New Scholarship on China’s War Against Japan: Rana Mitter and the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University Belfast

Rana Mitter is among the most dynamic, productive, and visible historians working on East Asia in the UK today. Dr. Mitter will be delivering a series of uniquely prestigious and endowed lectures in Belfast, at Queen’s University, from 28-31 May of this year. The series title is ‘Fighting Fate: Wartime Society and the Making of Modern China.‘  

I’m delighted to have been invited to participate in this event and am looking forward greatly to being back in Belfast, which has been a real cauldron of productivity for me personally and is also a city and department full of good friends. Beyond the massive dose of inspiration and knowledge that these lectures and associated structured discussions will doubtless provide, I am also hopeful that heading back to Ulster will trigger submission of a few of my own Sino-Japanese manuscripts that have been moving forward, shall we say, at a somewhat staggered rate.

Sino-Japanese Strife and Accomodation: An Academic View

Deng Xiaoping with Naboru Takeshita, August 1988 – links to description of Deng’s 1978 trip to Japan

Sometimes through all the contemporary hyperventilating, it can be considered an almost extreme position to look for historical context that lies apart from the mainstream narrative of eternal, almost existential, national conflict between China and Japan.  In a recent journal article, two scholars based in Stockholm have taken the steps of looking for that context.  As the abstract explains:

For the last four decades Sino-Japanese relations have been characterized by steadily growing economic and sociocultural interactions. Yet, greater interdependence has developed in tandem with bilateral tensions. Many analysts have attempted to explain the latter as a result of Japan trying to balance or contain the burgeoning growth of Chinese capabilities. In this article, we question and qualify this widespread understanding of Japan’s response to China’s rise by examining how Japan has handled China’s rise between 1978 and 2011. More precisely, how has Japan dealt with China’s long-term core strategic interests, which are embodied in the post-1978 Chinese “grand strategy” that is believed to have been instrumental to China’s rise? Our main finding is that to a significant degree Japan has accommodated the rise of China rather than balanced against it.

The full text can be accessed by those with an in at a major research library; I’ll endeavor to plow through the whole thing soon and return with a report of some kind. In the meantime it’s all Manchukuo, all the time, for my own Sino-Japanese studies this short week.


The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that thrashed the northeastern Japanese coast has generated a great deal of thinking from me, not much of it coherent or of use to readers.  Thus the silence.  At some point, I would imagine that some discussion of the following questions would emerge:

To what extent have regional responses to the catastrophe intensified transnational goodwill?   Does this forceful reminder of natural catastrophe bring about a less nationalistic, more humanistic, outlook in the region wherein environmental and other less traditional issues finally assume a leading role in foreign relations?  How has Chinese news coverage of this catastrophe encouraged thought (or precluded thoughts) among PRC readers of the positive role played by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces?  Are the North Koreans capable of doing anything more than attacking Japan for crimes committed in the 1590s in the same week when the country is encountering its worst earthquake ever?  What is it going to take for a new transnational, pan-Asian, global consciousness [what we might call "environmental transnationalism"] to develop in East Asia, or will national boundaries and discrete historical sensibilities always prevail in the region?  What about the balance of power in East Asia?  Is Japan now more reliant on American force than ever?  Is there a new regional consensus on nuclear energy?

At some point, tendering answers to these questions will be appropriate, but everyone, including my rather sheltered self in Seattle, is still in a bit of shock and very much in observation/digout mode, so we shall have to wait.

To the extent that I can be helpful to readers in piecing things together, it’s in interpreting what I’m seeing in the Chinese-language media about Japan.  Purely from the Huanqiu Shibao, normally a leading organ of anti-Japanese nationalism, we see the following (taken and adapted from my Twitter site, a microblog which has of late been far more active than the present webiste):

Educating Chinese re: US occupation in Japan: Huanqiu photo gallery of 1948 earthquake

China takes note of Japanese report – NE earthquake could wipe out 1% of GDP

Chinese ambassador in Japan: no reports yet of Chinese students harmed in quake

Chinese news media appears not to be censoring much as regards nuclear leaks in Japan

Striking photos of Japanese air force bases under water

Finally, there is the question of how Japan will recover from the quake and the historical resonance of a new postwar movement for reconstruction and unity.  As a historian who writes about postwar Japan, and the Chinese views of it, this sad photo (taken outside of a school which has become a morgue), brought a particular historical episode to my mind:

"Syunsuke Doi, 22, left, mourns after finding the bodies of his wife and two children at a makeshift morgue built after the earthquake in Higashimatsushima on March 14, 2011. " Photo by Shiho Fukada, via Time Magazine Asia.

In the American archives of the U.S. occupation of Japan, a story is told about another young man in his 20s who was a sailor on the battleship Yamato when it was sunk in 1944.  He returns home to Japan only to find that his fiance has been killed in American airraids and that his parents’ home has been destroyed in the same conflagration.  He runs across a young woman, also in her early 20s, with three young children; her husband having been killed in battle.  Amid these circumstances, the seven of them create a home together out of the rubble of Tokyo, creating a new marriage, new life, and a new family.  The young man, trying to provide for his six dependents, gets involved in the Shibuya black market, but that is another story entirely in that difficult year of 1946….

I have been fortunate not to have any loved ones or very close acquaintances who have been directly harmed by the earthquake and tsunami, and thus my own statements of shock and compassion have been rather generally directed toward Japan, a country toward which (I hope) I have a long-standing affection and respect, if not even the beginnings of a complete understanding.  But the suffering is now specific, and I am going to need to focus my thoughts for this small period of time on this young man, Syunsuke Doi, because he, like Japan itself, is going to have a very, very tough haul ahead of him.

Germ Warfare and Panda Diplomacy in Tokyo: Unit 731 Excavations

This is a cross-post from my Japanese War Crimes blog. — AC

Unit 731, the bacteriological warfare research wing of the Kanto Army in Manchuria, has been discussed in Japan with varying degrees of postwar intensity, but this discovery in Tokyo last week (via the Guardian) seems poised to bring the activities — and the difficult subject of history in Sino-Japanese relations — back out into the open.

Some good reads on the topic include this article by Mainichi Shimbun, this analysis from a Taiwan website I plan to revisit more frequently, and, most interestingly, a first-hand account from the hard-hitting culture blog, Tokyo Damage Report, about a walking tour in Tokyo that includes Unit 731 commemoration (with photographs).

Xinhua is currently downplaying this potentially usefully inflamatory story, probably in order to focus on the happy happy China China trope of two Pandas making their way from Chengdu to Tokyo.  As one Japanese commenter pointed out to me, the CCP is not just downplaying the Unit 731 story while trying to temporarily mend fences with Tokyo, it is because there is no need to create yet another reason for people to be out waving banners in the street.

Meanwhile, Chinese microbloggers seem to be more focused on the fact that Japanese adult film star Sara Aoi recently opened a Weibo account, quickly garnering one million slavering Chinese fans.  Such is the state of the communications environment in which the Unit 731 revelations find their way into public.

But if you’re looking for more serious fare, Frederick Dickenson in Japan Focus describes the evolution of Unit 731 investigations and awareness in Japan.

In the print world of peer-reviewed journals, see:

Adam Cathcart, “’Against Invisible Enemies’: Japanese Bacteriological Weapons in China’s Cold War, 1949-1952,” Chinese Historical Review Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring 2009): 101-129.

Adam Cathcart and Patricia Nash, “’To Serve Revenge for the Dead’: Chinese Communist Reflections of the War of Resistance in the PRC Foreign Ministry Archive, 1949-1956,”  China Quarterly No. 200 (December 2009).

Sino-Japanese Relations: The Sun Sets on a Bad Year

The end of the calendar year brings closure, of a sort, to the news cycle.  The (disorderly and American-style) marketing of mayhem and chaos awaits a new year.

To remark, then, on a few tropes of Sino-Japanese Relations at the final aperture of 2010.

The Japanese press, frustrated by Japan’s inadaquate response to the Diaoyutai/Sengaku Islands episode this past September, and aware that the Chinese government can unleash a horde of pre-unemployed students to protest against all real and perceived infractions of the Japanese Self Defense Forces, is fulminating about Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Asahi Shimbun reporter Kenji Minemura reports from Hainan island, wasting no words, opening his article “China’s Scenario to Seize Isles in South China Sea” with the sentence “China is moving into regional bully mode.”

Can I emphasize how bad things are, or can I just refer you to this article’s recounting of Guangzhou military district officials bragging about their ability to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers or the piece’s logical leap from Chinese fishing boat patrols into a Chinese plot to dominate East Asia’s main shipping lanes?

For its part, having stirred up the hornets, the Chinese media is now taking a more harmonious/oblivious line, wondering why anyone is concerned at all, even going so far as to emphasize the good news from public opinion polls from Japan that indicate that fewer and fewer Japanese citizens see China’s rise as a purely innocuous phemonomenon.

Image via Pierre Haski, Rue89

In its beautifully vague and sinister fashion, China Daily offers a bromide which really manages to turn as it goes down:

But the US should realize that times have changed. The situation in Asia today and the relationship between China and other Asian countries cannot be compared with those in the past. Vested interests’ attempt to “encircle” China to “contain” its rise does not conform to the trend of the changing times. Although countries neighboring China need the cooperation and support of the US, and to some extent even want it to “help maintain the balance of power”, none of them would like to side with Washington against Beijing.

