Yupei Guo and Yumi Koga reflect on their views regarding the history of the Sino-Japanese War in China and Japan, respectively
Never forget national disgrace
Early on the morning of September 18, 2011, I was among over a thousand weary high school students shuffling to line up on the modern, suspended track at Beijing No. 8 High School for the weekly flag ceremony. The chill had just begun to settle in, only to disperse soon after sunrise.
Every student had an inkling as to what the ceremony would be about. It was the 80th anniversary of the Mukden Incident, commonly known in China as the "September 18 Incident." On September 18, 1931, the Japanese army initiated its invasion of the northeastern provinces of China. Japan soon occupied the area known as Manchuria, and, six years later, launched all-out war.
A student took the podium and gave the widely anticipated speech. She passionately urged her fellow students to "stare at history in the eye", "protect China's dignity," be grateful for the sacrifices made for peace and, finally, "never forget national disgrace (wu wang guo chi)" - a Chinese idiom that reminds people of their troubled past like a tolling bell.
The crowd of high school students burst into thunderous applause, as some of the elderly teachers were seen wiping their eyes and gently trembling. The memory of national disgrace hangs onto each generation of young Chinese like a fresh wound, affirmation of that excruciating period of war and suffering.
Even though such a scene cannot be more commonplace in China today, such a gathering on the 50th anniversary of the September 18 Incident would have been unimaginable. In fact, it was only after the student riots in the late 1980's that the Communist Party adopted a different stance on its history education. As Louisa Lim, author of People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, points out in her book, after 1989, historical events were no longer characterized by class struggle, communist values or revolutionary tendencies; they began to be painted in a more patriotic, emotional and sympathetic light. China was no longer the most powerful and potent dragon of the East that could brush off intruders with a sweep of its tail; it was vulnerable and feeble, brutally torn apart by foreign forces. The only remedy was courage, assiduity, intelligence and patriotism, just like it was for the people who banded together to fend off the invaders.
Lim argues that this is essentially an emotional tactic, a conscious move to align the patriotic sentiments and pent-up indignation of the Chinese people with the ideology of the Communist Party. While China's loss was heavy, the Party elevates it to a new level of national sentiment by organizing and designating days of "disgrace" for events such as the "September 18 Incident," the "July 7 Incident" (known in the west as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident) and December 13, the date on which the Japanese started the six-week long Nanjing Massacre. This more sympathetic, emotional approach forms the basis of much of the collective nationalist sentiment that renders valid patriotic protests and marches. This approach also inculcates a general despise for former transgressors like Japan and even the United States, a country that has arguably done more good than harm to China in recent history. Occasions that serve as reminders of national disgrace are opportunities to direct public attention away from internal social and political challenges and toward the expression of deep-seated common anger toward an out-group. This disgrace of the past also illustrates the collective vulnerability of the Chinese people and the necessity of turning to the CCP for leadership and guidance.
This year witnesses the CCP's newest introduction of "Martyr's Day" to its campaign on National Disgrace. While some believe that it is merely the Chinese counterpart to the Remembrance Days of other countries, such as those of some South American and Commonwealth states, others perceive it as the CCP reaffirming its monopoly on deciding who is a martyr.
Despite a significant increase in mentions of the Doolittle Raiders and Nationalist heroes, the recognition of martyrs remains heavily slanted towards the Communist side. Particularly, it greatly extols the New Fourth Armies and the Communists' Eighth Route, the former having participated in various guerilla missions and the latter in only one major battle. The arbitrary power of the CCP over such commemorations suggests a degree of politicization of the ultimate sacrifice - while all martyrs deserve equal reverence, the careful pruning of the list of "officially recognized" martyrs certainly testifies to a restatement of political control.
This manipulation of public sentiments has its roots in education. According to Zhao Lijian, a citywide renowned history teacher at the prestigious Beijing No. 4 High School, the reinterpretation of a collective national trauma like the Sino-Japanese War is just as indicative and evocative as the tragedy itself. The explanation of historical events by the regime and the response generated by the people both shed great light on the shifting mindset of the Chinese people and the regime.
Textbooks and exams play a major role in shaping the students' knowledge of the war. Battles and military leaders are featured in the curriculum and are occasionally the sources of exam questions and prompts. In the past decade, details of the Sino-Japanese War have been covered on the National College Entrance Examination, and students take care in memorizing them all. However, under the name of historical remembrance the students actually "remember" very few concrete, objective historical facts, but instead keep in mind an array of biased details. For instance, even after a recent textbook reform, the history textbooks still give little credit to Nationalist efforts in the Sino-Japanese War, and thus few students ever learn about their contributions.
