initiated by Chinese students who had been studying in Japan, but had returned home to protest Japanese actions, the movement involved demonstrations (some violent), strikes and boycotts.

Shandong remained a sore spot; anti-Japanese demonstrations there drew a military response in 1927, triggering nationwide anti-Japanese protests and boycotts that badly affected the Japanese economy. The Manchurian Incident of 1931 produced another Japanese colony, Manchukuo, and more righteously indignant anti-Japanese demonstrations. There is a long history here.

The Provocative Distortion of History

The present demonstrations are all about history and historical memory. There are lots of contentious issues in the current Sino-Japanese relationship, including some that involve matters of sovereignty and contested territory. The Diaoyu islands (which Japanese maps label the Senkaku Islands) are eight uninhabited rocks northeast of Taiwan claimed by both nations. They hold promise for offshore oil drilling and are rich fishing grounds. A right-wing Japanese organization set up a makeshift lighthouse there in 1996, returning in 2003; Chinese responded with a landing of their own. More recently, the Japanese Coast Guard has prevented such Chinese visits. Meanwhile the dispute over the island of Dokto (Japanese Takeshima) in what Japanese call the Japan Sea, and Koreans the Eastern Sea, excites such emotions in Korea that men have publicly severed the tips of their little fingers to protest a symbolic “Takeshima Day” pronounced by Japan’s Shimane prefecture.

But no issue with Japan grates more on Chinese or Korean sensitivities than the perceived refusal of the Japanese state to acknowledge and reflect upon its history of aggression, culminating with what the Japanese call the “Sino-Japanese War” (Nitchu senso) of 1937 to 1945. The proximate cause of the current wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations is the decision of the archconservative Japanese Education Ministry to approve for middle school use a history textbook that whitewashes the record of Japanese aggression in East Asia. Specifically, it downplays the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and other atrocities, ignores Unit 731’s germ warfare experiments, and omits discussion of the tens of thousands of (principally Korean) “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military from 1932. The textbooks circulate in only a handful of schools, reaching well under one percent of the targeted student audience, so the damage may be small. But the fact that the government endorsed the text naturally infuriates the Chinese and other victims of Japanese imperialism.

Meanwhile another issue pertaining to historical memory clouds Sino-Japanese relations: the visits by government officials to Yasukuni Shrine. This establishment in the heart of Tokyo is a unique religious institution, outwardly resembling many other Shinto shrines. These are for the most part harmless, charming places to visit, to watch the devout believer or casual tourist clap and perfunctorily worship the kami (divine beings) imagined to reside therein. These can be gods with names and personalities like the Sun Goddess Amaterasu or her brother Susanoo, mountain deities, river deities, or phallic deities. Those in Yasukuni happen to be the souls of 2.5 million Japanese killed in the service of the emperor since 1868, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals. These are kami who, shrine officials declare, have protected and continue to protect the nation.

Herein rest the remains of wartime Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, transferred quietly on April 21, 1976, along with those of the 13 others designated as “martyrs of the Showa era” and described in a shrine pamphlet as “wrongly accused as war criminals by the Allied court.” (This took place when Ohira Masayoshi was prime minister. By the way, not that it’s related, thirteen years earlier during his tenure as foreign minister, Ohira had agreed to allow U.S. warships loaded with nuclear weapons to visit Japanese ports in violation of Japanese law.)

“War…Necessary to Protect the Independence of Japan”

Founded as a state operation in 1869, Yasukuni enshrined those who had perished in the pro-imperial cause during the Boshin War (1867-9) that brought the new, expansionist, “modernizing” Meiji regime to power. Thereafter soldiers and civilians slain in the emperor’s service in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, in World War I and the Nomonhan “incident” versus the Soviets in 1939, and in the Second World War were all laid to rest here. “War,” the shrine pamphlet explains, “is a really tragic thing to happen, but it was necessary in order for us to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with Asian neighbors.” The shrine’s English website teaches that “Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia.” You get the idea.

In 1945 under U.S. occupation Yasukuni was privatized. The Japanese costitution of 1947 specifies the separation of religion and and state (as it rejects the maintenance of armed forces and announces equality of the sexes). So technically the shrine is not a government enterprise. State Shinto, centering on the cult of the god-emperor descended from the Sun Goddess whose parents had created the Japanese islands from their own bodies, had been imposed on the population through public religious rituals and indoctrination in the schools. This had troubled some people (like Christians, communists, the scientifically-minded) but while the Meiji constitution had guaranteed freedom of religion and did not jail people for merely questioning the existence of the kami, it had required outward gestures of deference, such as bowing before the portrait of the emperor during the public reading of imperial rescripts. Shinto clergy had been paid by the state.

