China Power

How Imperial Japan Shaped Modern China

A new book explores how Japan’s brutal occupation is still shaping Sino-Japanese relations.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held in Bali, Indonesia earlier this month, it seems that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping patched up the most serious differences between their two countries, at least for the time being. We are now in one of the many cooling down periods in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations, which has been one part of their fluctuating relationship over the last few years.

If we want to understand why relations between Japan and China are so complex and easy to inflame, then reading through the narrative history offered by British historian, Rana Mitter’s book on the Sino-Japanese War, China’s War With Japan: The Struggle for Survival, may help. According to the book, Japan had been an important inspiration for China in the early 20th century, with over 30,000 Chinese students visiting the archipelago to study. A whole generation of émigré Chinese intellectuals and politicians, from reformers like Liang Qichao to Sun Yat-sen, lived in exile there. The book addresses how the war that started in 1937 was actually a case of Japan becoming an aggressor where once it had been an ally to the Chinese. That made the titanic viciousness of the following eight years even more searing.

Mitter covers the great landmark events in this aggression – including the Nanjing massacre, in which civilians were left to take the brunt of a mechanized Japanese onslaught, the frenzy of which still lives in the collective memories of Chinese to this day, and also the fall of Shanghai early in 1937. His book also powerfully demonstrates one fact that is often forgotten now, that China was an ally of the U.K. and the U.S. in this conflict. And despite unimaginable suffering and horror at the hands of invading waves of Japanese soldiers, the Nationalists and Communists in their United Front never surrendered. There were plenty of times when factions within China, the most famous led by nationalist politician Wang Jingwei, counseled for a tactical surrender. Had their advice been heeded, then the whole Pacific area would have been opened to Imperial Japan’s armies. That alone would have made the outcome of the global war more complicated than it was already. The U.S. and its allies would have had to try and overtake a vast territory under occupation, with the chance the conflict could have continued for many more years.

The Chinese armies did not surrender, even though the odds against them were often staggering. The Chinese people at this time suffered famine, rape, brutality and mistreatment at the hands of invaders, the ill-disciplined and corrupt local elites. U.S. assistance, via figures like General Stilwell, was often too little. By Mitter’s reckoning, the U.S. figured that China was a side story to the European fight, and was one that needed few resources and even less attention. Stilwell’s imperious attitude to Chiang Kai-shek led to the start of distrust in the relationship, which lingers to this day.

For the Chinese, the only conclusions that can be drawn from such a war were that the Americans are shallow allies and the Europeans are a source of endless trouble and interference, always trying to protect their own interests at the expense of others. Meanwhile, at China’s moment of vulnerability, the Japanese people revealed a murderous ruthlessness and nearly annihilated their country. Of course, it was the parlous Qing and Republican elites who had left China in such a weak state before this conflict started. But no country deserved the suffering that China experienced from 1937.

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The world has moved on from this dark period. But the shadows of Japanese imperialist aggression still falls across so much Asian history, and particularly lingers in China’s national memory. This is why the relationship between Japanese and Chinese leaders will always be a tough one, at least in our lifetimes. That is also why, as Mitter’s account powerfully shows, we are still living in a world forged over seven decades earlier, and why we cannot properly understand why China is sometimes driven to behave in the way that it does without first understanding the history behind it.