From a recent survey involving 133 first-year high school (10th grade) students in Beijing No.4 High School, Zhao found that although most students had a decent grasp of the defining characteristics of and reasons for the Sino-Japanese War, less than five students correctly named major battles of the War fought by the Nationalist army, which were not introduced in middle school textbooks, and only 22 students could give close estimates of the number of casualties on the Chinese side. In addition, and perhaps rather embarrassingly, students could only name General Zhang Zizhong among the heroic band of more than 200 other Nationalist military leaders and officers who gave their lives in the fight against the Japanese.
Although the majority of the Chinese population still harbors hatred for Japan, both due to the heinous crimes committed during the war and the unapologetic attitude some Japanese people maintained afterwards, many young people in China now have a far more favorable opinion of Japan. Growing up alongside heavy-handed, propagandistic films and textbooks, which most 10th grade students in Zhao's survey named as their major source of information about the history of the war, many Chinese youth also have access to newer elements of Japanese pop culture, most notably anime, manga and pop music. Each year, the scores of anime conventions held in major Chinese cities inevitably suffer a barrage of denunciation for "amnesia of disgrace" or even "treason". Yet, whether the critics like it or not, the younger generation will eventually determine the country's relationship with Japan according to their own principles, values and standards.
Zhao, however, remains worried about the nation's sophisticated heritage in their hands. In his survey, the majority of students forgot to mention the National Anthem when asked to list the names of the songs composed for the Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese National Anthem, "March of the Volunteers," was written just before the Sino-Japanese War to boost the morale of the beleaguered Chinese people. On National Disgrace Day, students all over China sing this song in remembrance of the martyrs: Brave the enemy's fire. March on! March on! March on! Hopefully, such occasions will serve as more than a reinforcement of meticulous details of national shame and excessive overflow of self-victimizing sentiments. National Days of Disgrace should prompt more serious, objective, profound reflection - why and how did such atrocities happen, and how do we avoid them in the future?
Recent additions of Nationalist and international efforts against fascism into the textbooks are laudable, but far from enough; a better history curriculum needs to completely set aside politics and provide an objective and comprehensive account of the war. After all, the youth of China deserve to know the whole truth about their country's past. Only with this knowledge can they shape a brighter future.
Facing the facts...and each other
This March I visited China for the first time on a service trip. I taught first year middle school students for four days at a school in Fujian Province with fellow classmates from Yale. The students there were excited to talk to American college students, but the fact that I am Japanese attracted more attention.
A thirteen-year-old boy named Jian Yingpeng came up to me and showed me a couple of Japanese phrases he learned from comic books. Every time he talked to me in Japanese, a crowd would gather around us while some boys pushed him and taunted him in a dialect that I could not decipher. Clearly, it was brave of him to show interest in Japan because, as others had told me, many Chinese children considered Japan as an enemy.
Before my departure, Yingpeng presented me with his drawing, entitled "Peace Dove," featuring a white pigeon and a flag consisting of one half of a Chinese flag and one half of a Japanese flag. He also gave me a flute which, according to his friends, was his favorite toy. As he handed me the drawing in front of the class, he said nervously but earnestly, "China does want to become friends with Japan again, but we still want to express anger."
Yingpeng's words struck me deeply. First, I was surprised that he outspokenly expressed that China and Japan should be friends, because that is not how many Chinese and Japanese people feel about the relationship. In the 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll 2014 Survey, conducted by Japan's Genron NPO and China Daily, 86.8% of Chinese respondents have an unfavorable general impression of Japan, lower than the 92.8% from 2013, but significantly higher than any other previous year. In comparison, 93.0% of Japanese respondents have an unfavorable opinion of China, the highest level in recent years.
Despite Jingpeng's brave gesture of goodwill, I was sad at his readiness to express anger. However, I believe that instead of directly confronting me, he simply wanted me, as well as other Japanese people, to think about how to react to the anger of the Chinese people.
That anger towards Japan, even 69 years since the end of World War II, clearly still persists in China. Similarly, despite the fact that most Japanese were born after the war, the history of the war also still exerts a large impact on the mentality of the Japanese people. In my opinion, the collective feeling which the Japanese youth share about the war is a sense of frustration: we cannot really relate to its history, but we still have to face the anti-Japanese atmosphere in the neighboring countries Japan invaded more than 70 years ago.
I almost feel that the burden of the history of war is now something that Japanese people are born with. In general, the Japanese people interpret and express this frustration differently depending on the their generation, political beliefs and, most importantly, education about the war.
Japanese history education, particularly on the topic of World War II, is approaching a turning point. The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has long criticized the "self-torturing view of history (jigyaku shikan)" in the current school teaching of the war. This view arose from the ideological control exerted by the allied occupation of Japan, commonly known in Japan as the General Headquarters (GHQ). Since the GHQ, headed by the American general Douglas MacArthur, left-wingers have dominated the ranks of Japanese scholars and teachers.
At its core, this self-torturing view of history faults the Japanese war machine for committing atrocious crimes against the peoples of neighboring countries during World War II. The best-known example is perhaps the Nanjing Massacre, in which the Japanese army murdered an estimated 300,000 innocent Chinese civilians. Currently, the history textbooks in Japan use the statistics of death figures from Chinese sources, largely ignoring the estimates of Japanese scholars.