State Shinto was dismantled under the U.S. occupation, the age-old “folk Shinto” left alone. But even as a private shrine Yasukuni continues to fulfill official and political purposes. Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989, stopped visiting the shrine after Tojo was entombed there. But Tokyo’s governor Ishihara Shintaro urges the current emperor to resume visits and several prime ministers have gone to pay their respects since 1976. Ronald Reagan’s pal Nakasone Yasuhiro tested the waters in 1985, producing much protest. (Not that it’s related, but President Reagan also drew popular anger when he visited Germany’s Bitberg military cemetery, where SS officers are interred, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl that same year.) It took 11 years for another prime minister, Hashimoto Ryutaro, to repeat Nakasone’s stunt. But current prime minister Koizumi Junichiro has visited annually during his tenure, five years in a row, most recently this month. He does so in his official capacity and signs the guest book accordingly.

In response to Asian outrage (particularly in China, Taiwan, and North and South Korea) Koizumi asks blandly, “Why keep blaming the dead for the crimes they committed when they were alive?”

Apologists for his visits patiently explain that Shinto beliefs about the soul and worship and good and evil differ from those of outsiders and that the ritual in no wise constitutes an endorsement of Japanese aggression (however the shrine’s literature prettifies that aggression). The act of worship merely recognizes the sacrifice of those who died for the emperor and the country, which for them is the same thing, and comforts their spirits still hovering in the Japanese ether. Such exegis of religious practice does not necessarily comfort the war victims.

The Real Issues

Indeed, it enrages many. More than the territorial issues, or legal issues involving compensation for victims of Japanese aggression, the conscious cultivation of historical ignorance appals those observing the obvious. Japan despite its U.S.-authored “pacifistic constitution” has one of the world’s six largest militaries and could in a very short time greatly augment it for offensive action. Step by step, the Liberal Democratic Party leadership has sought to undermine popular opposition to the formal legalization of the unconstitutional “Self-Defense Forces.” During Nakasone’s tenure he let the military budget slightly exceed the traditional 1% of the GNP limit. After Japan met with U.S. criticism for its unwillingness to deploy troops in the Persian Gulf in 1991, Japan contributed to “peackeeping operations” in Cambodia, Mozambique and East Timor. Now there are troops in Iraq, confined to peaceable humanitarian activities, but still deployed in an effort to make the Bush war seem international. Japan has enriched uranium and could, as some politicians boast, produce a nuclear weapon overnight. Some suggest that the North Korean threat would justify this; Japan, they say, should become “a normal country.”

Like the U.S., which isn’t hobbled with a constitution that denies it the right to go to war.

The U.S., generally perceived in the world as the greatest danger to world peace, promotes Japan as an excellent candidate for a permanent position on an expanded United Nations Security Council. Washington isn’t much concerned with textbooks and war-shrines but with Japan’s stellar record of support for U.S. positions in the international body. Japan, indeed has no foreign policy other than to endorse U.S. foreign policy, usually within a day or so after receiving instructions. It is, in Nakasone’s eloquent words, “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the U.S. The islands formed from the limbs of the primordial kami Izanagi and Izanami lay spread eagerly for the foreign troops who worship Jesus rather than the Sun Goddess but still bask in her welcoming warmth.

Their samurai counterparts meanwhile “to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with Asian neighbors” eye future deployments to prevent Beijing from forcibly reuniting the mainland with Taiwan.

The February meeting in Washington

Between Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and top Japanese officials was the most important in many years, and in essence expanded the military relationship to include actions in defense of Taiwan. Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province, understandably found Japan’s shift provocative. Meanwhile it has rejected a permanent Japanese seat on the Security Council, preferring another historical antagonist, India. Territorial disputes with India remain, but India is not from Beijing’s point of view refusing to come to terms with the past, teach its youth the unvarnished truth about that past, and reassure the world there will be no repeat. Japan rather, supported by its Washington patron, encourages suspicion and hostility.

I am personally repulsed by the racist manifestations, the unprincipled attacks on innocent Japanese and vilification of a culture I much admire. I feel alarmed at the repercussions in Japan of the images of Chinese youth, faces contorted in hatred, calling for the killing of all Japanese. Japanese youth indeed know little about the wartime era of “their” country, because they haven’t been taught about it. There are various reasons for this, including the composition of college entry exams which place little emphasis on modern historical knowledge, but the primary reason in my view is the stated desire of the Education Ministry to avoid conveying to the school kids a negative view of the nation’s past. Lacking historical knowledge, Japanese youth are reportedly puzzled at Chinese passions about things that happened a long time ago.

