However, more than 60 years later there are still two nations, China and South Korea, that have neither forgotten nor sincerely forgiven Japan. China, according to even the most conservative estimates, lost 20 million people to the war – more than 3% of its total population in battle against Japan or other Japanese military actions – much of which has been decreed crimes against humanity.
Given this history, as improbable as it may seem, on July 25, the county government of Fang Zheng, in northwest China near Harbin, once part of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, unveiled a monument to Japanese war refugees who died in the confused aftermath of World War II. These were not just any refugees, but Japanese Imperial Army backed “settlers,” pawns in a huge land grab by the Japanese Imperial Army to force Chinese and Manchurians off their land and replace them with loyal Japanese. As soon as news of the monument spread howls of rage rose across the Internet from one end of China to the other.
No Secret in Commemorating the Japanese
Fang Zheng never made any secret about the monument. They sought and received permission to build it from the Chinese Foreign Ministry before even starting to plan it. There seemed to be no problems. The equivalent of $80,000 was appropriated for construction. When finished, an inauguration ceremony was held in the China-Japan Friendship Park where it was located. The local media and the usual luminaries were invited. But no one was prepared for the screaming wrath that descended on their heads.
Since the end of the 19th century, starting as a clash of two local powers, China and Japan were in conflict. One of the by-blows of this conflict was the puppet state of Manchukuo, carved out in 1932 by the Japanese government and ruled by Henry Pu Yi, the titular character of Bernardo Bertolucchi’s 1987 movie The Last Emperor. But the real rulers were the Imperial Japanese Army. When the war ended perhaps as many as 250,000 Japanese had settled in Manchukuo.
In a few weeks after the war, the Soviet Union overran northwest China, driving out the Japanese before them. Around 15,000 Japanese fled to Fang Zheng for shelter; over 5,000 were thought to have died of starvation and disease. Few records were kept. Those who survived were repatriated to Japan when China reoccupied Manchuria in 1946 and 1947. The rest seemed to evaporate into thin air.
“We were able to discover the names of about 250 refugee Japanese settlers who had died in Fang Zheng,” said the Fang Zheng County Council. Their names were carved on the memorial.
The monument opened on July 25. Ten days later, in the face of the storm of protest, it abruptly shut down. Reporters trying to visit the site the next day were turned away by the state security men. Taxi drivers refused to take people to the scene, saying that police had ordered them not to go there.
Protesting Loudly where Only Some Protests are Permitted
China is neither a democracy nor has freedom of speech as one thinks of it in the West. However, people can and do speak their minds, often bitterly in countless blogs on the Internet, as long as it does not step over unwritten boundaries.
Some of the kinder and less acid blogs said, “The Fang Zheng County Council wants to attract Japanese investors, so they have erected a monument to invaders of our motherland.” Another blog said, “Japanese settlers were just another wing of the Japanese invasion of China.”
As tempers soared, on Aug.1, a group of 30 leading Chinese historians and former anti-Japanese resistance fighters published a formal protest against the monument.
Things then started getting out of hand. On Aug. 3, a group of five protesters splattered paint across the monument and were arrested by the police. They were hailed across the Chinese Internet as “heroes.” That same night, someone took a sledge hammer to the monument and mutilated it even further.
The paint splatters were set free the next day, telling the media the settlers were Japanese aggressors and that a monument did not need to be built for them.
At this point, the closely watched People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party weighed in: “This monument contradicts the most fundamental values of Chinese society; the officials of Fang Zheng owe the Chinese people a full apology and the monument must be removed immediately.”
That did it. By the night of Aug. 5, the monument was gone.
The Fang Zheng government used Twitter to issue a lukewarm apology in officialese on Aug. 6: “As many people entertain doubts about this monument, and it has even been defaced with paint, the appropriate branches have decided on its removal.”
Case not as Clear-Cut as it Seems
Why was the monument ever built? How could Fang Zheng and the Chinese Foreign Ministry be so insensitive? Or were they?
Digging deeper, when examined closely, what initially had been a clear-cut black and white issue had turned into shades of gray. Questions about how guilty the guilty were and how innocent the innocent were began to emerge against the background of a media avalanche that buried all parties.
