Adding to a growing list of diplomatic disputes between China and Japan, a Chinese group is demanding that Japan’s emperor return a 1,300-year-old artifact that was allegedly looted by Japanese soldiers in the 1930s. According to a Xinhua report, the artifact in question is the Honglujing Stele, originally from “northeastern China.” The request was made in a letter addressed to Emperor Akihito of Japan by the China Federation of Demanding Compensation from Japan (CFDC) via Japan’s embassy in China. The request has been prominently reported by both China’s domestic and international media outlets, suggesting that part of the intent is to shame Japan for its actions during the first half of the 20th century.
From Xinhua‘s report, it is unclear the extent to which the Chinese government is involved in the request for the return of the artifact. The China Federation of Demanding Compensation from Japan (CFDC) is a civic group, independent of the government. According to Xinhua, “this is the first time a Chinese civic group has asked the Japanese imperial family for the return of a looted Chinese relic.” The group “seeks compensation for personal, material and spiritual damage caused by Japanese militarism during the country’s aggression against China in the 20th century.”
As for the artifact itself, its significance stems from the fact that it “shows that the first king of the Bohai Kingdom was conferred the title by an emperor of China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907).” Physically, it is “three meters wide, 1.8 meters tall and two meters thick.” The Honglujing Stele originated in Liaoning, but was plundered by the Japanese army around 1908. Wang Jinsi, CFDC’s director in charge of recovering cultural relics, notes that Japan plundered “some 3.6 million relics from China and ransacked some 740 relic sites during the five decades between the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.” He notes that “these historic relics, which belong to China but now lie in Japan, have done great damage to Sino-Japanese ties.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The incident adds to a long list of disputes between Japan and China in recent years. Since 2012, the long-standing dispute between the two countries over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets has flared up. Additionally, since Japan’s nationalist right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, came to power in late 2012, China has constantly warned of rising Japanese militarism. Abe’s visit to thee controversial Yasukuni Shrine caused tensions to rise in December 2013 as China accused Abe of historical insensitivity.
According to tradition, Japan’s emperor is considered divine and is seen as the supreme ceremonial figurehead of Japan. It remains to be seen if the emperor will take any action to respond to this request from China. Strictly speaking, the Japanese foreign ministry and Shinzo Abe’s cabinet should have little to do with responding to the Chinese group’s inquiry.
Regardless of Japan’s response, the request demonstrates the extent to which historical issues underlie the deep mistrust between China and Japan today.