Keeping war with Japan fresh in Chinese minds

For most of the Allied and Axis powers, World War II ended more than a half century ago, but the conflict seems to have taken on a life of its own in China's state-run press and film factories.

Chinese editors, television producers, and movie directors for decades have been enlisted in a drive to document or dramatize Japan's 1930s-era invasion of China.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on Thursday issued Japan's strongest statement yet of remorse for its invasion. But it's far from clear whether Beijing's battle of banter will cease. "Whether you read the Chinese newspapers or go to the cinema, it almost seems that the war just ended yesterday," says a Japanese official here.

Chinese history books say the Japanese Imperial Army killed or injured tens of millions of civilians and soldiers here before Tokyo's defeat in 1945. The Japanese Army experimented with chemical and biological weapons on war prisoners, and virtually every Chinese schoolchild can recite gruesome details of Japan's invasion. A stream of state-funded films re-create dark tableaux of life during the war, along with the Chinese Red Army's heroic drives to repel the invaders. "It was largely the Nationalists [who ruled China] and American troops that defeated the Japanese invaders here, but the Communist Party always takes all the credit for the victory," says a scholar at Beijing University.

Last week, the official China Daily reported that filmmakers recently began shooting a full-length documentary titled "Record of Japanese Invasions of China." Director Chen Jingliang said the montage of atrocities is aimed at giving "the Chinese a warning call, asking them to remember the humiliation of being trampled upon and to fight for the country's prosperity."

"The [Chinese] Communist Party's legitimacy rests in part on its having fought the Japanese, so the party can never let the Chinese people forget the war," says the Japanese official, who declined to be identified.

Even some Chinese scholars agree.

"The Chinese Army's firing on pro-democracy protesters here in 1989, followed by the collapse of communism in Europe and Russia, shattered the [Communist] Party's image," says a young university lecturer. "The party has tried to fuel nationalism to rebuild its image."

Many Chinese who lived through the occupation share an ongoing antipathy toward the Japanese, and complain that Tokyo has never shown a sincere sense of contrition.

"German leaders have bowed before victims of the Nazis and asked for forgiveness, but the Japanese have never done anything like that," says a senior Chinese official.

Yet that sentiment has apparently dissipated among some members of the postwar generations. "My grandparents and even my parents still dislike Japan for its brutality during the war, but I think that we should let go of history and look toward the future," says Guo Jianmei, a young lawyer in Beijing. "Japan's technological innovations, management skills, and powerful economy can all serve as models for China, and we should stress cooperation," she adds.

"Most Japanese people think the country has thoroughly changed since the end of the war, and that Japan has been a force for peace for decades," the Japanese official says. "Yet few of those changes are portrayed in the Chinese press, which focuses on a handful of [Japanese] right-wing militarists to paint the entire country," he adds.

Japan, Asia's richest nation, and China, a quickly rising power, ought to work now to put the past behind them, says Ezra Vogel, who heads an Asian studies program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Tokyo and Beijing "need to open their historical records [on World War II] to objective scholars from Japan, China and other nations," says Professor Vogel.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.