Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Sino-Japanese relations since the 1990s

At a time when the two countries' economies have become increasingly intertwined, the Sinophobic vision of people like Bandō Tadanobu vision taps into a longer, deeper fear of China as the regional imperialist power. The shifts in the relative economic and global positions of Japan and China starting in the early 1990s have of course fueled Japanese anxieties—in 2010, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s to become the world’s second largest—as have the escalating tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (Hara, Liao, and Wiegand 2016).

This discourse of invasion, needless to say, has its counterpart in China. Anti-Japanism draws not only on memories of Japanese invasion and wartime atrocities, but also on Japan’s refusal since the nineteenth century (if not for centuries) to accept its position as “younger brother” within a Sinocentric regional order (Howland 1996), as well as on contemporary geopolitics and the social ferment of life under CCP rule (Gries 2005). Since the 1980s, protests have repeatedly arisen in response to Japanese prime ministers' provocative visits to Yasukuni Shrine as well as over revisionism in Japanese history textbooks. The 1990s saw the first eruption of the conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which intensified in the new millenium. These and other developments, including Japan's efforts to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, set the stage for a particularly powerful wave of urban anti-Japanese protests in April 2005 (Ching 2012), and again in 2012.

Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square (June Fourth) Incident, the CCP has also been actively “inculcat[ing] a view of Japanese as the paradigmatic ‘devils’” (Gries, Steiger, and Wang 2016) in “patriotic education” campaigns to combat what officials described as “hostile international forces [that] have further intensified ideological and cultural infiltration among our nation’s younger generations” (Gustafsson 2014, 74). As William A. Callahan has noted, regardless of Japan’s post-1945 history as a nation under a “Peace Constitution,” “the image of a barbaric militarized Japan continues to be circulated in Chinese texts as a way of securitizing China against Japan”—of effecting “a productive cultural governance that further institutionalizes the borders between the self and the Other, between patriotic citizens and foreign enemies.” Writing in 2007, Callahan observed that “this state-driven security narrative has been internalized by the Chinese public—who themselves now police public discourse about Japan with a vengeance” (Callahan 2007).

The gendered character of this securitization project is most striking in the official historiography and public memory of the Nanjing massacre, the six-week spree of murder, rape, looting, and other acts of terror that accompanied the Japanese army’s entry into the Republican capital in December 1937. By depicting China as a feminine victim of sexual violence or emasculated male victim of beheading, these accounts produce an opposite image of China as militarized, masculine agent of victory and national redemption. “[F]eminine victim and masculine hero are not exclusive opposites,” notes Callahan; “each is necessary to constitute the other in the production of the symbolic coherence of (Chinese) identity” (Callahan 2007). Indeed, as this module has shown from the Japanese side, the gender politics of feminine victim and patriarchal masculine hero, as well as the ambivalences that such polarized constructions incite, are crucial to any understanding of the history of Sino-Japanese relations in the modern era.

However, surveys also show that a growing number of Chinese are gaining new views of Japan due to their decreasing reliance on television and increasing use of mobile technologies as a source of information, and to their own experiences of traveling there (“Sex, Hate, and Japan” 2013: Katō 2016). In Japan as well, efforts have been made to combat Sinophobia (Penney 2008). Still, despite increasing economic ties and travel between the two countries, the Japanese right, led by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, has pushed a hard line on territorial issues and, in historian Matthew Penney’s words, “tied it to a generalized discourse of ‘national crisis’” that has adversely affected media treatments of the Sino-Japanese relationship (Penney, personal communication 2017). Japan’s conservative leadership depends on such rhetoric to sustain its support among crucial domestic constituencies. The Chinese government, similarly attentive to popular sentiment as it negotiates its own relationship to a society experiencing massive socioeconomic dislocations, has not slackened on its denunciations of Japan’s positions.

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