Anti-Japanese Sentiment Fueling Senkaku Island Dispute

Anti-Japanese sentiment in China has put great pressure on the government in dealing with the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Senkaku-IslandsAlmost no Chinese policymakers will doubt the significance of maintaining cordial Chinese-Japanese relations, since Japan is its biggest trading partner and the major resource of technology and capital.

However, even though China often takes a soft position on economic conflicts and leaves space for negotiation, it claims that the sovereignty of a desolate rocky island, the Senkaku Islands, is indisputable.

The domestic anti-Japanese sentiment in China is the key contributor to its position as a hardliner and leaves little space for bilateral dialogue.

On the one hand, according to international law, there are few chances for China to claim its legal status as the island’s owner. Japan has the actual sovereignty of the Senkaku Island while China’s historical evidence is weak without any legal backup.

On the other hand, it is risky to bet on the value of the island since there is no solid confirmation of the undersea energy reserves near the island and the exploitation will be incredibly expensive.

So why is China willing to irrationally take a such hard-line at the expense of a friendly relationship?

The domestic public opinion is influential in foreign policy making, especially when such opinion involves the strong sentiment of hatred. In the case of the China-Japan relationship, the anti-Japanese sentiment in China has put great pressure on the government in dealing with the bilateral relationship.


The disputed Senkaku Islands

According to the 9th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll conducted by the Genron NPO and China Daily, the perceptions and feelings of the Chinese towards Japanese have dropped to the lowest point since the poll was initiated. 92.8 percent of Chinese said they have “bad impression” of Japan.

Furthermore, only 10 percent of them expected an improvement of China-Japan relationship while 45.3 percent of Chinese assumed a worse future. Fueled by such negative sentiment, anti-Japanese protests occurred frequently and people even express their anger by smashing Japanese cars on the street. Facing the wrath from the public, Chinese policymakers are forced to take a firm position on the Senkaku Islands or they may set the fire of anger on themselves.

The anti-Japanese sentiment in China is rooted in the painful history of Sino-Japanese wars.

Unfortunately, after the China-Japan relationship was normalized in the 1970s, neither Chinese nor Japanese governments have devoted sufficient effort to repair damaged public sentiment. Leaders of Japan hesitate to commit its bloody crimes during the war. The visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese premiers, the distorted war history in textbooks, and hesitation to address the issue of “comfort women” adds to Japan’s isolation.

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Moreover, China’s television dramas and films focusing on Sino-Japanese wars have fueled the anti-Japanese sentiment. Almost every channel likes to play Japanese war dramas portraying anti-Japanese knights and promoting patriotism.

Since 89.1 percent of Chinese form impression of Japan through domestic media, dramas remind Chinese of the unpleasant memory of their wars with Japan. “Nanjing Massacre did happen,” as Professor Matsuda in Tokyo University said, “and Japan did invaded China. These are all facts. But it is not difficult to imagine the negative effect from the annual production of over 200 Sino-Japanese war dramas.”

In addition, some of friendly gestures Japan has made lack adequate public awareness among Chinese people.

For instance, since 1979 Japan has offered a large amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China. It includes approximately 3.13 trillion yen (31.3 billion USD) in loan aid, 145.7 billion (1.45 billion USD) yen in grant aid, and 144.6 billion yen (1.45 billion USD) in technical cooperation.

Japan’s ODA consists more than 60 percent of overall ODA China has received and it has contributed significantly to China’s economic development. However, few Chinese are aware of the existence of Japan’s ODA and it is rarely formally publicized. As a result, such economic assistance does not help to ease the anti-Japanese sentiment.

Considering the strong anti-Japanese sentiment in China, the public maintains a rigid stance on the Senkaku Island dispute. China’s rational choice in foreign policy is taken hostage by the objective emotion. It may be tough but still plausible for Japan and China to ease the tension by improving the public opinion on the table of the 22nd meeting in Beijing this autumn.

There is another opportunity next year on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is a platform to show a fresh image.

Jane Jiang is pursuing a Master’s in International Relations at New York University. As a Chinese professional, Jane did her undergraduate study at Waseda University in Japan. 

