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From anger to acceptance of Japan's wartime past

What PM's apology means in different parts of Asia
From anger to acceptance of Japan's wartime past

Protesters hold placards as they protest outside the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong on Aug. 14, the day that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was to make a statement ahead of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP)

Published: August 14, 2015 05:58 AM GMT
Updated: November 17, 2022 11:58 AM GMT

Chen Jingfei cannot recall a time when she has not despised Japan.

Born in Beijing in 1946, one year after China rid itself of brutal occupation by the Japanese, she considers herself a product of a time when everyone thought of Japan in one simple term: evil.

“I didn’t question it and, to be honest, I still don’t today,” she says. “I didn’t experience what they did, but I was told. Are humans capable of such things?”

Chen may be reaching her twilight. But as East Asia prepares to mark 70 years since the end of World War II, anti-Japanese feeling has rarely been more alive in China and a number of Asian countries.

Leading up to an anniversary military parade in Tiananmen Square on Sept. 3, the Chinese state continues to drip-feed its anti-Japanese message. Two national holidays have been created marking the end of the “Japanese War of Aggression”, museums are showcasing new artifacts from the occupation and media coverage has risen in a crescendo of finger-pointing.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has often been the target. On Aug. 14, he is scheduled to make a highly anticipated apology to mark the 70th anniversary of the war’s end. But for most in China, the carefully worded statement is unlikely to go far enough.

The state-run Global Times perhaps best summed up the feelings of 1.3 billion-plus Chinese in an editorial on the eve of Abe’s apology: “The Japanese government, under the influence of right-wing politicians, is adept at going back on its words by attempting to blur the nature of the war after such apology was made.”

Although the focus is on past aggressions — the Rape of Nanjing, Japan’s dropping of chemical weapons on Chinese civilians and sex slaves — allusions to present-day wrangling over the South China Sea are never far away.

In 2012, leading up to the Sept. 18 anniversary that marks Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, activists from both countries attempted to land on the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China. Protests that month in Chinese cities saw young people march with pictures of Chairman Mao. A shoe shop in Dandong on the border with North Korea advertised a “special Diaoyu sale” in its window, a common theme at retailers across the country.

Sushi and yakatori eateries along “Japan Alley” in the Beijing district of Dongzhimen quietly pulled down their shutters over fears they could be ransacked. A few kilometers away, a new restaurant in the entertainment area Sanlitun called itself “The Diaoyu Islands have been China’s inherent territory”. Its big, red banner spelled out the patriotic message in Chinese and English. Offering barbecue skewers and beer, the restaurant was reportedly packed.

“It was stupid,” says Fay, a 26-year animator working at a Tokyo-based company in Beijing, who asked that only her English name be used. “Most people in China have never spoken to a Japanese person, or visited Japan.”

Her opinions remain firmly in the minority, even among young Chinese. A survey of how Asians view each other conducted last year by the Pew Research Center found that just 8 percent of Chinese have a favorable view of Japan. The feeling appears mutual: just 7 percent of Japanese saw China in a positive light.

When it comes to Japan, only South Korean disapproval comes close, with just 22 percent holding a favorable view.

A restaurant in Beijing named itself 'The Diaoyu Islands have been China’s inherent territory'. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)


‘We must fight together as one against Japan’

In downtown Seoul, there are numerous reminders of Japan’s 35 years of colonial rule up to the end of World War II. On the site where Pope Francis delivered his historic Mass at Gwanghwamun a year ago, the Japanese governor’s office previously stood. In 1993, the government tore it down to restore 600-year-old Gyeongbokgung Palace, now Seoul’s main attraction.

In the narrow streets around Hongik University, the War & Women’s Human Rights Museum details Japan’s use of sexual slavery. One hand-drawn picture of a comfort station shows newly arrived girls lining up to be checked for sexually-transmitted diseases. The center of the image is dominated by cell-like rooms filled with women; Japanese soldiers queue up in a human conveyor belt of rape.

“I was drafted against my will when I was 13,” reads the museum testimony of Won-ok Gil, one of only 20 surviving former comfort women. “Since I have suffered pain by myself, I fully know how much pain those who have the same excruciating experiences have gone through.”

For many South Koreans, Japan hasn’t come close to addressing one of the most inhumane aspects of its colonial legacy. Every Wednesday, for hundreds of weeks in a row, surviving former comfort women have joined activists outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest for an apology and compensation.

This week’s protest to mark Abe’s scheduled apology ended in gruesome fashion when 80-year-old Choi Hyun-yeol doused his body in gasoline and set himself on fire. A video shows many of the 2,000 protesters — including three surviving comfort women — turning aghast to see flames leaping from Choi’s body. Just before setting himself on fire, Choi threw a bundle of printed leaflets.

