(NYTIMES) Simmering Chinese Anger at Japan Is Now on the Boil

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August 22, 2012 by Water Wisdom

By MARK MCDONALD AUGUST 20, 2012, 12:50 AM
A Tokyo assemblyman, Eiji Kosaka, was part of a Japanese group that planted flags on a disputed East Asian island.Antoine Bouthier/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesA Tokyo assemblyman, Eiji Kosaka, was part of a Japanese group that planted flags on a disputed East Asian island.

HONG KONG — In angry mass protests and subdued smaller gatherings, Chinese citizens have taken to the streets to protest the landing by Japanese activists on some barren islands that are claimed by both countries.

Protesters in about a dozen cities on Sunday vented their anger at some Japanese adventurers — including conservative members of Parliament and other politicians — who swam ashore and planted national flags on a craggy chunk of the Senkaku island group. Known as the Diaoyu islands in China, they are also claimed by Taiwan.

Chinese activists sailed out of Hong Kong last week and pulled a similar flag-waving stunt. Japanese forces, which control the islands, arrested 14 in the group, then deported them. One member called their escapade “a huge success.”

In the protests Sunday in China, Japanese cars were smashed and overturned. Sushi restaurants and Japanese-owned businesses were reportedly vandalized. A march in Chengdu was said to have drawn more than 2,000 people.

Chengdu ppls get on the street today to call for China sovereignty over Diaoyu island. pic.twitter.com/eROvXpWd

It is not clear whether Beijing has initiated or encouraged the protests, but neither have the gatherings been prevented, suppressed or broken up. Meanwhile, the temperature of the rhetoric has been rising.

A Chinese major general, Luo Yuan, quoted in the state-run media, called for immediate “countermeasures,” like turning the atoll into a bombing range for China’s air force. Mining the surrounding waters was another of the general’s ideas. And he wants to name China’s first aircraft carrier the Diaoyu.

“Now we are in a passive position in dealing with Japan’s provocations,” he said. “Why can’t we take the initiative?”

Commentaries by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, referred to the activists as “a pack of Japanese rightists” who had “hijacked public opinion” and “poisoned” Sino-Japanese relations. (The Chinese activists did not receive similar condemnations for sparking the dispute.)

A Chinese colonel, Dai Xu, a professor at the National Defense University, said the dispute offers “a good opportunity for us to build up our authority over the East China Sea.” He called for “a full-scale media war against the Japanese,” adding that “we can also accuse the U.S. along the way of violating international legal principles for unilaterally handing the Ryukyu Islands over to the Japanese.”

A riposte from Japanese conservatives is seen in a video here.

An editorial in People’s Daily called for people to “remain calm and unflustered,” although it noted that the island issue would remain “very possibly a grindstone for stored-up feelings in Chinese hearts.”

Other People’s Daily commentaries referenced “the anguish of millions of Chinese” over the islands, which “have belonged to China since ancient times, but were stolen by Japan.”

“Japan has never sincerely admitted its past sins of aggression and still clings to the notion of one day retracing its past error of militarism,” the paper wrote. “It’s wrong and risky to continue playing with the Diaoyu Islands by naively relying on strengthening its military alliance with the United States.”

Anti-Japanese feelings are ever-present in China, with the bitterness linked directly to World War II: The brutality of Japanese soldiers is a significant historical refrain in school curricula in China, notably the 1937 Nanking Massacre and the sexual enslavement of the so-called “comfort women” by Japanese imperial troops all across Asia.

Even now the Chinese Communist Party stakes a good bit of its legitimacy to its defeat of Japanese occupying forces, and there’s a steady (if usually muffled) anti-Japanese drumbeat in the state-controlled media.

Japanese can be lampooned and caricatured in Chinese government-approved films and popular culture in ways that would strike many Westerners as extremist and ugly. On Sunday, the editor of the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper called the Japanese activists “provocative right-wing monkeys.”

The government has built a memorial in Nanjing, where it says 300,000 civilians were slaughtered and 80,000 women were raped and tortured. Past visitors to the site were greeted by audio recordings of women moaning.

“The sense of victimization at the hands of the Japanese remains a powerful sense of identity,” said Daniel C. Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

“Japan has never convinced its neighbors that it has really repented,” a Columbia University professor, Gerry Curtis, told Reuters in a story in The Asahi Shimbun.

Joyman Lee, a doctoral student in history at Yale, studying under Jonathan Spence, offered some historical background on History Today. An excerpt:

The dispute over the islands is a time bomb, given the enormity of the stakes involved. Despite Japanese claims that Chinese and Taiwanese interests in the islands are guided primarily by the possibility of major oil deposits, there has been little constructive dialogue between the countries involved in the question of the recent disputes over ownership of the islands.

This remains at the very centre of broader tension between China and Japan, with the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 a focal point. Japan’s intransigent position on atrocities committed during the Second World War helps to fuel Chinese popular sentiment against it and makes the country an easy scapegoat for domestic discontent. Yet these days it is also easy to forget that China was the underdog for much of the 20th century; even today China is less articulate on the global scene than Japan.

As we reported on Rendezvous last week, the dispute over the islands is not about fishing grounds, the control of sea lanes or possible mother lodes of oil and gas.

That view “misses the point entirely,” Mr. Sneider said.

“It’s not about these rocks,” he said. “It’s about much, much more. It’s identity, first and foremost. It’s pride.”

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