  • Nathan W. Novak

    I don’t think anyone disputes that anti-Japan sentiments fuel China’s disputes with Japan. That’s pretty common knowledge. The real question, which perhaps Ms. Jiang can address at another time, is what drives anti-Japan sentiment in China? I don’t think it is merely historical memories; I think it is historical memories viewed through the lens of state-controlled education and educational texts. The party-state allows–and probably encourages–anti-Japan TV shows and movies; otherwise, they would not be on the air. This leads me to my real question: why does the Chinese government benefit from denigrating Japan today for things that occurred decades, and in some cases over a century, ago? Could it be, perhaps, that the South Korean (and North Korean) as well as the Chinese governments benefit in some way from the “evil Japanese” discourse?

    Also, fact check: Japan is not China’s largest trading partner. According to the CIA World Factbook, China exports far more to the United States and imports more from South Korea. In real dollar terms, China’s largest trading partner is the United States. And it is difficult to quantify exactly which country provides the most high technology to China.

    Also, I think there may be a difference in translation here. Most states involved, either directly or indirectly, in the Senkaku dispute use the word “administer” when defining Japan’s current status on the islands. Even the United States recognizes Japan’s administration of the islands without taking a position on actual sovereignty. I know this is nit picky, but if you are writing papers for publication or will be in the future, these are important terms with implicit differences in interpretation. The Japanese claim they have sovereignty and, therefore, there is no dispute; the U.S. position has already been mentioned; China and Taiwan dispute sovereignty although they tacitly accept the current situation, namely, that Japan (illegally, in their views) administers the islands.

    It would be great to read, in the future, a Chinese take from someone who has studied in Japan on why (from his/her own interesting perspective) the Chinese government might benefit from keeping such hate sentiments alive. Nate

    • justice_first

      Nathan, you are wrong in assuming that China, or even Taiwan, accept Japan’s administration of the islands. In fact China accepts there is a dispute and Japan denies any dispute. You have to go back to the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951 in order to understand this. the US, together with some allies, unilaterally “altered” the terms of surrender of Japan by determining the islands, south west of Japan, called collectively the Nansei Soto, including Okinawa and the Senkaku/Diaoyu group of islands, without consultation with China. This was illegal and wrong because the US was acting purely for its own interests in a cold war with the Soviet. The US grabbed Japan as its ally against the Soviet. Britain recognized the PRC at the time and because of this disagreement, the US unilaterally ignored “both” the PRC and ROC in the drafting of the Treaty. China never accepts the treaty.

      The US is clearly responsible for the current dispute between China and Japan.

      The US, in siding with Japan in the dispute, is committing a mistake to cover an earlier mistake as mentioned. This is resulting in the funny position of recognizing Japan’s administration, while not accepting its sovereignty. At the moment, it is geopolitics that is dictating again US position, within the purview of the pivot and containment of China.

      • Nathan W. Novak

        “. . . you are wrong in assuming that China, or even Taiwan, accept Japan’s administration of the islands. In fact China accepts there is a dispute and Japan denies any dispute.”

        –I did not write that they accept (officially) Japanese administration; I wrote that acceptance is tacit. Read what I wrote again. This is tacit acceptance because neither China nor Taiwan has taken actions to change administration; the issue is one of sovereignty. (I did write the Japanese claim there is no dispute and that Taiwan and China both contest this.) Tacit acceptance of administration from Taiwan’s own behavior (signing the fisheries deal last year with Japan) strengthens my case; if administration were not tacitly accepted, why a deal at all? Just because administration for the time being is tacitly accepted does not mean it is accepted officially; I think you misread my comment on this point. The fact is that regardless of sovereignty, the Japanese currently administer the islands, and until something is done to change that, it is tacitly accepted (albeit with official protest). My point is that administration is not the main concern; sovereignty is (for China, Taiwan, and Japan). I did write that, above.

        I think “wrong” and “illegal” are pretty strong words considering the context of the treaty (during the Korean War, in which both the PRC and the Soviets were aiding the North Koreans), essentially line-by-line protests from the Soviet Union, and the fact that because no one could agree on which Chinese government to invite neither was invited. The U.S. did not “unilaterally” ignore both governments; check the documents on the Treaty: no one could agree on which government to invite–that is, neither the British (who pushed for the PRC) nor the Americans (who pushed for the ROC), and the result was a compromise between the two to invite neither. One could just as easily place the blame for this on the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, and/or the Chinese and Soviet cooperation with the North Koreans. Were the Chinese and Soviets “wrong” to cooperate with the North Koreans? Was it “illegal”? It depends what side one is on. No one side is every 100% wrong or 100% right in any dispute; to believe that is to be a partisan advocate and not a good analyst, researcher, or student.