The Japanese government contends that this is not a fair approach to history, though such claims are often met with strong reactions from China and South Korea. Moreover, the right-leaning Abe administration intends to create laws mandating new guidelines and official approval systems on history textbooks. These measures, potentially breaking away from the self-torturing view of history, clearly aim to restore patriotic values among children. The Japanese government also expressed its intention to review and possibly amend the Neighboring Countries Clause, which is the current official guideline reminding the authors of history textbooks to take into account the sentiments of neighboring countries, such as China and South Korea. Even though the government used the word "review," Chinese and South Korean media have hinted that Abe is in fact trying to eliminate the Neighboring Countries Clause altogether. Despite protests abroad, Abe's view on history education is slowly gaining ground in Japan, as reflected by the rightward trend in Japanese public opinion in recent years.
In my view, however, the current Japanese education on pre-war and World War II history should be "self-torturing" in order to remind us about what Japan did to other countries.
It is reasonable for the GHQ to intentionally emphasize Japan's guilt because the strict control of information and overwhelming propaganda of the Japanese wartime government had a long-lasting impact on Japanese misperceptions of the war. Hando Kazutoshi, a well-known journalist, writes in his book Showa Postwar History: 1945-1989 (Showashi: Sengo Hen) that it was only when the GHQ broadcasted a radio program called "The Truth Is As Follows" after the war that he and his countrymen learned about the atrocities committed by the Japanese army. I also do not think that changing the approach to writing history textbooks will make me feel more proud of the Japanese identity, for the act of loving one's own country should be natural. I do not believe that the Japanese government should ever try to make me proud of being Japanese.
Some Japanese youth, particularly those who are actively debating politics on popular Japanese websites like Nichannel, seem to support Abe's stance on getting rid of the self-torturing view of history. Opinions such as "Now is the time to restore our pride as Japanese!" can be seen everywhere from posts on Facebook to comments on YouTube. Since the Liberal Democratic Party won the election and became the majority in government in 2012, the so-called netouyo, or "right-wingers on the Internet" whose attitude is not only conservative but also anti-China, has been gaining influence. Even though the 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll 2014 Survey shows that only 9.6% of respondents believe that opinions expressed on the internet accurately reflect public opinion towards Japan-China relations, a substantial portion of those active in online discussions are young people who will influence public opinion in the future, so it would be negligent to ignore the trend.
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the majority of young people in the two countries are receiving diverging educations about the history of the war. Such disagreement over education policy is bound to inflict more negative impressions between Japanese and Chinese people. Among the Japanese respondents to the 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll this year, 41.1% believe that the Chinese media's anti-Japan coverage is a source of negative opinion, and 42.9% agree that China's anti-Japanese education is a barrier to the development of bilateral relations.
It is possible that unfriendly attitudes on both sides, as well as the Chinese government's control of information, are leading some Japanese to think that it is not worth heeding China's stance on history education. Moreover, the shift in Japanese education of war history, if continually pursued, will only push China to increase its distrust of Japan and intensify its own anti-Japanese education. This vicious spiral of antagonism of education and hostile impressions will be greatly amplified if the Abe administration decides to eliminate the Neighboring Countries Clause mentioned earlier.
If the current public education in Japan and China only produces hostility and distrust, the Japanese and Chinese people will have to find other ways to understand each other, and the lack of communication between the Japanese and Chinese people is a serious challenge. In the aforementioned survey, only 21.1 % of Japanese respondents have Chinese friends, and 14.3 % have been to China, while only 3.1% of Chinese respondents have Japanese friends and 6.4% have been to Japan. Thus, most of the impressions people have do not come from direct experience but rather from the media and school textbooks, both manipulated by government authorities. As tension mounts between Japan and China over political affairs, people on both sides become even more susceptible to such willful manipulation of public opinion.
Nonetheless, hope abounds. After four days at Yingpeng's school, I visited the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province. I was excited to talk with people at the local market because it was a great chance to practice my Chinese. Most people didn't realize that I was not Chinese until they heard me speak, but quite often I couldn't help feeling nervous about revealing that I was Japanese. I was worried that they would change their attitudes toward me upon knowing my nationality.
However, none of the people I talked to during my visit showed any discomfort or hostility; rather, they were still welcoming, and some of them even spoke slowly so that I could understand better. I was glad to realize that I worried too much. Yes, many people to whom I talked probably disliked Japan as a nation, but direct communication can only diffuse the tension. People in Japan and China should see more of each other and open themselves up to conversations. Like Yingpeng, we should say, face-to-face, that we want to be friends, no matter what our teachers, our media, or our governments tell us.
Yupei Guo is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact her at email@example.com. Yumi Koga is a sophomore at Yale University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appears in China Hands.