On the positive side, while they tend to be quite persuaded that Japanese people are “unique,” Japanese are among the least nationalistic persons on earth. Japanese in general always score way down on the “patriotism” scale. But that combination of historical ignorance (the very thing that other Asians find frightening in the Japanese) with fear of those expressing essentialized indiscriminate hatred of all things Japanese might lead to a general gravitation of the naively ignorant to the nationalistic right. (The reasoning is, “I hate them for their stupid hatred of us.”) This is the big contradiction here, and it stems from the basic failure to distinguish the ordinary Japanese (product of the karma of military defeat, U.S. alliance, conservative political rule for five decades, and an educational system which by discouraging critical thought encourages acceptance of the status quo) and the Koizumis who indeed deserve whatever challenge the Chinese masses might serve up.

Japanese commentators suggest that Beijing, beset by protests against corruption, oppression of minorities and various economic policies, seeks to deflect criticism from itself by stoking anti-Japanese sentiment. It’s certainly true that the party, having long since chucked anything resembling Marxism-Leninism or Maoism now seeks to unite the country behind itself on the basis of nationalism. The party’s Mao isn’t the communist theoretician but the iconized leader of the anti-Japanese war and the founder of the modern state. It’s true too that the state controls the press and the spin placed on the textbook and Yasukuni stories that shape public opinion in China. But to treat the storm over Japanese behavior as an official Chinese contrivance is to downplay the real Japanese offenses and the degree of resentment they appropriately produce.

Yasukuni and Arlington

Japan’s expanding military and aspirations to a greater global war would naturally concern Beijing even were it not for the provocations that generate the demonstrations—which some Japanese don’t even recognize as provocations. They say, “It’s nobody else’s business what we have in our textbooks,” betraying the “island-country” mentality which might be harmless were Japan Fiji but which constitutes dangerous solipsism when it’s in fact the second largest economy and among the top military powers. They say, “Shinto religious practices are our own business. And the officials aren’t worshipping devils but merely paying respects to patriotic sacrifice, as President Bush might if he visited Arlington Cemetery.”

Depicting the criticism as specious, they convey irritation at its expression, merely confirming the accusation that Japan doesn’t get it. The way that, say, the Germans do get it. This denial has to suggest to the Chinese that Japan has not learned its lesson, and that despite bitter defeat at the hands of the U.S. (with some help of course from China and others) in 1945 might revert to a policy of aggression, next time in tandem with the U.S.

To expand the Yasukuni-Arlington analogy: Japanese critics of Chinese criticism are not much different from U.S. critics of those who denounce, or merely accurately describe, the many U.S. wars of aggression. We have our own textbook problem in this country, with school boards controlled by the religious right pruning “anti-American” works from the classroom. The text censors reason much as do their Japanese counterparts: young people should not be given a negative view of their country. The limited number of publishers specializing in school history texts are quite responsive to these censorship efforts. And talk about invoking heavenly forces in defense of mundane aggression and in efforts to glorify the perished soldiers! U.S. administrations have long been good at that, this one better than most even though Bush hasn’t been visiting many graves of the heroic dead.

Many Americans don’t get the fact that the world considers the U.S. war in Vietnam one big atrocity, and that commemorations of the sacrifices of those who “served their country” there might seem like validations of the My Lais of that war. And Washington, inclined to prettify its own aggressive past, remains thoroughly aloof from the Sino-Japanese controversies. It will not protest the Yasukuni visits or the Education Ministry’s decisions. The government which hushed up Unit 731’s “research” in order to inherit and study it is in no moral position to lean on Tokyo to clean up its textbook act or remove its war criminals from its war shrine.

First World vs. Third World

Mao Zedong always spoke about the “contradictions” which pervade all things and urged people to approach problems by identifying “the principle and non-principle contradictions in a process.” The “principle contradiction” here is not between the Japanese and Chinese peoples, nor two social systems (China and Japan having their particular, closely inter-related capitalisms), nor even two governments. Contemporary Maoists declare that the principle contradiction in the world is between imperialism (principally U.S. imperialism) and the Third World countries and liberation movements. China for all its extraordinary growth and mounting defense capabilities remains a Third World country. The direction of its development (involving the globalization agenda, foreign-owned sweatshops, privatization of industry, massive unemployment, the end of the “iron rice bowl”) is largely determined by the requirements of foreign capital, including prominently Japanese capital.

