Junichiro Koizumi’s expression of “deep remorse” for Japan’s Second World War aggression at a conference on Friday made headline news over the weekend. Since the rapidly deteriorating Sino-Japanese relationship has been the big story of the last few weeks (whatever the chimney watchers in the Vatican may believe) that’s as it should be, even though Koizumi’s expression of regret was not really “news”. Japan has apologized repeatedly over the past 10 years for its wartime atrocities, despite China’s claims to the contrary. As Howard French pointed out in last Friday’s IHT, the Chinese government is keen to sustain the belief that its neighbour has never apologized for the war:
Since diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalized in 1972, for example, Japanese officials have apologized numerous times to China for the suffering their country inflicted in the 20th century. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, for example, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama spoke of the " tremendous damage and suffering" his country had caused, adding "I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology." But China's state-controlled media have usually focused on finding fault with each Japanese pronouncement, sustaining the belief that Japan has indeed never apologized.
Japan’s apology for the war is a red herring: if the entire Japanese diet crawled on its belly to Beijing mumbling sumimasen the whole way you think the Chinese would say “OK, we can forget about the rape of Nanking now”? The clumsy Japanese handling of its wartime past just makes it easier for the Chinese to hide the fact that the reason they will always oppose Japan’s attempts to secure a permanent seat on the Security Council, or in fact any Japanese appointment in the United Nations, is simply because most Chinese detest the Japanese with a feeling bordering on revulsion. This was summed up quite well in French’s description of the attitude of last week’s crowds to “predatory, evil, conniving or ‘disgusting’” Japan. That’s why the Japanese sex tour to Zuhai a couple of years ago caused such an enormous fuss—it seemed to confirm every negative stereotype held in the breast of Chinese people. The only analogy I can think of is a group of Germans goose-stepping up the Mall and shouting Heil Hitler at Buckingham Palace. If you can imagine how that would go down with your average cockney, well you’ve got some idea of how the Chinese like the idea of Japanese businessmen coming to China to buy sex with their young girls.
This latent abhorrence of its economically powerful neighbour is carefully tended by the Chinese government, which skillfully allows it to flare up at strategically important moments before dousing the flames to a dull, sullen and endemic resentment.
And in case you were thinking that China is going to expend all its venom on Japan, don’t worry, there is plenty to share around for the rest of us. There is an almost universally held belief in China that, because of wrongs perpetrated by foreigners, since the collapse of the Ming dynasty China has been denied a position in world affairs commensurate with its size and importance. Many Chinese have a chip on their shoulder as wide as the Three Gorges Dam and the government does everything it can to stop it from closing. In an interesting article called “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism”, William Callahan describes the “textbooks, novels, museums, songs, and parks devoted to commemorating national humiliation in China” including an Atlas of the Century of National Humiliation in Modern China. Whether this sense of injustice is justified or not is another issue; what is certain is that this sense of generalized grievance is actively promoted by the government, which finds it useful to draw on when, as in recent weeks, it has certain specific foreign policy objectives.
None of this is should excuse the Japanese ultra-nationalists who bark out their poison from black minivans around the diet, textbook writers who reduce the slaughter of 300,000 people to an “incident”, or politicians who traipse along to Yasakuni shrine every year. However, in the end their stupidity just makes it easy for China. Even if the textbooks were as pure as driven snow, the Yasakuni shrine razed to the ground, and the entire population of Japan shouted “Sorry!” at 7 every morning China would continue to oppose Japan at every opportunity, including the grant of a permanent seat on the UN security council.