We cannot assume that the relationships between China and its neighbors are deteriorating, because that is not the truth. If we tend to just follow the Western media and sensationalize the frictions between China and its neighbors, we will fall in the trap laid by some Western powers to create divisions between China and other Asian countries.

Clumsy, reminiscent of the early 1960s, hardly likely to convince Japanese elites, but somewhere buried in this piece is the admission that China’s diplomacy in East Asia is in fact in disarray.

Fortunately The Economist offers a succinct and essential analysis of this very theme:

Maybe China has decided that, contrary to its own protestations, it does not really need smooth foreign relations. Or maybe its diplomacy is a mess. The Chinese scholar offers three possible explanations. One is the confusing proliferation of “non-diplomatic” bodies and special-interest groups in foreign policy, from oil firms to the army to, in the case of Japan, the marine affairs and fisheries bureaus. But the other two may be more telling: the increasing importance of Chinese public opinion and the absence of any senior political figure in charge of foreign policy. The foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, is not a member of the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo, let alone its nine-member, decision-making Standing Committee. There is nobody to thump the table for foreign relations. Abroad does not matter very much.

And of course the Japan theme, apprehensions of the United States, and the tensions on the Korean peninsula are all tied together.

Tensions in Korea overshadowed it at the time, but the Japanese ambassador did make a visit to Nanking/Nanjing earlier this month.  While outlets like China Daily somewhat predictably played it up as part of the pre-programmed trend toward stabilizing relations, the Huanqiu Shibao‘s coverage, while not meriting front-page treatment, was less generous.  The ambassador came in for criticism for going to Nanjing for three days and “avoiding / raodao” the Memorial Hall to the Victims of the Nanking Massacre, a step which one Qinghua University professor stated would “aggravate the Chinese people.”  Instead of dropping to his knees Willi Brandt-style (Xinhua’s preferred posture, it would appear, for Japanese officials in China), the ambassador  promoted economic and language exchanges, noting that there are 7000 Japanese companies doing business in Jiangsu.   At a news conference on his first day in Nanjing, asked about the Memorial Hall, he said “I’ve been there before.”

With Zhang Yimou filming an immense new Nanking Massacre film (in Jiangsu, starting January 10, with Christian Bale) and the appetite for anti-Japanese antipathy high in China, things seem hardly likely to settle down too much in 2011.

Among the other tropes in Sino-Japanese relations in 2010:

- The  origin and the meaning of anti-Japanese demonstrations in Chengdu and Chongqing in October 2010 remain relatively unanalyzed.  In Sichuan, the popular memory of World War II remains strong and (as is abundantly evident in places like the Jianchuan Museum Cluster) the state is far from the exclusive creator of anti-Japanese narratives.

- Rare earth export politics continue apace.

- Increased people-to-people exchanges in spite of the political upheavals.  The Chinese ambassador in Tokyo is getting into the act as well.  Efforts are being made to repair relations in response to the somewhat bleak outlook.


By All Means, Spend the Day in Nanking

December 13 was the anniversary of the Nanking Massacre, so of course I had to spend Dec. 11 and 12 in the city, touring the big memorial and the associated smaller monument to John Rabe, the sogennanten “Good Nazi of Nanking.”

John Rabe's home in the old Safety Zone is administered by Nanjing University, funded by Siemens Co.; I was encouraged to visit there by a pair of German/Austrian Sinologists on leave from study in Dalian whom I met while purchasing two International Herald Tribunes for 26 yuan apiece in the Foreign Language Bookstore not far from the old Wang Jingwei administrative center -- Photo by Adam Cathcart

Today, the Japanese ambassador left the city after a two-day stint which has received much less attention in China than one might otherwise might have expected.  Perhaps we can blame the North Koreans for this imbalance. carries a good short piece here of press coverage of the anniversary.  They were in the process of changing the slogans on the museum walls when I, along with one of my best (and German-fluent!) students was traipsing around the museum after hours.

Perhaps more lasting in significance: according to the Hollywood Reporter website, Zhang Yimou will be using former Batman lead Christian Bale as a fictional American priest named “John” as a savior figure in a $90 million budget film set during the Nanking Massacre.  That, by the way, is an immense budget, and surpasses by tens of millions of dollars the gross box office for most Chinese blockbusters.  The film starts shooting on January 10 near Nanjing.