“The Abe administration is not repenting for the mistakes of history,” they reportedly read. “We must fight together as one against Japan.”

Outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Aug. 12, South Korean protesters attend a rally to demand Tokyo’s apology for forcing women into military brothels during World War II. (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP)


Soft power

In the archipelago nations of Southeast Asia — Indonesia and the Philippines — Japan’s image remains more of a mixed bag. Both countries saw their women forced into sexual slavery, like China and South Korea. In 1994, the Japanese government set up the Asian Women’s Fund to provide financial compensation. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama provided signed apologies to former sex slaves across the region, including to 211 Filipinas, more than from any other country.

Rechilda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, which represents these comfort women, told ucanews.com it was not enough. Further compensation is a “just demand”, she added.

Based in Yogyakarta in Indonesia where many more comfort women originated, Jesuit Father Baskara T. Wardaya says a full apology would be liberating — not only for Japan but also for other countries in the region.

“Perpetrators must be able to tell what really happened at that time and victims must be given a chance to tell,” he said.

In Taiwan, a former colony sandwiched geographically and politically between former ruler Japan and the Chinese mainland, many appear ready to forget.

While South Koreans remember the brutality of colonial rule, many Taiwanese prefer to recall the development and order imposed from Tokyo, says Kao Hung-po, a 67-year-old Catholic businessman in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

“[My parents] were able to receive a Japanese education during the occupation period, and there were no burglars at that time. So they think Japanese governance was good,” he says.

Not everyone of this generation was so forgiving, adds Kao. His father-in-law, a prisoner of war taken to Southeast Asia in the 1940s and brutally put to work on colonial infrastructure projects, “felt hatred towards the Japanese”.

But demographics are working in Japan’s favor in Taiwan — much to China’s detriment as Beijing continues its quest to subsume the island. Soft power wielded in Manga cartoons and J-Pop has largely won over Taiwan’s young, says Shih Liang, a 40-year-old working in media in Taipei.

“In the past 50 years, Japan has influenced through its media and public opinion,” he says. “Taiwanese people understand the Japanese culture through this information, and I think it tends to make it easy for the local people to forgive their atrocities.”

A man walks past a sculpture as he visits the Museum of the War of the Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing in July. (Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP)


Changing attitudes

In Vietnam, a French colony during Japan’s World War II invasion of Indochina, soft power has also prompted many to forget Tokyo’s brutal display of military might.

Vietnamese learn at school that Japanese forces prompted the starvation of two million people in 1945, notes Dang Thanh Hang, a 25-year-old about to leave Ho Chi Minh City for postgraduate studies in Germany. But compared to the atrocities recorded over the decades of conflict culminating in the Vietnam War, Japan’s short period of aggression is little more than a footnote here.

Since then, “Honda” has become a byword for motorbikes in Vietnam — 40 million and counting — just as “bic” is a ballpoint pen in France and “Hoover” a vacuum cleaner in the UK.

Dang says people of her generation often consider themselves “Japanese nerds”. Growing up in the 1990s, they watched cartoons like Doraemon and Dragon Ball.

“Naturally, that prepared for the learning of other Japanese cultural elements: food, literature, even the language,” says Dang. “Sashimi and sushi are some of my favorite foods, and I read all of the novels by Haruki Murakami. So I guess my attitude towards Japan overall is very positive.”

In the Pew survey last year, one of the few countries to register greater approval of Japan than Vietnam (77 percent) was Thailand — the highest in the region at 81 percent.

When Japan invaded Thailand in December 1941, the latter was one of the few countries in the region to lose its independence — neighboring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia were already colonies. Thousands of Thais are estimated to have died toiling as laborers on the infamous Death Railway that snaked across the border to Myanmar.

All appears forgotten. An estimated 82,000 expat Japanese have created enclaves in areas around Bangkok’s main thoroughfare, Sukhumvit Road. In 2012, Japanese restaurants accounted for more than 8 percent of all eateries in the Thai capital, according to The Nation newspaper.

On one evening this month, a group of four Thai women showed up at a karaoke bar off Sukhumvit Road, mingling and singing with Japanese customers. They work as Japanese translators in Chonburi, a province one hour by car from Bangkok where the coastal town of Sriracha was this year dubbed “Little Tokyo by the Sea”. Japanese expats are buying up 90 percent of new apartments in Sriracha, according to property agent Knight Frank.

Kallayanee Pimpakaidee, 30, one of the four translators, says most Thais welcome the influx of Japanese. They are viewed as hard-working, punctual and kind, if a little self-centered.

“Japanese people look at the root cause of the problem and try to solve it by going back to the start,” she told ucanews.com. “It’s a matter of looking at it carefully and fixing the issue.”

Additional reporting by Joe Torres, Manila and Katharina R Lestari, Jakarta


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