Japan risks losing a global public relations battle with China after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial shrine for war dead and comments by other prominent figures on the wartime past has helped Beijing try to paint Tokyo as the villain of Asia.
Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by territorial rows, regional rivalry and disputes stemming from China’s bitter memories of Japan’s occupation of parts of the country before and during World War II. Relations chilled markedly in 2012 after a feud over disputed East China Sea islets, known as the Senkakus in Japan, the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in Taiwan and the Diaoyu Archipelago in China, of all which claim them.
However, Beijing has stepped up its campaign to sway international public opinion since Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine.
The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because it honors leaders convicted as war criminals with millions of war dead.
That strategy has helped China shift some of the debate away from its growing military assertiveness in Asia, including double-digit percentage defense spending increases and the recent creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that was condemned by Tokyo and Washington, experts said.
“Right now, this is a real war,” said Shin Tanaka, president of the Fleishman Hillard Japan Group in Tokyo, a communications consultancy.
“Japan and China are using missiles called ‘messages’ and the reality is that a lot of damage is already happening in both countries,” he added, warning of a mutual backlash of nationalist emotions and potential harm to business ties.
Abe has repeatedly said that he did not visit the shrine to honor war criminals, but to pay his respects to those who died for their country and pledge Japan would never again go to war.
Getting that message across is not easy, communications and political experts said. Abe’s Yasukuni visit “gave China the opportunity ... to attack Japan and send the message that China is the good guy and Japan is the bad guy,” Tanaka said.
Some Japanese diplomats and officials dismissed any suggestion they were worried, saying Tokyo’s rebuttals and the country’s post-war record of peace would win the day.
“Their Goebbelsian PR binge — repeat it 100 times then it becomes true, ungrounded or not — shows all the symptoms of a Leninist regime still remaining in the 21st century,” Tomohiko Taniguchi, a councilor in the Japanese Cabinet secretariat of the prime minister’s office, said in an e-mail.
He was referring to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda from 1933 to 1945.
“Yes we feel annoyed, but the next moment we relax for we have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said.
Still, experts said Abe’s shrine visit had made it easier for Beijing to try to link Japan’s militarist past with Abe’s plans to bolster the military and loosen limits on the the Japanese pacifist constitution.
“The most fundamental thing they say is to assert that Japan is going on a path of militarism a la the 1930s. That’s just nonsense,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “But the problem is the Chinese are able to blur a lot of this stuff because of what Abe did.”