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Why do the Chinese Hate the Japanese?

“We hate the Japanese.”

“We don’t like Japanese people.”

It is surprisingly common for Chinese people to make statements like these in otherwise polite conversation. These words are often spoken as rote repetition, with a lack of emotion that comes from expressing a sentiment that is so commonly expressed as to be cliche. These statements tend to be delivered with an argumentative impunity which seems to say, “Why wouldn’t we hate Japan?”

As a fresh wave of anti-Japanese sentiment just broke across China, I decided to look into the roots of the animosity this culture so loudly expresses for Japan and delineate its boundaries. My questions here were very broad, but they generally provoked very poignant and simple responses.

“Why do Chinese people not like Japanese people?” I asked a group of Chinese college students in a cafe in Taizhou.

“Because they are devils!” one girl shrieked as the others laughed.

Meanwhile, another girl walked through the coffee shop chanting “China! China!” while pumping a fist in the air as though cheering for an Olympic athlete.

Then a young man, with a little more stoicism, said one word in English:

“War.”

He meant WW2.

Because of what they did to us in World War Two.

This is the main and, from what I can tell, sole reason behind China’s animosity for the Japanese. I’ve never heard another explanation in all my years in China, and it’s spoken as though anyone who knows what the Japanese military did in China during those war years would not disagree with this reactionary sentiment.

The Nanjing Massacre Museum

nanjing-massacre-memorial-museum

Nanjing massacre museum

There is a focal point in China from which to investigate the history of Japanese aggression in China during the Second World War, and that place is the Nanjing Massacre museum.

The Memorial Hall for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre sits on the site of a mass grave where 12,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers were dumped haphazardly after being murdered by the Japanese military. It sits by Jiangdong gate, an area that is now full of modern high-rise apartments, shopping malls, and highways. From looking around this area it is difficult to image that it was the scene of some of the most atrocious events in human history a little over 70 years ago.

I walked into the museum and made way through the outdoor exhibits. They consisted of testimonials from survivors, sculptures, and a wall that had the names of some of the victims carved into it. I then turned a corner and walked down a set of stairs into a cool, dark hall. A sign by its entrance urged visitors to be quiet and respectful, and I came to a start when I found out why: a section of the mass grave was uncovered and left exposed for visitors to see what it held inside.

Skeletons were laid out in disarray over an area that was not unlike the archaeology sites I spent my youth working on. The excavators peeled back the earthen blanket that covered the  bodies for decades and dusted off the bones, leaving them as an in-situ reminder of the atrocities that put them there. It was here that I could see, raw and direct, what had happened during the Nanjing massacre. Some of the remains were disfigured with incisions and bullet holes, others, so the excavator’s notes detailed, had nails hammered into their skulls or pelvises premortem.

250,000 to 300,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians were slaughtered by the Japanese military in Nanjing during a six week period at the end of 1937. Tens of thousands were killed and tossed into mass graves like the one I was looking upon, while others were tossed into the Yangzi River, burned in giant bonfires, or just left to rot where they fell. Women, children, the elderly, monks, and nuns were not except to the carnage as the Japanese indiscriminately slaughtered civilians with complete impunity.

Mass grave

Mass grave at the Nanjing Massacre Museum

In addition to the murders, 20,000 incidents of rape were estimated to have occurred during the Japanese occupation of Nanjing alone.

I know not where to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet … People are hysterical … Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases. -Reverend James M. McCallum, witness to the Nanjing occupation.

On and on, the exhibits in the museum went like this, showing evidence of one of the worst massacres and wholesale human rights abuses ever recorded in human history. There were photos that showed babies with bullet holes in them, bayoneted children, raped and mutilated women, men with their arms tied behind their backs being led to slaughter, piles of corpses filling mass graves and clogging the banks of the Yangzi River. Where the Germans were systematic in their WW2 era exterminations, the Japanese were indiscriminate: civilians, unarmed and surrendered soldiers, women, children, babies, everybody seemed to be fair game. They truly did act as devils.

