To Japanese exchange students in central China it was just a silly skit. But their Chinese classmates took offense - and took their anger to the streets for two days in the city of Xian, sparking riots and mob attacks on Japanese students and restaurants, a very rare outburst.
The incident raises an old but persistent popular animosity between Asia's main giants as well as the reticence by Japan to confront the roots of Chinese feelings.
Indeed, armed with new rationales about its wartime actions, and with a budding nationalist vernacular, Japan may be further than ever from closing the gap with China over World War II grievances that remain alive more than 50 years later, analysts say.
The little-reported drama began on Oct. 30 at Northwest University when the exchange students, in a fraternity-style joke, wore red bras over T-shirts and a cup over their crotches while dancing to hip-hop music. At this point the facts become blurry, but offense was taken.
An ill wind rapidly gusted into a major storm in Chinese student Internet groups and in Xian, where about 50 Chinese, backed by a thousand angry onlookers, entered a foreigners' dormitory the next day, knocked on doors asking for student nationality, then beat up two Japanese, one a female. On Nov. 1, several thousand Chinese flooded the main avenue of the city, challenging local police over their protection of 42 Japanese students who were removed to a hotel; Japanese restaurants were trashed, and an apology demanded for the skit.
While many registered disappointment at their students, Japanese in Tokyo were shocked by the Chinese virulence.
From Day 1, and as passions flared, Japanese media were under pressure to explain the Chinese anger in Xian. Many causes were given by Tokyo media and TV talk shows: A bad economy in Xian. "Cultural differences." A recent scandal involving 240 Japanese businessmen and 500 prostitutes in Zhuhai. Anger at the Chinese government that was directed through the Japanese. Chinese pique at Japan's effort to make North Korean kidnap victims an international issue.
"The Skit Incident Proves the Effect of Anti-Japanese Education," blared Shincho Weekly, a popular Tokyo magazine with more than a million circulation. "This overreaction [is due] to the consistent anti-Japanese education in China since the end of World War II," the article quoted a Chinese journalist as saying.
All these factors were present, but the one cause that did not make headlines or talk shows in Japan was the issue that Chinese students themselves consistently described as the No. 1 reason for unhappiness: Japanese unwillingness to own up to the past. Many Chinese believe that Japanese do not see the war as wrong, but as a mistake - a distinction quite different in their moral calculus.
Rao Zhishan, a student on a an Internet group, put out a seven-point manifesto on why Chinese students were upset, starting with "Japan's efforts to erase history," and moving to Japan's lack of internal education about the war, compared with that undertaken by Germany.
Animosity between China and Japan is as complicated as the histories between the sides. The Chinese government does use the anti-Japanese war, as it is called, as a propaganda tool to unify the country, experts acknowledge, and as leverage against Japan. Yet Japan's inability to admit wrongdoing gives Beijing the stick it wields, they add. For younger Chinese, it is not the war itself, but a feeling that Japan has never shown proper remorse, that festers.
In the wake of the Xian incident, for example, China Youth Daily this week published an online survey of 1,827 students showing that 83 percent felt negatively about Japanese "reluctance" to admit to war crimes in China. The issue was Japan's refusal to use the term "compensation" - in payment to the victims of mustard-gas canisters unearthed in Heilongjiang Province this summer. The canisters were buried by departing Japanese troops in 1945; one Chinese was killed and nearly a dozen harmed when they were dug up.
"It is too late in Japan to really confront the issues," argues Gerald Curtis of Columbia University. "You had to do that right after the war. This is a generation [in Japan] that no longer feels responsibility."
Yet inside China, it seems, it is not too late to raisethe war issue.
However politically skewed China's history teaching, most Chinese have been exposed to far more details and facts about World War II than Japanese - who come from a presumably open society. With standard Japanese history texts only offering two to three pages about the entire war, Japanese schools seem as diligent about not bringing up the facts of the war as Chinese schools are about raising them, experts say.
"The Japanese try to hide the truth, but it is hard for the Chinese to forget," argues Zha Mei, a retired scholar from Shanghai. "The Japanese invasion is passed down to the younger generation inside families. There are so many individual cases; every family lost an uncle, a cousin, a daughter. With so many relatives killed by Japanese it is hard to forget. I will tell my son, and he is telling my grandson."
China, for all its criticism of Japanese unwillingness to face history, has itself yet to face any number of unpleasant facts of recent history - the killing of intellectuals in the late 1950s, mass starvation in the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution, the foray into Vietnam, and the Tiananmen Square massacre, to name a few, China scholars point out. And state media did not cover the Xian protests.
Xian itself is a stronghold of ethnic Han national feeling. It is regarded as a center of ancient Chinese civilization. In June of 2001 several thousand Han students in Xian surrounded a dormitory of a half dozen Uigher Muslims, tossed rocks through the windows, and sang Chinese national songs until 2 a.m. There had been a fight between a Han and a Uigher student.
The present time is an unusually sensitive moment in Chinese-Japanese relations. Chinese influence in the region is challenging Japan. Asian nations are asking whether the current taste of economic integration will develop into a formal regional identity. At the same time, nationalist feelings are rising in both Beijing and Tokyo in ways that would have been forbidden several years ago. The information revolution plays a role: When during the Japanese election the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture stated that all Chinese with student visas are "sneak thieves," Chinese students heard about it, and passed it around in ways that confirm their own prejudices.
Ironically, popular suspicions and trash talking between China and Japan belie a new move in elite circles in the two nations to open channels of dialogue, cooperation, and even ways to deal with the past. Chinese envoy Dai Bingguo was in Tokyo Wednesday to confirm that six-party talks on North Korea will commence Dec. 10 in Beijing - a diplomatic process that is increasing Asian interaction. Sources say that Y. Nakasone, the venerable power broker in Japan, is openly speaking of offering Beijing a written explanation of why Japanese leaders visit the Yasakuni Shrine - something deeply hated in China. The letter would state that Prime Minister Koizumi is not honoring war criminals, but the average soldier who died.
At the same time, there is a significant set of influential voices on the proud right in Japan that are articulating a whole new set of rationales about Japan's military rule in Asia that deflect criticism.
Japanese, for example, are stung by comparison between themselves and Germany. Germans are famous for agonizing after the war about their collective crimes; Japanese did not do the same soul searching. But some Japanese historians now say that Japan's war history doesn't compare with the Nazi project to eradicate a race of people. In this new view, Japan may have been a harsh colonizer in Asia, but was not so different from other European colonizers like Britain and France in its behavior.
Most Western historians and eyewitnesses disagree with this colonial comparison. But the rationale is gaining status in influential Japanese circles.
A less scholarly argument now on offer is that the real project behind Japan's expansion was an attempt to rid Asia of white colonizers. That Japan pushed Europeans out of China, Southeast Asia, and Korea is something that Asian nations should appreciate, in this view.
Scholars say that Japanese feel that should the 1935 to 1945 war-time period be publicly condemned, it would be a stain on the honor of those that died.
"You can't apologize for a war without implying that those killed did something wrong," says Mr. Curtis. "In the US we criticized Vietnam, while honoring the soldiers. Japan isn't there yet."