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Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008

Roots of antipathy toward China

In almost all international polls, Japan ranks high in ratings with regard to peacefulness or contribution to world peace and stability. In other words, people in many countries have a favorable image of Japan. There is, however, a noteworthy exception: China.

Japan is neither liked nor particularly respected as a nation with which China has to promote friendly relations. On the other side of the coin, China, despite its remarkable economic progress and increasing political influence, is neither respected nor particularly liked in Japan. In fact quietly but nevertheless distinctly, a growing number of people in Japan seem to feel an aversion to China, or express a dislike for China. What exactly lies behind this antipathy toward China?

From the average citizen's point of view, the large proportion of Chinese among illegal immigrants and the crimes allegedly committed by illegal residents could be provoking a backlash. Another cause might be exasperation over Japan's continuing need to depend on Chinese products despite inadequate food safety control: the gyoza dumpling incident is a symbolic example.

There are also the environmental issues in China and its global effects, including some climatic problems that have directly affected Japan.

All these "negative" factors can partially explain the Japanese antipathy toward China. There is also a Japanese factor: Japanese people's frustration over its own economic growth, political stalemate and demographic changes tend to find outlets on the foreign target of China.

China's recent development into an economic superpower, modernization of its military, and the growth of China's politico-military, as well as economic influence as a major world power, may also fuel Japan's frustration. It has perhaps incited a streak of envy, particularly since the Japanese economy is not all together sailing a smooth course.

Japan's own feeling of frustration is being projected into a form of "rejection" or "resistance" to China. There could also be hostility toward anti-Japanese hysteria, provoked so easily in China on a public scale. This was apparent in anti-Japanese behavior that surfaced at a soccer match in China, or in repeated attacks on a Japanese music Web site in Beijing.

Related to the anti-Japanese feeling and actions in China, there is the issue of past acts of Japanese militarism, the recognition of which is (at least in Japanese eyes) continuously demanded by Chinese authorities whenever a Japanese public official appears to voice provocative or even assertive remarks about historical events.

The frequency, intensity and prolongation of Chinese diplomatic or political action with regard to past Sino-Japanese conflicts have annoyed many Japanese, who then developed an attitude of detachment and even antipathy toward China. But these do not point to the real truth of Japanese antipathy toward China.

Various forms of anti-Japanese behavior, and Chinese hostility toward Japan, are to a certain extent inevitable. It is not the fact of anti-Japanese sentiment that is creating negative feelings in Japan toward China. The problem lies further beyond.

In today's China, any pro-Japanese voice, or disapproval of anti-Japanese behavior is simultaneously criticized and drowned out. The word "pro-Japanese" itself is treated as though it is an embodiment of evil, and criticism of this perception is not socially tolerated.

Having seen these facets of China, Japanese harbor a strong suspicion of the level of freedom of speech in China — not only at the level of the law, but true freedom of speech in society and politics. This is the problem.

In other words, it is not the hysteric anti-Japanese behavior lurking within Chinese society that is in itself the root of Japanese antipathy toward China. Instead; it is the sense of alarm and frustration at China becoming a major world power while it remains a society in which criticism of anti-Japanese behavior is socially inhibited and public criticism of anti-Japanese behavior is denied.

Moreover, on the Chinese side, many have shifted the blame for anti-Japanese hysteria onto Japan, pointing for example to the history of the Japanese invasion of China as its cause. From the Japanese perspective, this implies that China does not face up to its own "historical truth" (for example, the fact that wartime damage to the Chinese people was sometimes made extensively by the Chinese armies themselves), while it continues to demand that Japan should confront its past squarely.

In other words, the true problem exists within Chinese society itself. First, there is the social trend that anti-Japanese behavior is being used by the authorities or media as a tool to vent criticism, with the aim of keeping criticism of the Chinese government at bay.

There lies the basic and crucial issue of freedom of speech: that there is a weak notion of the importance of freedom of expression, and that freedom of expression does not socially apply to things relating to Japan. The process of becoming a major world power must be accompanied by Chinese society's opening its doors not only economically but also politically to the rest of the world. In reality, a somewhat parochial nationalism seems to be casting a shadow over China.

This is the source of Japanese antipathy toward China, and the problem that China and Japan must seriously re-examine together.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.

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