Much of the primary evidence — photos, videos, diary testimonies — used to show what had happened during the Nanjing Massacre were taken by foreign residents and journalists, or even the Japanese themselves.

The Chinese visitors in the museum for once were neither chattering nor toying with their mobile phones. They were demure, obviously occupied with and disturbed by the scenes they were looking upon. Most were visibly upset, some appeared angry, many had eyes that were glazed over with tears. I have never seen the Chinese so introverted before. They were in their holocaust museum.

“How do you feel in this place?” I asked a young Chinese man that struck up a conversation with me.

I could not understand his response, but his gesture said it all. He raise a hand up to his head as if to say, “too much.” Then in English he said, “We have to come here.”

But Nanjing was not where the story of Japan’s atrocities in China started or ended. Wherever the Japanese military went they left a similar trail of murder, rape, pillage, and carnage as they took over large parts of the country. In addition to conventional weapons, they used chemical and biological agents — many of which were “tested” on civilian population centers.  Japanese germ warfare alone, which included cholera, anthrax, and plague is estimated to have killed at least 400,000 Chinese civilians.

These bombs enabled Japanese soldiers to launch biological attacks, infecting agriculture, reservoirs, wells, and other areas with anthrax, plague-carrier fleas, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and other deadly pathogens. During biological bomb experiments, scientists dressed in protective suits would examine the dying victims. Infected food supplies and clothing were dropped by airplane into areas of China not occupied by Japanese forces. In addition, poisoned food and candies were given out to unsuspecting victims and children, and the results examined.

In 2002, Changde, China, site of the flea spraying attack, held an “International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare” which estimated that at least 580,000 people died as a result of the attack. The historian Sheldon Harris claims that 200,000 died.

Nazi-esque medical testing, including human vivisection, killed and/ or seriously maimed thousands more at Unit 731 and other similar facilities set up around China.

Prisoners were subjected to other torturous experiments such as being hung upside down to see how long it would take for them to choke to death, having air injected into their arteries to determine the time until the onset of embolism, and having horse urine injected into their kidneys . . . In other tests, subjects were deprived of food and water to determine the length of time until death; placed into high-pressure chambers until death; experimented upon to determine the relationship between temperature, burns, and human survival; placed into centrifuges and spun until death; injected with animal blood; exposed to lethal doses of x-rays; subjected to various chemical weapons inside gas chambers; injected with sea water to determine if it could be a substitute for saline; and/or burned or buried alive.

The military tactics used by the Japanese in China during WW2 count as some of the most heinous in modern history. China was not just defeated by the Japan, China was humiliated. A humiliation that continues to be a blemish on the culture more than sixty years later. When I ask why the Chinese maintain a strong animosity for the Japanese, this is the reason.

The final thing that you see when exiting the Nanjing Massacre Museum is a large monument of a woman holding a child that has the word “peace” written in large letters upon its base. It is my impression that this is the last sentiment that many Chinese people feel towards the Japanese upon exiting this memorial. But it is difficult to blame them for this feeling: if this was something that had happened to my country during my grandparent’s era, if the things I saw in this museum were culturally familiar to me, if I had just looked at photos of my city razed to the ground and of piles of corpses of my people, I must admit that it would probably be difficult for me to exit such a place feeling completely level headed and culturally sensitive.

The continuation of animosity

“Reviving war memories keeps the nation united against Japan, and behind the party.” -Liu Xiaobo.

On a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Museum in 2004, Chinese president Hu Jintao said, “This is a good place to carry out patriotic education. We must never forget the patriotic education of the young, and this tragic history must also never be forgotten.”

They call it National Humiliation Education, and its a required course that every Chinese student must takes. Its lessons focus on the various humiliations that China faced at the hands of foreign powers throughout history, and come to a crescendo when focusing on Japanese aggression during the Second World War. It’s a curriculum that encourages patriotism and national cohesion, and the effect seems to plant a seed of animosity in the country’s youth against Japan in particular.

