April 11, 2005
Even though the Second World War ended in Asia 60 years ago, thousands of people marching through the streets of Beijing over this past weekend were not about to let go of their bitterness over Japanese war crimes committed before and during that war.
For two days this weekend in China’s capital, normally a city of well-behaved citizens in this noisy but strict police state, it was a surreal scene of streets filled with hundreds of soldiers, with their masks and shields and sub-machine guns, as well as an equal number of police officers and curious onlookers.
The police were far outnumbered by at least a thousand angry protesters who were pelting eggs, rocks and bottles at the Japanese Embassy – and at anything Japanese. They were chanting “Down with Japan” at one point. I saw hundreds of people on one of the main roads marching and waving gigantic Chinese flags, and some had Japan’s flag with an X marked on it.
The people marching were calling on Beijing to block Japan’s intentions to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council. They were also demanding a boycott of Japanese products in response to Japanese school history textbooks that gloss over wartime atrocities in China, like the massacre of more than 200,000 Chinese during what’s known as the Rape of Nanking in 1937.
Another sore point is Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeat visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are honoured.
The protesters were angered by their perception of Japan as unwilling to sincerely apologize to war crimes victims, including survivors of the Imperial Military sex slavery system – what’s known as the “comfort women” system – which was endorsed by the government and run by the army.
More than 200,000 women were kidnapped or coerced into sex slavery for Japanese soldiers; they were of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Burmese and Dutch backgrounds, and from other occupied territories.
It’s known the Japanese government was involved in a shady cover-up of the military sex slavery, even going so far as accusing these elderly women of volunteering and prostituting themselves. This infuriated the Koreans and Chinese.
The protesters’ weekend show of force was, in fact, a surprising culmination of a cyber phenomenon: a recent growing protest in the form of a petition circulating through the internet opposes Japan having the privilege of veto power on the Security Council at the UN.
Within weeks, millions of Chinese signed the petition aimed at UN member countries, leaders and ambassadors before a vote is taken. To date, 30 million people and counting have become cyber warriors against Japan.
Some report a crowd of 6,000 people marched towards the Japanese Embassy from the university area. Then they surrounded the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Embassy windows were smashed and the Japanese government called in the Chinese ambassador and demanded an apology, compensation and protection for its nationals living in China. A Japanese Embassy spokesperson said Chinese police stood by and did nothing while people threw rocks at the embassy.
You could say the Chinese government allowed the protest to take place. Buses were organized to bring students in and take them back home. One police officer was heard saying through a megaphone, “You’ve been working hard all day, and it’s now time for you to go home. Organizers take your people home.”
In the aftermath, one Toyota was overturned onto its roof. And a camera store owner cleared his shelves of Sony and Nikon cameras before the crowds could get to it.
While I was watching the protest unfold, I felt great empathy for the Japanese and feared for their safety, especially the well-being of Japanese journalists standing nearby; but I also understood all too keenly why the Chinese were feeling so incensed.
I know from my many conversations with local Chinese that hatred towards Japan runs deep because of its invasion of China, and many of them have expressed anger about the cruelty of the soldiers.
This period is of particular interest to me as I have witnessed many elder Korean-Canadians subtly protesting the Japanese government’s lack of apology for the colonization of Korea by boycotting Japanese electronics and cars.
I have also spent time and interviewed former sex slave survivors, such as 77-year-old Wan Ai Hua, in an effort to help document their stories. They are haunted and in despair that they may never receive an apology from the Japanese government in their lifetime, when that is all they want to hear in their old age. They feel it would help heal their wounds.
And I have heard the frustrations of several Chinese, Korean and American human rights activists and lawyers who tell me that their ongoing fight to receive an apology and compensation for these aging sex slave survivors through the courts is continually stonewalled through direct Japanese government pressure on judges, who are political appointees and fear for their careers.
On the other hand, I have also met wonderful and supportive Japanese activists who detest the government-approved textbooks and hope to reconcile with the Koreans and Chinese. They have put their reputations and careers on the line to work towards this end as writers, lawyers and scholars.
So the question I was asking myself over the weekend was, how do you heal these wounds between the two countries? Unless diplomatic relations between China and Japan are smoothed over quickly, I do foresee an eventual mass exodus of Japanese companies and nationals.
The Japanese already view China as a hostile place for them to live. Now, with millions of Chinese hitting the Japanese in their pocketbooks, where it counts, this could, in an ideal world, lead to some backtracking and serious review of the recently-approved textbooks.
China really doesn’t need Japan economy-wise, since numerous countries are lining up to invest. But Japan needs China more than ever to revitalize its sagging financial state.
In a worst-case scenario, and probably the most realistic, survivors of wartime atrocities like Zhu Qiaomei – one of the oldest, who died at 96 in Shanghai not too long ago – will never receive an apology from the Japanese government. Only 39 other “comfort women” survivors have come forward in China and some are involved in legal battles for compensation.
The Japanese government has been accused of dragging its feet in the legal process, in hopes that the aged would get discouraged or even die off.
But even so, the death of survivors will certainly not extinguish the incendiary issue of this painful chapter of history, as the weekend’s protests clearly show. With the up-and-coming generations and future leaders in China’s universities and internet cafes circulating Hate-Japan e-mails and chatroom talk, the future relationship between China and Japan is not so rosy, to say the least. Unless a miracle happens or China suddenly forgives Japan.
Plans are already in the works in Beijing for a 60th anniversary celebration of the end of the Japanese War of Aggression. It’s clear the Chinese government doesn’t plan to forget anytime soon.