[The following is an op-ed, and does not necessarily express the opinions of the editors.]
After the outbreak of anti-Japan riots in China incited by the Diaoyudao dispute, I asked my Chinese teacher, “Why do you think the anti-Japan sentiment is still so strong in China?” “I think it is because many Chinese people are upset that Japan still has not formally apologized for the atrocities they committed against China in the past,” she answered. “I feel the same way, too. I know every country, including China, has a dark history. But that does not mean Japan doesn’t have the obligation to admit its past mistakes. Germany has apologized for the Holocaust. Why hasn’t Japan apologized for its past aggression?”
Growing up, I always felt slightly ashamed of Japan, even indignant. When I learned about the atrocities Imperial Japan committed during the Second World War, I asked the same questions that my teacher asked—Why has Japan never admitted its wartime atrocities, and why has it never apologized?—until one day, I learned that Japan has apologized for its past aggression.
Or so I thought.
Apology? Yes and no
This yes-no question—has Japan apologized to China?—is not so simple as it seems. As this article on New York Times’ Chinese language site points out, Japan has repeatedly attempted to apologize for its wartime aggression. But Japan’s attempted apologies, China claims, have so far been unsatisfactory or insincere.
In 1972, 1995, and in 2001, various Japanese prime ministers have issued what they considered to be a valid apology. Each time, China rejected the statement as a valid apology for one or more of three reasons: 1) the lack of the explicit mention of the word “apology,” 2) the lack of the explicit mention of China as the victim of Japanese aggression, and 3) the apology was only stated in a speech, but not written down in an official document.
The New York Times article claims that Japan satisfied all but the third requirement for the first time in 2001, when Prime Minister Koizumi visited China. This is, however, debatable. In 1997, Prime Minister Hashimoto stated during a press conference in Beijing:
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Government of Japan expressed its resolution through the statement by the Prime Minister, which states that during a certain period in the past, Japan’s conduct caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, including China, and the Prime Minister expressed his feeling of deep remorse and stated his heartfelt apology, while giving his word to make efforts for peace.
Perhaps what China wanted was to be singled out as the only country that suffered Japanese aggression, instead of being grouped amongst the “many countries.”
Over the last four decades, Japan has been rewording and reissuing statements in attempt to meet China’s criteria for a “valid” apology. “Japan does want to fully express its apologies to China,” my father said to me once, “And we have been trying to do so. It’s just that every time we try, China seems to come up with new criteria, new definitions. If they truly do want to let us apologize and move on, why not tell us all the criteria from the beginning? It just feels like China is making up reasons to reject our apologies on purpose.”
Fatigue—this is what haunts Japan’s diplomatic relation with China. Many Japanese feel exhausted trying to satisfy China’s seemingly unending demands, and this fatigue also stems from the perception among many Japanese that China refuses to recognize, let alone show gratitude toward, Japan’s Official Development Assistance.
In the “Joint Communiqués Between Japan and China” signed by Prime Minister Tanaka and Chairman Mao in 1972, “the Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that in the interest of the friendship between the Chinese and the Japanese peoples, it renounces its demand for war reparation from Japan.” Nevertheless, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, from 1979 to 2006, Japan loaned US$40 billion to China in the form of ODA (Official Development Assistance), of which a very small percentage, US$1.8 million, comprised pure donations.
Beijing International Airport, Shanghai Pudong Airport, and the Beijing subway system were all constructed with the help of Japanese ODA. Yet because the Chinese government refuses to publicize this fact, most Chinese citizens are under the impression that Japan has provided little, if any, financial aid to China.
Granted, no amount of money could ever compensate wartime horrors such as the Rape of Nanking. And ODA is different from war reparation; it is, after all, a loan. But it is important to note that Japan is not trying to add insult to injury by withholding reparations. Japanese aid takes the form of ODA because China willingly renounced its claims to war reparations—something of which most Chinese citizens are also unaware. Over the years, Japan became embittered and fatigued as its assistance went unrecognized. “No matter how much we help China, China will simply take it for granted and continue to demand more,” many Japanese citizens complained. “Even Chinese citizens don’t even know that they are receiving aid from Japan. Why should Japan continue to send aid to China if they show absolutely no sign of gratitude?” Finally, in 2007, Japan ended the ODA program to China.
Looking to the future
The history of China-Japan relations is more complex than most Chinese or Japanese people realize; it is not an issue that can be solved with a single apology. Yet there is too little information, and too little dialogue about it. How many Chinese people know about Japan’s attempted apologies to China? (New York Times’ Chinese-language site is now blocked in China.) How many Chinese people know about the US$40 billion that Japan has sent to China?
Of course, there are many other factors that must be considered when discussing China-Japan relation, including the Yasukuni Shrine controversy, a subject deserving its own article. But there is reason to hope for the future of China-Japan relations. If Japan accepts its past and issues an official written apology addressed specifically and exclusively to China, and if China’s government and its citizens recognize Japan’s efforts, relations will improve. That is easily enough said, but in neither country does it appear to be in any leader’s immediate interest to take the first step. Until that occurs, the hurt feelings and misunderstandings will continue.