Chinese kids can be forgiven for thinking Japan is a nation of “devils,” a slur used without embarrassment in polite Chinese society. They were raised to feel that way . . . Starting in elementary school children learn reading, writing and the “Education in National Humiliation.” This last curriculum teaches that Japanese “bandits” brutalized China throughout the 1930s and would do so today given half a chance. Although European colonial powers receive their share of censure, the main goal is keeping memories of Japanese conquest fresh. -Why China Loves to Hate Japan

Whenever China needs its population to come together, whenever support for a new leader is wanted, whenever a wave nationalism and the mania of having an enemy could be used to heal a political fracture or cover up a governmental blunder, a button is pushed and the Chinese start protesting Japan.

It seems to work. Right now, the Chinese population is ablaze with anti-Japanese sentiment, and the news is all about the Diaoyu Islands and fighting Japan — not corruption in the upper tiers of the government or what is really going on with the new president who is about to come into office.

Hatred for the Japanese is not something that has yet been healed with time. It is not a scenario comparable to how Jewish people today tend to feel towards Germans. To the contrary, anti-Japanese sentiment remains strong in China as the government, media, and education system work together to continuously re-open the wounds of history.

The extent of anti-Japanese sentiment

The people of China say they hate the Japanese and want to fight Japan, but I have to truly question the extent of these sentiments.

There is a difference between hating the idea of culture, nationality, or race and expressing this hatred directly to the individuals of the targeted group. The Chinese public seem to hate the Japanese as a sports team hates an opponent. If this was a genuine hatred that manifested itself openly with action I’m quite sure there wouldn’t be over 130,000 Japanese people living in China right now.

I’ve been traveling in and out of China since 2005, and I’ve met many Japanese people here during this time. When doing so I always try to ask them about their experience of living in a culture that so openly professes animosity towards them. Oddly, none of them have ever said that they’ve been the recipient of any direct hostility. Even during the most recent anti-Japanese flare up, outside of a few minor incidents (one Japanese guy had soup thrown in his face, another was kicked in the streets), relatively very few Japanese people were actually harmed in any way. There seems to be a big separation between the Chinese hating Japan as a country and hating Japanese individuals.

“Do you think the Japanese are different now than they were in WW2?” I recently asked a young, educated Chinese man.

He thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, I think they are different now.”

Japan and China are so interwoven politically and economically that any vital expression of hatred would not be in the interests of either country. There are thousands of Japanese people living in China, Japanese students are going to Chinese universities, Japanese businesses are everywhere, Japanese products are very popular, and Japanese themed restaurants are on the rise. The second most studied foreign language in China is Japanese. Chinese tourists visit Japan in droves and vice-versa. Japan is China’s fifth largest trading partner.  Japan gives over a billion dollars in aid to China each year. Japanese people drink in the same bars as Chinese people, eat in the same restaurants, ride on the same subway trains, work the same jobs, sleep in the same dorm rooms.

On the streets of China, Sino-Japanese relations is not a cockfight scenario where you toss a Chinese and a Japanese guy in a room watch them fight. Outside of occasional flare ups, on a day to day basis anti-Japanese sentiment in China takes a backseat to the mutual interests that benefit both countries.

After an extended discussion with a young accounting student as to why he so boldly stated to me that he hated the Japanese, he turned to me and said something that made complete sense given the intertwined cultural influence that his country shares with it’s much flaunted enemy:

“It’s not the Japanese people that we hate,” he admitted. “The people are okay. It’s their officials who we don’t like.”

This sentiment has been echoed to me many times over as I listen to Chinese people say how much they hate Japan in one breath and then ogle over the latest Japanese anime, video game, or technology in the next.

I recently sat next to a Chinese guy on a bus who could only be described as an ultra-nationalist. “I HATE Japan!” he roared. “China needs to fight Japan, we need to go to war with Japan,” he continued staying over and over again.

I stopped him short:

“What do you think of the Japanese people?”