Near the monument that was hastily torn down, there was a smaller *cenotaph to the Chinese adoptive parents of Japanese war orphans. They took Japanese children into their own homes and raised them with love and affection as their own children. These children were abandoned by their parents in the confusion of the war and left bewildered, wandering the streets.
“Out of a population of around 220,000, half of our population has lived in Japan or have relatives there,” said a Fang Zheng official. Japanese is on the shop signs of many stores, with katakana sometimes written incorrectly. “Around five years ago we decided it would be good to do this.” He added that doing so reflected a generally pro-Japanese mood in the area at that time. It may be the only place in China where there are bilingual shop signs in Chinese and Japanese on an ordinary shopping street.
Due to the connections many of the local residents had with Japan, from the normalization of relations in 1972 onward, many residents of Fang Zheng went to Japan to work and returned rich by local standards. Many sent funds home. There was even an area of upper-class homes built that were sold to returnees from Japan.
Japan Helped Make Town Rich
Thanks to people from Fang Zheng who went to Japan to work, this has become a prosperous city. “I thoroughly approve of the Sino-Japanese friendship,” says a store owner on Fang Zheng’s main shopping street. “However, the truth is there are many people who say that the residents from Fang Zheng have sold their country out.” A glance at a Chinese Internet posting about Fang Zheng bears this out. A typical comment is, “What reason is there for Japanese language signs on a Chinese street?”
Something unique happened in Fang Zheng that perhaps occurred nowhere else in China. At least, it didn’t happen on the scale of Fang Zheng. At the end of the war, aggression or no aggression, the Chinese residents of Fang Zheng, themselves impoverished and brutalized by the war, set their hatreds aside and reached out to their fellow victims. Whether they were the enemy or not didn’t matter. They needed a helping hand, so they gave it. It was not only Japanese orphans, but the sons and daughters of Japanese refugees also abandoned in Fang Zheng that were absorbed into Fang Zheng families. They became the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers of the present residents of Fang Zheng. Strong personal and emotional links exist with Japan in a way that can perhaps not be found anywhere else to this degree in China.
To Fang Zheng residents, putting up a memorial to dead Japanese refugees was a local matter and nothing special. The motives were perfectly innocent. In many cases, it was probably the names of their own departed loved ones who were engraved on the wall that were splattered with paint, and then battered with a hammer.
Japan-China Ties Becoming Prickly
As China grows in strength, Japan is in the process of transferring to China the love-hate relationship that once marked — and to a great degree still does — its relationship with the United States. The Chinese, have great injuries of their own. These are recalled because they are still fresh in their memories. Any Japanese complaint, as trivial as the quality of Chinese made frozen gyoza, or something as esoteric as the mineral rights to undersea natural gas beds, touches raw and throbbing nerves still shredded from memories of Japanese aggression.
The Japanese too, whether it be out of fear or envy or a mixture of both, respond in kind and as sharply. While the Japanese respect or are awed by the strength they see in China, they are also increasingly vocal about what they see as a darker side of China and the Chinese. Any incident can supply tinder for sparks to either side. The countries are drifting further apart, into a formal, cool and distant relationship, marked by spats, misunderstandings and a view, lying just below the surface of all exchanges, of each other as threats and aggressors.
Fang Zheng was unique in being a small part of Japan in China, fully absorbed into the fabric of Chinese life and the Chinese way of living but retaining a tenuous link with Japan. In its own small way it was a bridge across a troubled century of wars and often frigid and uncertain reconciliation between the two peoples. But Chinese public opinion — as voiced through the country’s controlled Internet — has now spoken. As one shop keeper in Fang Zheng said about the Japanese lettering on his shop sign: “If the criticism keeps building up any further, I’ll probably take the Japanese off the sign.” A small door between Japan and China that has been kept tentatively open over the years now seems set to slam shut for good.
On Aug. 15, the Japanese will remember their war dead. Let us hope at least some will also spare a moment or two and give some thought to the kindness shown to a defeated enemy almost a lifetime ago in Fang Zheng.
*A cenotaph is an empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere