Popular Protests Over Japan's Past Signal Problems For the Future
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Japan's foreign minister Machimura Nobutaka failed to promote goodwill among the Chinese governing elite and the general populace last week as he visited Beijing. In fact, his insistence on securing an apology from the Chinese government for damage caused to Japan's embassy and consulates in major cities around China as a result of mass anti-Japanese demonstrations acted to reinforce Chinese anger toward Japan. In Chinese eyes, the Japanese government has repeatedly failed to own up to crimes committed against the Chinese in recent history, particularly between 1931-1945 when Japan brutally colonized large parts of China. While the Yomiuri Shinbun and right wing Japanese groups condemned the Chinese government's violation of article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which requires host governments to protect foreign embassies from damage and impairment, tens of thousands of Chinese protesters marched in the hope of pushing Japan to recognize its war crimes both in its text books and in its relations with China.
At a time when Japan's economic relationship with China is continues to grow, valuing $168 billion annually, political problems between the two are straining the relationship. Outstanding issues are not limited to how history is rendered in Japan/China but also include territorial disputes, competition over oil and gas exploration in the East China Sea and Japan's quest for a seat on the United Nations Security Council beside that of China.
For the 40,000 or so Japanese expatriates living in Shanghai, the sharp rise in anti-Japanese sentiment is extremely worrisome and has already led to the temporary closing of Japanese schools, businesses and tourism. For the Chinese, while massive demonstrations initially signaled greater freedom to express their political views toward Japan, recent moves by the Chinese government to shut down websites organizing/promoting anti-Japanese protests and its blacking out of all news on the protests this past weekend indicate the Communist Party's desire to reign in popular movements on the ground. China's dailies seem to indicate that the Chinese government is trying to calm sentiments before they get out of hand. From the Yomiuri Shinbun's perspective (editorial April 18), the move is not motivated to improve Sino-Japanese ties but aimed at preventing the emergence of anti-government riots as a result of growing dissatisfaction felt by farmers and workers who have been excluded from benefiting from rapid economic growth experience by their country over the past ten years.
The Japanese government has rightfully protested against violent action taken by demonstrators, which led to damage at its embassy and consulates. However, it did its Chinese counterparts no favor when Japan's Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade (METI) announced on April 14 that it would begin procedures to grant Japanese companies drilling rights in the disputed East China Sea, three days after the protests. Shoichi Nakagawa, METI Minister, stressed that, "there was no connection between this decision and weekend protests." However, this is hard to believe considering that a virtual freeze on exploration had been in place since 1973.
Anti-Japanese protests have been on the rise in China over the past two years. Significantly, many Japanese are reportedly confused as to why the Chinese are protesting. As the Chinese assert, many Japanese are in fact ignorant about the nature of crimes perpetrated by Japanese between 1931-45. This trend will likely continue considering that, as Mark Seldon and David McNeill recently pointed out in their Japan Focus article, "this year, just one new history textbook out of eight mentions the comfort women, down from seven in the mid-1990s..." (See: http://www.japanfocus.org/article.asp?id=256). If these trends continue, chances are that tensions will heighten even further, spelling serious trouble for peace and mutual reconciliation and cooperation in East Asia.