Notes on Sino-Japanese Relations

Every August in China is a bit different, but certain themes remain constant: the Japanese surrender of August 15, 1945 is commemorated in some way, and the anti-Japanese flame remains flickering or effulgent.

2010 represents the 65th anniversary of the end of the war, but the Chinese government has been somewhat quieter and less active than usual on the commemorative front.  They failed to send an envoy to the Hiroshima events on August 6, spurning what would have been, if nothing else, a spectacular photo opportunity to welcome the American ambassador at that event for the first time, presenting a kind of “united front” (minus the petulant North Koreans, of course) of commitment to mutual historical reconciliation in Northeast Asia.  The calculus of these decisions in Beijing remains rather opaque, but given the recent drumbeat of concern in Beijing periodicals about US-Japan-ROK naval cooperation, it’s likely that the CCP didn’t see fit to give ground on the history issue on American terms.

Domestic considerations always play a role in external propaganda in Beijing.  Why pump up the Japan issue at a time when the country was still reeling from a string of natural disasters, the most dramatic of which was the mudslide at Dandian, Gansu province?  Thus August 15, 2010 was declared a day of national mourning by the CCP, with newspapers dying their banners black and all PRC embassies abroad holding ceremonies, including in Japan.

Which left the anti-Japanese commemorations for August 16 and 17.  On August 17, the 世界新闻报 (World News Journal) ran a big headline story 日本何时对华正式道歉 (When Will Japan Earnestly Apologize to China?) over a big picture of South Korean female students taking to the streets of Seoul on August 15.  Japan’s recent official apology to South Korea for the colonial era (1910-1945) is seen less as a positive sign than a signifier that Japan is trying to edge closer to South Korea with hopes of settling into a more comfortable military alignment that will contain China.

It’s hard for Japan to win under these circumstances.

The other main trope for the week has been confirmation that Japan has now been passed by the Chinese economy for the title of global #2 in terms of sheer size.  Xinhua notes with some pride that China has a long way to go, and that the Chinese people aren’t ready to celebrate, and that China is still a poor country, but the data is there.  And thus we get translations in the standard daily foreign affairs Tagesblatt known as Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News) by American authors who return to Japan and see that the country, after 20 years, has changed little.  “Japan Has Lost its Ambition,” runs the story banner on page 2.  The combination of pride and anger toward Japan, in the Chinese context, can also now include pity.  (This is a theme I’ve commented on before here, regarding Chinese netizen discussion of homelessness in Japan.)

But on the cultural front, Japan continues to push forward nevertheless.

But on the cultural front, Japan continues to push forward nevertheless. Girl bands show up on CCTV, girl bands play MAO Live House in Beijing, and girl bands in Tokyo plot their moves toward the mainland market. Which makes me wonder: do North Koreans listen to Japanese girl bands? Methinks they may. More data is needed!

Finally, a curious new 40-part television show produced by the Beijing section of Chinese Central Television is being shown. Entitled “Snow Leopard,” it is a look back at the 1930s and provides a kind of window into how the CCP is wanting us to view Sino-Japanese relations at that time. Most interesting to me is the fact that it follows its hero, Zhou Weiguo [周卫国] to a Nazi military academy in Berlin, where he befriends a Japanese officer (seen below left). Zhou studies kendo and Japanese with his colleague, but reveals in their final kendo session (in which he finally beats his Japanese master) that he’s been studying the Japanese methods only the better to beat Japan, drawing a dramatic line in the Prussian soil with the tip of his kendo sword to illustrate. A few months later he’s on the front lines in Shanghai, 1937, using his Japanese skill to carry out operations behind enemy lines, etc. And thus it devolves into a kind of standard War of Resistance drama. However, his friendship with the Japanese officer — and the open admission that Guomindang officers were studying in Nazi Germany, without delving into any of the moral questions that might offer up — indicates that something slightly different is going on in “Snow Leopard,” which might bear analyzing further. Fortunately the plot lines for all 40 episodes are available (in Chinese) at the CCTV website.

the hero of "Snow Leopard," right, with Japanese colleague in Berlin; courtesy CCTV

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