Legacy of war in Asia
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The online publication of an archive of 35,000 photos taken during the Japanese wartime occupation of China has riled Chinese social media. Photo: North China Railway archive

Japanese wartime photos strike a nerve in China

  • Kyoto University publishes 35,000 photographs taken during Japan’s occupation of China
  • Chinese social media users recall legacy of invasion

The release online of 35,000 photographs taken during the Japanese occupation of China between 1936 and 1945 has riled Chinese social media commenters.

Until now the photographs, taken by the North China Transportation Company, a railway freight firm owned by the puppet government set up by the Japanese, were used only for historical research.

Japanese broadcaster NHK reported that Kyoto University’s humanities department had published the photographs online.

They include scenes of daily life during the wartime occupation and many of the photographs also show Japanese soldiers marching in formation, doing manual labour or posing with weapons.

The memory of Japan’s invasion and subsequent occupation of China remains a sore point for many in China.

“I am still unable to forgive the war crimes during the invasion [of China],” said one highly rated comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service.

“I still haven’t forgotten the nation’s shame, acknowledging the country’s genuine history is very important,” read another post that received more than 14,000 likes.

Chinese school history lessons tend to emphasise Japanese wartime occupation as a source of national humiliation, along with China’s defeat to the British Empire in the 19th century opium wars.

An archive of photographs taken during the Japanese occupation of China has riled Chinese social media users. Photo: North China Railway archive

Researchers estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese were killed during the Nanking massacre, a mass rape and murder committed by Japanese troops in the city now called Nanjing.

But the legacy of Japan’s occupation of China remains highly contested by both countries.

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Japanese academics have accused China of exaggerating death tolls for propaganda purposes, while many Chinese citizens claim the Japanese government has not done enough to acknowledge its wartime crimes.

The issue remains a sore point in China-Japan relations – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently been criticised by China for visiting and sending offerings in recent years to the Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japanese war dead.

The occupation is also a source of persistent anti-Japan sentiment among China’s older generations as well as younger patriotic Chinese.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Japanese wartime photos strike nerve on mainland