Despite the 'ice-breaking' trips, distrust of Japan still runs deep

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

Historical issues are time bombs ticking in bilateral ties between China and Japan - no matter how close economic relations become, relations will not be truly cordial until these issues are resolved, Chinese war-history activists say.

The 'ice-breaking' trips by leaders of both countries since 2006 may have boosted trade, but activists emphasise that history has not been forgotten and distrust of Japan still runs deep.

As President Hu Jintao prepares for this week's visit to Japan, they urge Chinese leaders to continue pressing Japan on historical issues. The Tokyo trip is the first by a Chinese head of state in a decade and the first since former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi angered Beijing with frequent visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

'They might think that the mention of history would affect Sino-Japanese relations, but it is a pain the Chinese people can never brush away,' said author Chen Zhongshun, who has been interviewing wartime victims for 30 years.

'Without a correct understanding of history, it is possible that serious confrontations will arise between the younger generations on both sides, fuelled by new rivalries and old hatreds,' Mr Chen said.

In 2005, student protests broke out across 20 mainland cities after the Japanese government approved a right-wing publisher's textbook which blamed China for starting the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war, and whitewashed the Nanking Massacre.

Young Chinese also tend to distrust Japan and see it in a negative light. This undercurrent surfaces in chat rooms whenever disputes arise between China and Japan.

Veteran wartime-compensation activist Tong Zeng said such emotions were unavoidable because Japan was not putting its words into action.

'Japan's current policy cannot convince the world of its quest for peace,' Mr Tong said.

Visits by government officials and parliamentarians to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 14 class-A war criminals, and the continued approval by the government of textbooks that water down Japan's aggression during its invasion of China, are just two examples.

The two governments set up a joint study group in 2006 with the hope of clearing up differences on wartime history. However, there have been no breakthroughs.

For Mr Tong, the most important thing is to help those victims still alive. 'Apologies are insufficient. Japan must take concrete action, such as to provide compensation.'

For 19 years, Mr Tong has been trying to locate wartime victims - comfort women, men forced into hard labour and those injured by indiscriminate bombing and by bacterial and chemical weapons - and get compensation from the Japanese government and corporations. But he has been unsuccessful. His last attempt was turned down by Japan's high court in April of last year.

Mr Tong is now working on ways to provide financial assistance to these victims, whose numbers are quickly dwindling due to age.

By the end of last year, his organisation, the China Federation for Demanding Compensation from Japan, had located 540 surviving victims, 475 of whom were forced labourers.

'Every leader since Deng Xiaoping has always emphasised to their Japanese counterparts of the need to 'learn from history',' Mr Tong said.

'We trust that our leader this time will do the same.'

He said he hoped Mr Hu would be able to pressure Japan to at least offer apologies and financial help to the wartime victims, especially the very few comfort women still alive.

'They are all like candles, their last flame flickering. If Japan still does not do something, the damage caused will be irrevocable.'

Chinese experts estimate there were at least 200,000 comfort women on Chinese soil alone. There are now about 50 left, Mr Tong said.