Fueled by anger over unfinished historical business, an anti-Japanese wave continued rippling across China on Sunday, a stone-throwing, flag-burning rampage that shows the grip old grievances and violence still hold over Asia’s greatest powers.
Japan called in China’s ambassador in Tokyo to demand an apology and compensation for vandalism against Japanese targets in several Chinese cities. But the widening anger of the Chinese street against Japan, which most observers say has arisen with the tacit consent of Beijing, represents a collision of nationalist forces in both countries.
Fury has been building in China as well as in South Korea since last week, when Tokyo approved new junior high history textbooks that soften previous descriptions of Japan’s wartime brutality across Asia. Both countries complain that Japan is methodically recanting admissions of guilt for crimes committed during its imperial conquests of the first half of the 20th century.
But strains between Japan and its neighbors have intensified over other long-standing issues, including rival claims to islands in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, and Tokyo’s recent pledge to help the U.S. defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by Beijing.
The disputes have left Japan’s official relations with China and South Korea in a fevered state, embarrassing Tokyo’s conservative government and knocking it off stride as it tries to reassert itself as a global actor. In particular, the protests have raised doubts about Japan’s ability to win wider support in its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Attacks on Japanese government buildings and private businesses spread to more Chinese cities Sunday, with a crowd of 10,000 chanting anti-Japanese slogans in Shenzhen. Earlier in the day, another 10,000 demonstrators surrounded the Japanese consulate in Guangzhou.
Those protests followed Saturday’s raucous demonstrations in Beijing, where stones were hurled at the Japanese Embassy, and Japanese supermarkets and restaurants were attacked. Tokyo called the attacks “gravely regrettable” and summoned China’s ambassador to demand a formal apology, as well as guarantees of protection for Japanese businesses and citizens in China.
Wang Yi, China’s ambassador to Japan, told reporters in Tokyo that Beijing did not endorse the violence. But he did not apologize. Wire services quoted Chinese government spokesman Qin Gang in Beijing warning that “the Japanese side must earnestly and properly treat major issues that relate to Chinese people’s feelings such as the history of invasion against China.”
Seoul’s streets boiled over last month when a Japanese prefecture sought to commemorate the nation’s claim to rocky islets known as Takeshima to the Japanese and Dokdo to Koreans. Tokyo describes South Korea’s presence on the tiny islands as an “illegal occupation,” and the move revived Korean anger over what is seen as Japan’s lack of contrition for its brutal 40-year occupation of the Korean peninsula that began a century ago.
Then, last Tuesday, Japan’s Education Ministry, a bastion of nationalism, authorized schools to use any of eight newly revised history textbooks. Among other changes, all but one of the texts have dropped references to “comfort women,” the term referring to the thousands of Asian women forced to provide sexual services for Japanese troops.
These irritants aggravated the psychological sore of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine and his declared intent to return. The private war memorial in Tokyo honors Japan’s war dead, among them convicted war criminals who led Asia into disaster.
Yet the raft of disputes has provoked little soul-searching in Japan. Koizumi has never publicly addressed the substance of the Chinese and South Korean complaints. Last week, amid the roiling anti-Japanese protests, he simply urged the other capitals to “control emotions and consider bilateral friendships.”
“For some reason, the Japanese just can’t seem to stop themselves from picking at all these historical scabs,” said a senior Western diplomat who has served in Seoul and Tokyo and who requested anonymity. “They don’t grasp how deeply this stuff wounds the Koreans.”
The debate in the Japanese media has focused more on the anti-Japanese backlash than on the forces that triggered it. Newspapers and magazines have matched the hardening national mood in recent years, with the powerful conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper calling Seoul’s complaints “interference in the internal affairs of Japan.”
Observers note that many Japanese believe that the Chinese and South Korean governments are merely stoking public animosity to divert attention from their own political problems.
“Japanese people and the Japanese media talk only about the reaction of the Koreans and Chinese,” said Takesato Watanabe, author of a just-published book on Japan’s media called “A Public Betrayed.” “We need the historical facts about how these issues are born in the first place if we are ever going to settle anything peacefully in Asia.”
The first casualty of the furor may be Japan’s bid for a U.N. Security Council seat. Tokyo is the second-largest contributor to the U.N. after Washington, and has allied itself with Germany, India and Brazil, the other rising regional powers, in pushing for permanent status on the world body’s inner council.
Washington, which counts Tokyo as one of its closest allies, supports Japan’s request for a permanent seat on the council, a stance reiterated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Tokyo in March. The U.N. is now considering proposals to expand the council.
But the hostility from its neighbors has brought Japan’s suitability under scrutiny.
South Korea issued a surprisingly cutting declaration this month, promising to campaign energetically among other member states against Japan’s U.N. campaign.
“There are difficulties for a country that does not have the trust of its neighboring countries because of a lack of reflection on the past to play the role of a world leader,” said South Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Kim Sam Hoon.
Others, however, note that it is normal for a country of South Korea’s stature to oppose the rise of a stronger regional rival to permanent membership.
Many of the protesters in China chanted slogans declaring Japan unsuited for permanent Security Council membership.
Activists have said they intend to gather 30 million signatures on an Internet petition opposing Japan’s application, a move aimed at pressuring their own government to use its veto in the Security Council to block Tokyo’s bid.
Chinese scholars say Japan can’t be expected to make historic amends overnight, but it could start by correcting the textbooks and ending the premier’s visits to Yasukuni.
“That would help quell the concerns and curb some anger,” said Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University. “But the most important thing is Japan must change their attitude of indifference and stubbornness toward public sentiments.”
Chinese authorities appealed for calm Sunday and asked Japan to do more to soothe the public’s feelings.
“Japan must adopt an earnest attitude and appropriate ways to deal with major principled issues concerning the feelings of the Chinese people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, according to the official New China News Agency. “The Japanese have to do more things conducive to enhancing mutual trust ... rather than doing the reverse.”
Yet the sour political relations coexist with some of the strongest economic and cultural ties Japan has ever enjoyed with its neighbors.
China surpassed the U.S. this year as Japan’s top trading partner. One reason for Tokyo’s concern about its nationals living in China is that there are more of them: nearly 80,000, up by a third in the last year alone.
Japan’s tourist organization said last week that the country drew a record number of visitors in 2004, with a 40% increase from China and Taiwan. For the second year in a row, the greatest number of tourists came from South Korea.
While Chinese and Korean protesters were targeting symbols of Japan in Beijing and Seoul last week, an audience of Japanese women in Kyoto was breezily carrying on a newly discovered love affair with everything Korean.
On Thursday, 10,000 of them lined up for two hours at the city’s cavernous central train station to wave and squeal while South Korean heartthrob Park Yong Ha sang three ballads.
He also acknowledged from the stage the troubles between South Korea and Japan, but suggested to members of the swooning audience that they leave disputes to the politicians and “follow me in friendship.”
“Sure we have heard about the problems between Japan and Korea, but we don’t care, we love Park,” said Maki Harada, 30, an office worker. “Maybe the Korean people know about these problems, but Japanese people don’t think about it. We’re not educated about Korean history.
“It’s amazing, really. History should be serious,” she said. “But we just don’t hear about what has happened between our countries in the past.”
Times staff writer Ching-Ching Ni in Beijing contributed to this report.