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.

Senkaku-Islands

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.