Over time I will certainly be sharing more thoughts about my visit to Nanjing, the role of film in remembering and mis-remembering the event, and the meaning of Nanking today in the PRC and globally, and the German role in Chinese war memory, etc., but for the time being I’ll offer a final photo:

Waiting in the long line for the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, Dec. 11, 2010, photo by Adam Cathcart

Sino-Japanese Strife

A few years back, I had a rather conspiratorial lunch with a young Chinese statesman-scholar in the Beijing City Government.  As the clean light of an early summer afternoon poured in through the doorway of the curiously empty dumpling shop, he leaned over the table and advised me along the following lines:

“Forget about Korea.  What matters to China is Japan.  The Koreans are never going to work out their problems; they are perennially factional, and because of that, in both the long and the short term, they are weak.  China and Japan, by contrast, are the two titans of East Asia; their conflicts will shape the region for an entire era.  Watch Japan.  Watch the Japanese right wing.  Forget Korea.”

There is much to be said in response to this view (including the point that Sino-Japanese rivalries always play themselves out on the Korean peninsula in one form or another), but of late, my friend’s warning has proven to be particularly salient.

China and Japan are at a serious impasse over recent events near Diaoyu Island, northeast of Taiwan.

In one of those long interrogative dinners that make networking in China such an all-embracing experience, last night I sounded out a senior colleague here at Sichuan University about the Japan issue.  The verbal tumult that ensued assured me that I was not dreaming, that a great, great deal of information was pouring forth into the public domain at the moment, and that public sentiment in China is not simply backing the government’s stern response to Japan, but hopes that the CCP can go further down the list of its many options for causing pain to Japanese companies and the Japanese government.

Cankao Xiaoxi (Reference News), the standard foreign affairs daily which tends always to be overshadowed on this blog by its more colorful, nationalistic, and protean counterpart the Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times, has had a lock-on Japan for its headlines this week, and today reported that China dis-invited a Japanese youth delegation from attending the Shanghai Expo.

A couple of nights ago, Yunnan News offered up a full hour of analysis of the Diaoyu incident (broken but thrice by commercials, during which time one could flip but one channel away to the newly high-definition historical biopic of Hideki Tojo), and the language was extremely serious, which is not to say belligerent.  Could this standoff escalate into a military conflict?  Should the Chinese Navy stage military drills in the area?  Will the Americans intervene on behalf of Japan?  Can Taiwan and Hong Kong compatriots get out and throw more rocks for the cameras at Japanese trawlers?

The timing of all of this is spectacularly bad for Japan; the September 18 anniversary (China’s “Day of Humiliation,” commemorating Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931) has just passed, and now quite a few Chinese are heading home for the Moon Festival, where, to the extent that international politics is discussed at all with grandparents who still remember the War of Resistance, more than a few choice phrases are bound to be dropped in reference to Japan.

If readers have found solid documentation on the Diaoyu incident, reasonable debate or helpful links, please feel free to  leave them (along with some commentary) in the comment queue and I’ll do my best to respond.

Related Links (thanks to Thomas Lutze at Illinois Wesleyan University!) :

Japan mulls drilling near disputed gas field: media
Reuters | 2010-09-18
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan may start drilling near a gas field in disputed waters of the East China Sea if China does the same, the Nikkei business daily reported on Sunday, as territorial tensions between the countries grow….

Beijing demo demands release of fishing captain | 2010-09-18
Braving rain and chilly temperatures, a small but angry crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing on Saturday morning. The hundred-or-so mainly youthful protesters were clearly animated by recent events around the uninhabited Diaoyu islands which are claimed by both Chi…

Chinese protest against Japan is small but heated,0,6976803.story
LA Times | 2010-09-18
Marchers outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing rally against the detention of a Chinese fishing crew. Beijing, wary of demonstrations, keeps a close eye.Dozens of Chinese demonstrators rallied outside the Japanese Embassy, then marched through the rain-slicked streets to the Foreign Ministry on Sa…

A protest in China
China Rises | 2010-09-18
 It wasn’t much of a protest, as far as these things go. Several dozen people, possibly 100, gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in downtown Beijing to protest in the rain this morning. The crowd was there to condemn the Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain, Japanese claims to a di…

The Rebirth of Minjian Waijiao: China’s Popular Diplomacy toward Japan
JPRI Working Paper | 2009-03-01
The term “popular diplomacy” [minjian waijiao, 民间外交] was first used in China-Japan relations to describe the informal interactions between government officials before China and Japan normalized relations in 1972. The term resurfaced in China to capture the wave of popular activism toward…

Phillippe Grangereau, “A bas l’impérialisme japonais!Liberation, Sept. 18, 2010 [coverage of the protests in Beijing]