Japan has no moral high ground over China
News reports of Tokyo’s probable Winter Olympics boycott over human rights were especially crassly timed, coinciding with the anniversary of a Japanese atrocity committed in China in 1937 that still affects the country deeply.
Monday marked the 84th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, or what is sometimes known as ‘The Rape of Nanjing’, during which Japan’s imperial army was estimated to have killed over 200,000 Chinese people and brutalized many more on seizing the city of that name. The atrocity took place during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in which Japan sought to conquer and occupy all of China.
Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of Chinese history ought to know that the massacre is the single most sensitive and traumatic event for the country in modern times, not least because – from China’s perspective – Japan has not atoned or duly apologized for its atrocities.
Despite this, on this most sombre of anniversaries, it emerged that Japan was considering joining a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing on the grounds of human rights, alongside the United States and other countries in the Anglosphere.
This is a slap in the face for China on multiple levels, not least because Beijing provided crucial support to Tokyo during this summer’s Olympics. For Japan to take a moral high ground over China on the matter of human rights is seen as undignified, insensitive and arrogant in the wake of such a horrific memory as Nanjing.
After I highlighted on Twitter the hypocrisy of Japan’s stance on human rights, one person replied, stating, “It was 1937.” The logic of that reductive ‘argument’ reflects a familiar theme in Anglophone thinking: that misdemeanours carried out in their name in the past simply don’t matter anymore.
The obvious retort is this: had it been China that had committed such an act long ago, would it now be treated in the same way as Japan? Would its misdeeds be forgotten? Absolutely not. There seems to be a logical fallacy at play here – that the passing of time is somehow equal to the deliverance of justice, because some countries are among the ‘righteous’ ones.
Yet if we applied that logic to, let’s say, the Holocaust, it would be widely – and rightly – condemned as outrageous. Does time undo the severity of the atrocity? Of course it doesn’t. So, why should China simply be told to forget about Nanjing, when – in very much the opposite fashion to what happened with Germany and the Nazis after the war – the offending country has never truly had to face any kind of reckoning for what it did.
When the Empire of Japan surrendered to the United States, the existing imperial regime was simply reincorporated into a new system. The fact that the US had exclusive jurisdiction over Tokyo, did not have to bargain with the Soviet Union in the way it did with Germany, and sought to immediately transform it into a strategic asset to supplement American dominance in Asia explains why Japan largely got a free pass on its wartime barbarity.
And because of that, the wounds the Japanese inflicted on Asia haven’t been able to heal. Whether in Korea or in China, the sentiment is the same. While, in practice, Japan and China have learnt to live with each other – trade between Tokyo and Beijing, for example, is huge – the traumatic experience of events such as Nanjing has left an indelible mark on China’s contemporary national identity.
The Communist Party prides itself as having participated in the anti-Japanese struggle and restored the sovereignty of the nation against the backdrop of a century of foreign aggression, during which Nanjing was the most horrific atrocity committed on Chinese soil.
The scarring is so deep that the anniversary of Nanjing has become a time of collective national mourning throughout China. Every time an elderly survivor of the event passes away, it is reported widely by media. For Japan to ignore this and take the moral high ground against China is, by default, an explicit insult to every single Chinese person. It is seen as the perfect illustration of Japan’s lack of remorse for and sensitivity about its imperial legacy, which it has enshrouded in its relationship with the US.
Nonetheless, with the rise of China, many people are hopeful the shift in the balance of power means Japan’s day of self-introspection will not be far away. While once Japan was an economic giant, now China’s economy is three times its size. And the gulf only widens with each passing year. By the end of 2021, it’s predicted China’s GDP will have grown by 8%, while Japan’s will have contracted by 3%. In 2020, China’s grew by 2.1%, while Japan’s fell by 4.59%.
This economic trajectory makes clear why, on the back of such brutal historical experiences, China is so proud of its achievements – and why, on the other hand, Tokyo ultimately fears Beijing.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.