Tokyo, while concerned about Chinese competition for markets and resources (it appears likely China will soon surpass Japan as Iran’s number one customer for petroleum) is not dealing with an equal when it affronts Chinese sensibilities. It is, as an imperialist power, arrogantly assured that China’s elite (however indignant their current rhetoric) will take no action that would threaten the business ties between the countries. As a key junior partner to the U.S., under its “nuclear umbrella” and in a “security” arrangement that now specifically involves cooperation on Taiwan, it feels under no great pressure to accede to Chinese demands that history textbooks tell the truth or that officials avoid honoring war criminals. Its smug rightists will continue to push their prettified version of the past, strategically supported by the Ministry of Education and the Yasukuni Shrine officials. The general public in an affluently insular society will include a large section glibly and dangerously ill-informed about the Empire’s past. But there are many objective progressive Japanese academics challenging the whitewashes, and Japanese who are well-informed, understanding the principle contradiction and sensitive to foreigners’ feelings.

* * *

Some years ago I was recruited to comment on Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking when the late journalist and best-selling author spoke at an academic conference. Reading the book before the event I was put off by her assertion that the Nanjing Massacre had been “ignored,” and was the “hidden holocaust” of World War II. I myself had in fact been including it in my modern Japan history surveys while Chang was still in college, noting that around 200,000 had been slaughtered by Japanese troops. But I found that her account of the massacre beginning in December 1937 was generally accurate. Some had questioned various details of her narrative, and I myself found some obvious historical errors, but I did not in my presentation dwell upon those. Rather I questioned whether she should have attempted to explain the massacre in specifically cultural terms, as she had done (the samurai heritage, the Shinto religion); whether she should have repeatedly referred to “the Japanese” (as opposed to “the Japanese military” or “the Japanese government”) as the problem; and whether she should have depicted Japan—in the abstract—as in a state of denial about the massacre. There had in fact been numerous articles and monographs by Japanese scholars honestly relating many of the facts that appeared in her own work, which she, not proficient in Japanese, had not read nor adequately acknowledged.

At the time (1997) I was concerned that this work by a Chinese-American would exacerbate anti-Japanese feeling in the U.S., subject perhaps then more than now to waves of trade friction-related Japan-bashing, and that such bashing could only hurt all those of East Asian background in the U.S. negatively. Then, I was taking the part of Japanese against what I felt was an unfair ethnic-based attack. Reacting to the Chinese demonstrations (or at least to the racist slogans and actions mentioned above) I again lament the irrational targeting of all Japanese. But recently I reread Chang’s book (which I assign every year to my modern Japanese history survey class) with somewhat more sympathy for her point of view. I’m inclined to urge every Japanese angered or frightened by the images on NHK of the anti-Chinese protests in China to read that book, and reflect on how the behavior described there might reflect upon the Japanese nation, and consider what might be done to end the current provocations. Unfortunately there is no Japanese translation. A Tokyo publisher (Kashiwa shobo) was eager to produce one, but found certain errors of fact and misidentification of some photos. As I understand it, negotiations broke down when Chang refused to make any changes or allow the published text to be accompanied by a critical commentary.

Was the aborted Japanese translation just another instance of the putative Japanese allergy to the historical truth? I don’t think so. Chang’s major contribution in her book was to use the diaries of John Rabe, a German official in Nanjing. Rabe, described by one scholar as “the good man of Nanjing” was the top Nazi in the city when the Japanese troops overran it. Chang while evoking Nazi evil in describing the Nanjing Massacre (“the hidden holocaust of World War II”) depicted this particular Nazi as a fine man attracted to the National Socialists’ “socialism” rather than their racism. In any case Rabe used his diplomatic credentials to save maybe 250,000 Chinese from the Germans’ Japanese wartime allies. His diary was published in Japanese in 1997 (by the prestigious publisher Kodansha), the same year it appeared in German, and a year before it appeared in English. A second Japanese translation appeared in 1998. An enormous amount of material in Japanese describes and condemns Japanese wartime atrocities. But there’s also much revisionism and the brand of shameless denial one finds in the Yasukuni literature. Unfortunately those in power in Japan seem more inclined to promote the latter, and thus to provoke the sort of indignation we’ve been seeing on the streets of Chinese and Korean cities.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: