Air raid sirens sounded in the Chinese city of Nanjing yesterday, 75 years after Japanese soldiers embarked on mass killing and rape, with the Asian giants’ ties riven over a territorial row.
The two countries — the world’s second and third-largest economies — have extensive trade and business links, but the weight of Japan’s wartime atrocities still bears heavily on their relationship.
Nearly 10,000 people sang the Chinese national anthem at a commemoration at the Nanjing Massacre Museum, as soldiers in dress uniforms carried memorial wreaths across a stage and officials urged remembrance of the past.
Beforehand an elderly woman cried as she placed flowers by the names of family members listed among the victims on a gray stone wall, and a group of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks chanted sutras to pray for world peace.
“We are here to recall history, grieve for compatriots who suffered and died, and educate the people ... about the lessons of history,” said Nanjing Communist Party Secretary Yang Weize (楊衛澤), the only government official who spoke.
China says 300,000 civilians and soldiers died in a spree of killing, rape and destruction in the six weeks after the Japanese military entered the then-capital on Dec. 13, 1937.
Some foreign academics put the number of deaths lower, including China historian Jonathan Spence, who estimates that 42,000 soldiers and citizens were killed and 20,000 women raped, many of whom later died.
Fewer than 200 survivors remain, according to Chinese estimates. One of them, Li Zhong, 87, said he can never forgive, recalling how people had to restrain a man who grabbed a knife to kill Japanese soldiers after his wife was raped.
“There are fewer and fewer of us survivors every year,” he said. “We must never forget history.”
Kai Satoru, the son of a Japanese soldier who served in China, was among the hand-picked audience, which included Chinese students, soldiers and government officials, as well as Japanese NGO representatives.
“I am here to admit the crimes. They [Japanese soldiers] competed to kill people,” he said.
The 75th anniversary has taken on added meaning given the poor state of bilateral ties, a Chinese academic said.
“We need to remain on serious alert about the tendency in Japan to deny the fact of Japan’s wartime aggression,” Wu Jinan (吳寄南) of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said. “The anniversary may only cool relations further to reach a freezing point. Currently, it’s hard to see any signs of improvement.”
Protests against Japan erupted in Chinese cities earlier this year, causing an estimated US$100 million in damage and losses to Japanese firms, after Tokyo nationalized three of the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea. The islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan, are also claimed by Taiwan.
Chinese dissidents say the Chinese Communist Party nurtures anti-Japanese sentiment as part of its claim to a right to rule. Beijing typically cracks down on public protests, but the anti-Japan demonstrations were allowed to take place.
A Japanese diplomat, who declined to be named, said Tokyo hoped for an improvement in relations after his country holds general elections in a few days’ time and China’s own leadership transition is completed next year.
However, some ultra-conservative Japanese politicians dispute that atrocities ever took place in Nanjing.
Japan says it has apologized to Asian countries, citing a 2005 statement by then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” in a reiteration of an earlier pronouncement in 1995.
In an inconclusive joint study two years ago, the Japanese side pointed to “various estimates” for the number of deaths, ranging from as low as 20,000 to 200,000.