HARBIN, China — Visitors to the newest museum in this frigid northeastern Chinese city enter through a quaint facade affixed to the modern shell of the main train station. No bigger than a 7-Eleven, the museum could easily be mistaken for a restaurant and hardly looks like a place connected to an international incident — or two.
But when the memorial to Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean, opened last month, Japan’s government lashed out. The chief Cabinet secretary called Ahn, who gunned down a Japanese official at the station in 1909, just before Japan formally colonized Korea, “a terrorist.”
China, which was also occupied by Japan in the years leading up to World War II, struck back, praising Ahn as “high-minded.” Modern-day South Korea, which reportedly suggested the memorial, chimed in, hailing Ahn as a hero. A top leader of South Korea’s ruling party declared, “If Ahn Jung-geun was a terrorist, then Japan was a terrorist state for having mercilessly invaded and plundered countries around it.”
The museum opening came just weeks after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which memorializes the nation’s military dead, including hundreds of World War II figures convicted by Allied war tribunals and either imprisoned or executed. The move prompted denunciations from China and South Korea, and even American diplomats described it as “disappointing.”
Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, relations between Japan and China (and, to a lesser extent, South Korea) remain deeply colored by wartime wounds. Though the countries have strong economic ties, the urge to periodically pick at historical scabs seems irresistible — and even useful in the short term.
Analysts say the tension could stifle dialogue and cooperation on contemporary issues, such as disputed islands and the denuclearization of North Korea. Some even worry that it could inadvertently lead to conflict.
The strain has put the United States, which has a military alliance with Japan and South Korea but also wants cooperative ties with China, in a particularly awkward position.
“In both countries, there’s an underlying story about World War II that creates foreign policy difficulties,” said Boston College political science professor Robert Ross.
“On the Chinese side, it’s a story of massacres and violence and so forth. On the Japanese side, it’s a story of ‘We really didn’t lose that war,’” Ross said. “They lost the war against the United States — they acknowledge that — but in their hearts … many Japanese don’t feel they lost the war against China. And these underlying psychologies contribute to how you deal with foreign policy.”
An anti-Japan narrative has been cultivated for years by Chinese authorities in textbooks, film and TV. The nationalism has fueled anti-Japan protests that at times have turned violent, such as in the fall of 2012, when crowds took to the streets after Japan nationalized a set of uninhabited islands also claimed by China.
“There’s a Chinese expression that says, ‘On the first day, the people oppose Japan; on the second day, they oppose Chinese policy toward Japan; and on the third day, they oppose the Chinese government,’” Ross said. “I think [Beijing worries] about that. So to prevent it from getting that extreme, you have to let some out. They’re between a rock and a hard place.”
This time around, China has seemingly contained street protests and instead launched a fierce international diplomatic and PR campaign. The government has invited foreign journalists on trips to see the museum in Harbin and other sites related to Japan’s imperialist activities, including the nearby base of Unit 731, where the Japanese military conducted harrowing germ and biological warfare experiments on Chinese.
In recent weeks, both Beijing and Tokyo have been rehashing history in a global war of words, in effect urging other nations to choose sides.
Beijing’s ambassador to Britain wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “there are always some incorrigible people in Japan who have shown no sign of remorse for war crimes.... These people pose a serious threat to global peace.”
The ambassador to Canada penned an op-ed reminding the nation that Canadian troops helped the British try to prevent Japan from invading Hong Kong. And the ambassador to Ethiopia staged a news conference and displayed graphic photos of Japanese wartime atrocities.
Abe, meanwhile, has taken to offering historical analysis of his own. In Switzerland last month, he said current relations between Beijing and Tokyo hold parallels to the strain between Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I. He suggested that it was an increasingly rich and aggressive China, not Japan, that was the threat.
“We must restrain military expansion in Asia ... which otherwise could go unchecked,” Abe warned without actually naming China, which has been investing deeply in naval and air defense assets.
Abe’s visit came as momentum seems to be building in Japan for revising its pacifist constitution — imposed by the U.S. after WWII — and expanding the role of its self-defense forces.
Jin Canrong, associate dean of international relations at People’s University in Beijing, said Chinese leaders believed Abe was deliberately stoking tension to shore up his political base ahead of painful economic reforms — and to win support from Washington to change Japan’s constitution.
“China has tried to check this by sending out ambassadors to speak out and appeal to the West,” Jin said. “China hopes the U.S. will play some role and put some check on Japan’s right wing.”
That has put the Obama administration in an awkward spot.
“The U.S. is in a really tough position. They want to strengthen the alliance with Japan while maintaining a generally cooperative relationship with China,” said M. Taylor Fravel, associate professor of political science at MIT. “One consequence of ... [Abe’s shrine] visit is that it worsens ties between two U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea.
Asked repeatedly about the sharp words between Japan, China and South Korea last month, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns said in Tokyo, “We strongly encourage our allies in Tokyo and Seoul and the increasingly important country of China to find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues of history.”
Fravel said Japan-China relations were likely to remain frozen for the remainder of Abe’s term.
China has made “it very personal about Abe himself. That reflects the judgment that Abe is not a leader with whom China is willing to do business with,” he said. At the same time, “now that it’s personalized, Abe would look even weaker if he made concessions.... So it’s kind of a vicious spiral.”