His tone then changed, he looked at me inquisitively and said, “I think they are kind.”

There is a drastic separation in logic here: the Japan that many Chinese say they hate is more the idea of Japan rather than the actual individuals that make up the country. It is my impression that when the Chinese say they want war with Japan it’s more to rectify the embarrassment which pockmarks their history than the true desire to kill Japanese people. On an individual to individual level, the Japanese are, for the most part, treated rather amiably in China — which belies all the anti-Japanese rhetoric and slogans of hate which are being aired fervently across the country.

Conclusion

nanjing-massacre-memorial

Peace memorial

To learn about an atrocity is one thing, to have it brought up regularly in school, in the media, and in politics as a crutch to manipulate the general public is quite another. History, as it was shown at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, is an example from which to guide the future, not something from which to incite vengeance in the present. None of us come from a culture, a race, or a country that has not committed massacres at some point or another in the past. No matter if you’re from the USA, Chinese, European, a Native American, Maya, Eastern European, Kenyan, Namibian, or Japanese, in the eyes of history we’re all descendants of devils. The Nanjing massacre and the other atrocities that the Japanese committed in China during WW2 stand as extreme examples of the brutality that humans are capable of, but it is still history.

Filed under: Articles, China, Culture and Society, Intercultural Conflict, Japan, War

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Vagabond Journey has been featured on MSNBC.com, The Daily Mail Online, Business Insider, Gizmodo, the Des Moines Register, CBS Phoenix, NBC LA, and numerous other international and local publications. has written 2687 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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  • http://www.joyridefamily.com Jack

    I think a factor in the hatred is that Japan hasn’t apologized for its wartime atrocities. Germany has apologized and paid reparations for its actions. The US apologized and paid reparations to Japanese interned. Japan has made no public apology nor reparations for the evil they have done throughout Asia before and during WWII.

    It’s very very very difficult to forgive someone when they are a)unwilling to apologize and b)unwilling to make things right again. None of us should expect the Chinese people to do that.

    • Wade Shepard

      Very true. I often think that countries apologizing for their past transgressions is a pretty funny thing to do — as the people in power now had nothing to do (or were even born) when the events in question occurred — but it truly helps. Right on, a big reason why this problem between China and Japan keeps being inherited by subsequent generations is not only that Japan refuses to properly apologize but many vocal people in the government refuse to acknowledge the extent of their country’s war crimes in WW2 and some even say go as far as to say that the Nanjing Massacre didn’t happen. In this climate, a real apology can’t happen. If Japan wants to make this issue go away it’s my impression that they first have to fully admit to what had happened and then get down and give China the full apology they’re looking for. Sure, Japan may lose some face over it, but it’s difficult to see the two countries growing together into the future without it.

      • The Soh Family

        Apologising in Eastern Asia is of different context as that of westerns. You can’t compare the significant of expressing in between eastern and westerns.
        Chinese has a saying ” The father debts are to be paid by the sons”.
        Whatever a country did to another country, it’s people as a whole should bear with it.

      • SolarZ

        What the Chinese want is not really an apology. Apologies are only words. What the Chinese want is for the Japanese, as a people, to genuinely feel remorse for the actions of their fathers and grandfathers. This is something that is clearly not happening right now, as demonstrated by the continued pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine.

  • http://uncommonlybrilliant.blogspot.com mike crosby

    Fascinating peace Wade. I’m going to reread this again. Well done.

    I read the book “The Rape of Nanjing” years ago. (Excellent book.) The Japanese were brutal. Also to the Koreans.

    A statistic I read is that something like 5% of US soldiers in German captivity died (might not even be that high), while something like 35% of our soldiers died in Japanese POW camps.

    • Wade Shepard

      Thanks, much appreciated.

      It is really interesting (frightening) what happened to American POWs in Japan during this era. Many ended up in the medical experimentation labs. I only skimmed the surface of it, but it’s a point of study in and of itself.

  • http://www.skeedat.com Chris Allworden

    Thanks for giving us the Chinese perspective. Good article!

