A Conversation about Japan

I am, for the vast majority of the time, a quiet person. As I’ve written before I’m vexed by internal doubt and so very slow to make up my mind, and slow to judge others. Privately I often rail and seethe, but take small pride in my insistence to let people and ideas have their say.

anti-Japanese sign in a guesthouse
Sign in a guesthouse in Fenghuang, South Central China. A very popular ancient town.

I think this may often come across that I’m bland, unmotivated and excessively amicable among strangers and a viciously dismissive chronic complainer with friends. In my defence, I think I have very high standards of those closest to me. I’ve judged you to be of high moral character, intelligence, loyalty and thoughtfulness, and I can’t stop myself chiding you when you fail to live up to those standards – as I do myself, I might add, and oh how often I fail.

In China I’m for the most part even more reserved. It’s not my country, it’s not my culture, so it’s absolutely none of my business to go on a crusade to ‘fix’ it. Besides, even up to today my grasp of the language isn’t good enough to risk getting embroiled in a situation where I have no hope of ever fighting my way out with my vocabulary of just hundreds to low thousands of words.


Sometimes a close friend just says something and I can’t let it go. I don’t feel like I can morally sit by and watch another person who I hold dear hold and encourage certain views unchallenged. In this case it was one of my Chinese, English teaching colleagues and good friend.

A conversation

We sat down for lunch and I asked how her class went. I knew she’d been really busy preparing students for their mandatory TEM-4 exam that all English majors take in their second year and must pass to graduate, so I wanted to know how it went today, with the test date approaching. She started to tell me how it hadn’t been satisfying.

They’d been working on some reading and listening materials about nuclear weapons with the general point being discussion about their monstrosity. The main material was about the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Japan – in 1945. She told me she just couldn’t get the students to see past this example of the Japanese being bombed and think about the inhumanity of such a weapon. The students kept coming back to the fact that it was the Japanese who’d been bombed and so it didn’t matter – no, more than that it was a good thing because they deserved it and it ended the suffering of the Chinese. They felt no empathy for the humans in the situation (in fact I’ve wanted to write something about empathy in China for a long time, but that will have to wait a little longer).


This didn’t surprise me at all. Anti-Japanese sentiment is ridiculously high in China and where I live in Nanjing (the site of the massacre of 300,000 innocents by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937) is obscenely high. This antagonism is fanned on by the government from the earliest possible opportunity. At least as early as their second year in primary school, students learn all about how and why to hate the Japanese with every bone in their body.

My friend told me how she felt a real disconnect and was disappointed that the lesson had ended with the students not having grasped the core message – that to be bombed with a nuclear weapon would be the worst thing ever.

A couple of months earlier during Spring Festival I’d had lunch with my friend and her seven year old daughter. We ate at a Japanese noodle and tempura bar. When her daughter realised what this restaurant was she got visibly riled up and asked why we were eating here. Until her mother insisted it’s just food, she was refusing to eat. This prompted a short conversation where I asked my friend’s daughter why she didn’t like Japan. I got the kind of response you’d expect from a child who’s been told a particular truth and what they should think about it, and didn’t feel it would be appropriate to make any more of it. My friend complimented her daughter on her robust criticism of the villainous Japanese and praised her vigorous patriotism. In fact, she said “爱国好,爱民族也好” – yes, you should love your country, and your nationality.

Having held my tongue at that time (we only talked very briefly about why she thought patriotism was important, and I said I think the attitude is dangerous) and confronted with the situation of her students today, I felt it was an appropriate opportunity to make my point.


My point being that hearing of anyone having the attitude that other humans are deserving of a nuclear bomb makes me feel repulsed. I struggle to imagine a person who can’t feel any of another’s pain. Can’t see, even slightly, the common humanity between them and someone else. My analysis is that this attitude is incredibly dangerous.

At this point my friend stopped and looked towards me. No, no, she said, Japanese are aggressive, us Chinese are always peaceful. I re-iterated that I wasn’t insinuating that anything will happen, nor was I apportioning blame for any thoughts or actions. She asked me what I know about Chinese history, and concluded that it isn’t enough, else I couldn’t have this view.

I continued that this attitude of her students, and possibly also of her daughter isn’t just frustrating when we want to talk about nuclear bombs, it’s deeply worrying when we think about human relations. I find it seriously concerning that almost all the young people I’ve met in China have no opinion on domestic politics, apathy towards world politics, and fanatical hatred of Japan. I saw an obvious parallel here, so I presented it:

The Japanese had their ‘century of humiliation’, very similar to China’s although not a century long. It was mostly at the hands of the USA – ports were forcibly opened, railways built, modern guns introduced, traditional social structures massively disrupted. They felt weak, humiliated and powerless, so they turned in on themselves and emerged with a national mood of profound jingoism and racial superiority. They determined never to be weak and at the mercy of other powers again by becoming strong and taking what is rightfully theirs. It ended so terribly badly for the rest of the world, and eventually for Japan.

This is the exact same story I see building up today in China. Certainly nowhere near as intensely, but the similarities are strong. A century of humiliation (which the Chinese will never let you forget. In fact I have another article in me about Chinese victimhood), a period of introspection and violent revolution and finally emergence with a determined focus to become great, powerful and strong so they’ll never be abused again.

Communication Failures

Her reply to this was a lot of noes. A lot of head shaking. Insistence that I’m not Chinese so I don’t understand, and I don’t know Chinese history so I don’t understand, and I don’t know Chinese people – Chinese people are peaceful, we have never, when have we ever started a war? We don’t. We haven’t. We won’t.

It all got very much excessively personal from this point onward. Me personally questioning China and her personally invalidating me, and then more and more ‘Westerners’ and ‘The West’ (oh not ‘The West’ again, please). Not being old enough became a major disqualifier, which I should have expected, because however hard Mao Zedong tried, and however many millions died in his cultural revolution(s), Confucianism remains the dominant ideology in 21st century China:

  • Family first,
  • Do as your parents say,
  • Age is correlated absolutely with wisdom and seniority.

An evil people

I attempted to find some common ground by affirming that Japanese conduct in the first half of the twentieth century was abhorrent, and plainly unjustifiable. My problem, I presented, is with the attitude today towards today’s Japan and today’s Japanese. Attitudes and behaviour can and have changed. Why harbour distrust and animosity when you can foster dialogue and mutual understanding?

She said that the Japanese are an evil people.

I didn’t really have a response, beyond profound sadness.

I had started to write some evidence here to show how not-evil the Japanese are, but that’s totally the wrong way to approach this. The Japanese don’t need to show any evidence that they’re not ‘an evil people’, because to make such a claim is to mark yourself out as capable of erasing another’s humanity. To say that a group of people are inherently irredeemable – biblical notions of original sin aside – is to dehumanise them. It is to demarcate them as not sharing the same fundamental values we believe all humans share, and as I had been trying to point out, invite the most terrible atrocities to be committed against them. If my friend and her class and her daughter truly believe that the Japanese are an ill-fated race, destined always to abuse others, then it would be a dereliction of their duty as humans not to solve this world problem.

One final solution.

I sincerely hope this isn’t a future which awaits us.

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