        “The US grabbed Japan as its ally against the Soviet [sic].” — No, Japan was defeated in a war and was forced to accept occupation as terms of the surrender. There was little in the way of an alliance; the United States agreed to provide Japan with security and in turn the Japanese agreed to allow stationing of U.S. troops on Japanese soil. It was only after the Korean War began that any form of real security cooperation began between the two. It also consisted of a domestic agenda in Japan. It is often referred to as the reverse course, and it stemmed from the KMT’s looming defeat in the Chinese Civil War, the rise of Cold War tensions, and then the Korean War signified the beginning of a change in Japan’s defense posture. It is no mistake that the first security treaty between Japan and the United States was signed in 1952 (and not in 1945). This was hardly a “grab the ally” contest, although the United States wanted to make sure Japan would not be divided the way Korea had been. And from the long view of history, that may not have been such a “wrong” or terrible idea, considering what happened in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam. But again, I suppose that depends which side one is on. Were the Soviets wrong for “grabbing” almost the entirety of Eastern Europe? Were the Chinese Communists “wrong” for “grabbing” control of China? (Rebellion is always illegal according to the laws of the established government.) Again, it depends which side one is on.

        Assigning blame at this point is, although I’m sure cathartic, not useful (unless one seeks retribution, which is also not healthy or helpful). The point is to solve the disputes–unless, of course, one’s goal is retribution. Blame solves very little. At any rate, the whole pre-1894 status of the islands is sketchy at best and, again, depends on which side one takes.

        “The US, in siding with Japan in the dispute, is committing a mistake to cover an earlier mistake as mentioned. This is resulting in the funny position of recognizing Japan’s administration, while not accepting its sovereignty.”

        –This is not “funny,” nor is it committing a mistake. It is typical U.S. ambiguity used to lock in a particular state of affairs. It’s a lever over both Japan and China. I dislike it, but I essentially have to tacitly accept it. For Japan and the United States, this is a central alliance politics issue (and is not merely a mistake). Regardless of blame and “Truth” and whatnot (really, that depends on one’s side in the argument and whether one seeks retribution or solution), the fact is that this is a test for the alliance: it is central to Japanese perceptions of U.S. commitments and resolve but is simply a potential spark that could ignite a regional conflagration to the United States. U.S. advocacy of Japanese sovereignty would probably cause a conflagration; U.S. advocacy of Chinese sovereignty would do likewise. If the Chinese administered the islands today, I doubt the situation would be much different from the Japan-Korea islands dispute, and the United States would take a similar position. Typical U.S. diplomacy, like it or not.

        “At the moment, it is geopolitics that is dictating again US position, within the purview of the pivot and containment of China.”

        –I think people read too much into the “pivot” or “rebalance” or whatever. Very little substantive has taken place, and the rhetoric attached to it goes beyond containment of China. Obama came into office stating that he sought better relations with Asia and looked at Chinese engagement of the region, especially a China-ASEAN FTA not much differently from how the Clinton administration viewed the idea of an AMF back in the late 1990s. At any rate, it’s come to look more like a self-fulfilling prophecy due to the renewed disputes in the region. It is no surprise (or secret) that China’s neighbors have officially called on the United States to play a greater role in the region. This of course plays into U.S. hands, but it need not ipso facto be exclusive of China; that the Chinese view it as containment may make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. That it may turn into containment via U.S. perceptions is also a potential self-fulfilling prophecy. International relations and interstate dynamics are rarely dualist, and there is rarely a clear “right” or “wrong,” “legal” or “illegal” about them.