    • Wade Shepard

      Thanks Chris. Much appreciated.

  • http://www.davidswills.com David S. Wills

    You know, until recently I never actually heard any Chinese say they hated Japan. My students are idiots but they were still smart enough to acknowledge that they love Japanese culture and electronics, and that their grandparents are foolish for hating Japan. They said that Japan used to be bad but that now it’s good.

    Flash forward to post-Diaoyu and the situation is a bit different. You get the same general hate (“I hate Japan,” “They’re devils”) coupled with giggling.

    One of my friends pointed out that around here they teach them in school to hate Japan, and that although they come to like Japan from culture and whatnot, there’s still this little bit of hate deep inside, or at least an urge to say stupid things.

    Kids are impressionable. It’s sad but people do this all around the world. If we stamped out teaching hate to kids, the adults of the world 20 yrs from now would be living in peace.

    • Wade Shepard

      Hello David,

      Yes, very true. There seems to be an interesting clash of feeling going on: like with so many things in China, one is the old, anti-Japanese sentiment, and the other is the forward thinking of the modern era where other countries and cultures are potential business partners/ creators of commodities that you want. It’s funny how these two outlooks come together. The traditional viewpoints momentarily usurps the modern and then the modern perspective comes out on top again. This is definitely an interesting time to be in China.

      Right on about how the sentiments that are taught to children tend to stay with them for their entire lives in some form or another. No matter how progressive we think we are, all it often takes is for a little switch to be flipped and we retrogress to the lessons we were taught as kids. Interesting stuff.

  • http://davidplusworld.com David

    While there is no denying that the Nanjin Massacre was an atrocity, the way the Chinese government uses it to promote this hatred of Japan is despicable.

    What was done was done, keeping on putting the blame on the other nation is the worst thing to do. This is what the people of Europe constantly did in the 19th Century and this gave us World War One.
    On the opposite, why is that that Europe doesn’t hate Germany nowadays?
    People after WW2, people were smart enough to dissociate the Nazi Regime and Germany as a nation of people (the Nazi Regime also used “humiliation of the German people by France, the UK, the US, etc” to further its own evil agenda).
    This is exactly what China constantly does. By confusing (voluntarily) Japan and the Militaristic and Fascist Regime that had taken over Japan at the time is dishonest, abject and can only lead to more hate and wars in the future.
    As a conclusion, its people are completely brainwashed into hating another country when they have no reason to. Don’t get me wrong, that the survivors of that time can’t forgive Japan is completely understandable, but that the younger generations who haven’t suffered at all from the acts of Japan, hate the younger Japanese generations who are not responsible in any way of what happened in the 30′s and 40′s is pathetic.
    Chinese people are learning nothing that way, and given the opportunity, they’ll be ready to commit the same atrocities that their ancestors suffered.

    • Marcus

      I agree partially with your views. But to disassociate oneself from the suffering of our forefathers is like disassociating oneself from the successes that our forefathers did as well because ‘we didn’t do it, they did.’

      Difference here is that Germany has accepted the fact that once upon a time, Germans have committed horrible things to many people around the world. Japan, on the other hand, didn’t. Also, while the German government is no longer Nazi, the Japanese monarchy is still the same as the one that existed throughout the war. And Hirohito was NEVER prosecuted for any war crimes. So it’s only natural that many countries in Asia still hold some form of resentment towards Japan.

      • http://davidplusworld.com David

        Well, I dissociate myself from the successes of my forefathers too.

        And the “Japan never apologize” thing is fallacious.
        While it probably should have done so at some point in the 50′s or 60′s, what is the point in doing it now?
        Sure Germany has apologize, but believe me this is not the reason why the rest of Europe doesn’t hate them now. It’s because serious effort has been made by all parties involved to move on past what happened because dwelling on it would only have led to more atrocities.
        And honestly countries apologizing that way is the exception, not the norm.
        Has France ever apologized for Napoleon? Has England apologized to all the countries it has colonized? Has the US apologized for the atomic bomb (no, and worse the official stance is still that big lie that they were necessary) Has China apologized to Tibet? (oh, oh…)

        • David

          You do realize that Japan has a shrine that worships WWII war criminals, and that Japanese politicians, including their prime minister, frequently pay homage to these monsters, right? Let me know if you think the Europeans would be OK if Germany builds some shrines for the Nazis and German politicians including their Chancellor visit there from time to time to pay homage to Hitler.

