On Japan Surrender Day, Chinese Lose the Outrage

At 9:35 this morning, Shanghai’s state-owned Xinmin Evening News newspaper tweeted a reminder to its 1.8 million followers on the Sina Weibo microblogging service: “The Japanese surrendered 68 years ago today!” The tweet honored the about 35 million Chinese who died during World War II and included five black-and-white images from the war, including a photo of a Japanese soldier standing over a trench filled with the bodies of Chinese civilians, and another of Japanese soldiers loading Chinese into trucks.

Images like these would be emotionally charged in any country that suffered a foreign invasion. But in China, where there’s a long-standing national consensus that Japan has never truly apologized for World War II, they have ongoing resonance. In recent weeks, it has only grown stronger with news (heavily promoted by Chinese state-owned news organizations) that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to repeal Japan’s pacifist war-time constitution and that Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is suggesting Japan should follow Nazi Germany’s example on constitutional reform. There was also the appearance of Japan’s imperial “rising sun” flag at a South Korean soccer match, and the launch of Japan’s biggest naval vessel since the end of World War II, a vessel that shares a name with a ship that partook in the Japanese invasion of China.

These events, combined with a year of diplomatic and military tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and the memory of 2012’s nationwide anti-Japanese riots, made the run-up to this year’s anniversary of the Japanese surrender particularly tense. Making matters even worse was the question of whether Abe would make a controversial visit to Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni Shrine honoring the 2.5 million Japanese who died in the war.

The shrine memorializes 14 Class-A war criminals from World War II, including the executed former prime minister Hideki Tojo. In past years, senior Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the 2000s, have visited the site, much to the dismay of Chinese and Koreans. On Aug. 7, People’s Daily, the flagship publication of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that a visit this year would serve as an expression of a perverted political mindset still grounded in the 1930s:

“As deviant right-wing views grow stronger, all sorts of words and deeds involving blatant denial, beautifying aggression, and condoning abuses of human rights manifest themselves in Japan.”

The consequences of this outlook, the editors wrote, will be international marginalization and opportunities for China to seize the moral high ground in disputes:

“Aug. 15 is the anniversary of the day on which the people of Asia finally succeeded in freeing themselves from the ravaging effects of Japanese militarism. We wish that right-wing Japanese politicians would amend their view of history, and stop stirring up trouble and anger.”

Abe is no doubt keenly aware of the cost of further conflict with China (the Japanese-Chinese conflict over the Diaoyu Island chain cost the Japanese economy dearly in 2012). So, late Wednesday, he announced that he wouldn’t visit Yasukuni but would instead send a sacred tree branch purchased with personal funds. However, he made clear his ministers would be free to attend the shrine. Two cabinet members, as well as Koizumi’s son, were photographed entering the shrine early this morning.

By the time most Chinese were waking up, those images were already circulating online. The Xinmin Evening News included three of them with the five black-and-white World War II images in its morning tweet. Curiously, though, despite having 1.8 million followers and a photo set perfectly tuned to ignite anger, the tweet failed to garner much interest. By late afternoon, it had been forwarded less than 100 times and generated fewer than 20 comments. By contrast, People’s Daily tweeted nine far more graphic World War II images of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese without any reference to Yasukuni visits past or present. The post received more than 36,500 forwards.

The most striking reaction to today’s Yasukuni visits has been how little interest they seem to generating on Chinese social media. Unlike in the past, at no point during the day did “Yasukuni,” “815” (commonly used shorthand for the surrender day), or other associated words appear on Sina Weibo’s trending topic list or the “hot search term” list at Baidu, China’s leading search engine. (This may be by design: Trending and hot topic lists in China are often censored to downplay certain topics.)

But even with what appears to be a free discussion of the anniversary and Yasukuni, there’s a decided lack of online anti-Japanese anger of the sort that has characterized disputes between the two countries in the past. What accounts for this indifference? Certainly, there’s no lack of grassroots Chinese enmity toward Japan. Rather, it seems that China’s online communities aren’t particularly worked up about how Japanese commemorate their war dead.

Instead, many Chinese commentators are wondering when the Chinese government will do more to honor those Chinese who died during World War II. One of the more pointed comments was made by Zhou Pengan, a semi-famous Communist Party official in Anhui, Province, who tweeted to Sina Weibo:

“Chinese always react violently when Japanese politicians visit the Yasukuni shrine. But Chinese should realize that the spirits of the soldiers are heroes in the eyes of the Japanese. How could politicians not visit? We should reflect upon how we treat our martyrs and when our politicians might hold a national memorial ceremony for them.”

That ceremony didn’t happen on Thursday, and it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The Yasukuni Shrine, however, is likely to remain a mainstay of Chinese news for many years to come.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

( (Corrects nationality of leaders in fourth paragraph.) )

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Adam Minter at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Kirsten Salyer

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.