        At any rate, it is hard to argue that the United States is containing, or can contain, China the way it did the Soviet Union (and even that was hardly a foreign policy consensus, as the historical record shows). Economic ties are far stronger between China and the United States, and the United States is the single most important outside factor in China’s economic growth, both bilaterally and with regard to the structure of the global economy. The economic benefits to the United States are also glaringly apparent. To knee-jerk to “containment” seems too much like “Cold War thinking” from the Chinese side, unless the intentions of the Chinese leadership is really to test and challenge the United States. Otherwise, there shouldn’t be a fuss. The biggest predicament for the United States is how to deal with a rising power which has kept its intentions cards close to its chest. I see the United States (and China) both grasping at straws in an unpredictable world and both planning for best- and worst-case scenarios. But as the above post has to do with islands and hatred, I end this discussion here.

        • KStyleBlue

          I think you just wrote a comment longer than the original article.

          Learn to tl;dr

        • justice_first

          I think you have done a pretty good lengthy analysis in your reply. The cold war in the 1950 certainly complicated the post WW2 situation with respect to handling Japan. The cold war pitted the US against the Soviet and the PRC. The Korean war was indeed the conflict that saw US utilizing Japan as a staging and supply base for the war. This is what I meant when I said the US “grabbed” Japan as an “ally” for the purpose of the cold war, of course in a figurative way. Since the Korean war was an ideological conflict between the communist and the capitalist camps, it is difficult to assign blame on either side in todays perspective. Yet the conflict had greatly altered the way Japan was treated by the US and how the post WW2 order was actually determined by the allied forces of WW2, in which China was one.

          • Nathan W. Novak

            Thanks for your reply. Apologies for the length of my comment. The sheer breadth and depth of the many issues involved there warranted it, I think, despite what some other commentators might think. Regardless, I think we can both agree, and I think many others could easily agree with us, that the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War were the formative events of Cold War (and, strangely enough, even post-Cold War) East Asia. Thanks for the discussion (and your patience with regard to my long response).

    • hkger

      “I think it is historical memories viewed through the lens of state-controlled education and educational texts. The party-state allows–and probably encourages–anti-Japan TV shows and movies; otherwise, they would not be on the air.”

      This is prejudice thinking on your part. I for one grown up in the free lands of HK. The media is not state controlled, espescially when i was there before 1997. The media always shows the Japanese as the antagonist – similarly from the American perspective it is hard to find a film with Hitler as the “good” character.

      HK was occupied by Japanese in WW2. All the older ppl still have bad memories and they pass on the words to their grandchildren. All of our ancestors suffered in one way or another. If your grandparents suffered under Japanese occupation, then you would also hate the Japanese. They tell stories, stories of starving, seeing their friends getting abused/killed, etc etc.

      A lot of Chinese still think Japanese has not repaid the crimes committed in WW2. The bombs were thrown by the USA, not us. We did nothing in terms of exacting revenge. We feel the Japanese has not suffered anywhere as much as we did. And so we hold a grudge.

      Japan has invaded China and Korea, long before WW2 occured. As the aggressor, Japan is now reduced to a country the same size as before. It hasn’t really paid the cost of its atrocities – espescially considering the no. of Chinese civilian deaths. Japan, like Germany, should have lesser territory than before all its invasions, dated right back before the late 1800s. And that includes the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

      • Guest

        I’ve already responded to these statements, hkger, except for one.

        Some have explained Hitler’s activities as a reaction of a victimized German population expressed through the will of a madman. There are sympathetic works on Hitler out there. Moreover, Chinese nationalism, beyond the mechanism of the state per se, can drive anti-Japanese sentiments. See certain elements in Taiwan as well. My argument is not that the state necessarily drives these sentiments; it certainly does little to tamp them down and it is often right there to benefit from them. I made no such statement regarding the state brainwashing people, which your comment seems to assume. Thank you.

  • KStyleBlue

    Maybe Japan could improve on the public relations part by very publicly announcing that they are going “to end the ODA program.” With the stated reason that “The ODA program is failing at is objectives of improving China-Japan relations.” Assuming that the ODA program is still providing a significant amount of money to various projects in China. This will likely result in headlines and a strong Chinese backlash.

    Than, Japan could just reinstate the program and even increase the amount of ODA funds. Boom, many Chinese are now fully aware of the long history of Japanese Aid and are happy that Japan is providing even more free moneys.

    If there is no backlash, than well this program is failing anyway. It’s kinda strange that the number 2 nation is being given development funds by the number 3 nation anyways.