          What Germany did was distance itself from its past crimes in every way possible. Apologies is just one part of it. While Germany chose to learn from history, Japan chose to ignore it. That’s the difference.

  • Bob L

    Wade, this is one of the best articles I have ever read on the web. It was also somewhat upsetting to me. I am quite familiar with the history surrounding Japan’s invasion of China. As I read your post, I wrote various emotional responses to it. Then, as I continued to read, the responses seemed worthless. I mentioned the Rape of Nanjing to a few people my age or older. Surprisingly, most had never heard of it. Most did not even know that Japan had even invaded China. This is a part of history that many seem to want to forget, or even ignore. Maybe even more important than just exploring what happened in history, we need to explore how that past history is affecting future history. You did a great job with that.

    Thank you,

    Bob L

    • Wade Shepard

      Thanks Bob,

      Can’t say how much I appreciate this comment. Really, reading what you said above just made all the hours of research, composition, and travel worth it.

  • Liz

    Very well written article Wade, I wonder if I could share it on my Facebook since I’m a Vietnamese and we kinda have the same dilemma with the Chinese. Vietnamese people hate Chinese cause we think they’re are so egoistic and greedy, but I’m personally always fascinated by the Chinese culture and lifestyle that I always feel attached to China in a some kind of guilty way.
    But after I read your article, I see now clearly the dilemma and feel more relieved.

    Thank you !

    • Wade Shepard

      Of course, Liz, please do share this article on your Facebook (just be sure it links back to the original article). Thanks also for the feedback, it’s much appreciated.

  • Sergei

    We can go all the way back, Mongols did the same to the Hans. The Vikings did the same to the Celts. Humans are capable of such atrocities. The Japanese and Germans certainly had better tools and equipment for mass killing.

    The Chinese are not as familiar with other forms of governments that are accountable to the people, so they assume the Japanese government is as authoritarian as their own. They were brainwashed into thinking so even before they are able to form independent judgements. I think we can assume that more than 90% of the people that profess hatred for japan had never set foot there. It is as much a sign of ignorance as it is anything else.

    • RED

      As an OVERSEAS CHINESE, i will disagree with ur theory that the chinese were brainwashed and unable to think independently….

      First of all, …the chinese are the only ppl who have 5000 years of continous civilization that imprinted at the back of their head…the chinese still remembered Opium War as if yesterday…
      That’s why it’s hard for the Chinese and Japanese to shake hands like the Germans or French after WW2….

      Furthermore, the japs had not sincerely apologise and even try to rewrite history and deny the Nanjing Massacre…insisting to use the WW2 Japanese flag in the navy , visiting the Yasukuni shrine honoring the war criminals and now with SHINZO ABE trying to rearm JAPAN thus changing it’s pacifist constitution…DUN be suprised if Japan go nuclear citing China’s aggression…

      I alwaz wonder why the Japanese refuse to apologise, my gut instint is that they have not felt defeated by CHINA/KOREA….that it was temporary defeat and many Japanese see the period from Meiji to WW2 as a glory page in their history since it’s the only time Japan surpassed China as NO.1 in EAST ASIA in military , political as well enocomical…

      The Germans need 2 WARS to truly learn from history and said NEVER AGAIN….unfortunately, i see war eventually happening in EAST ASIA because the japs refuse to learn from history as well as Japan now in seriuous debt problem exarcebated by ABENOMIC = QE = printing money = INFLATION…unfortunately, history show us that politician did stupid things when they are in economic stress, btw WW2 was caused by the DEPRESION…