BEIJING — The last exhibit room at the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Memorial Hall in west Beijing opens with a panel proclaiming: “Chinese and Japanese People Should Be Friends Forever.” But in recent months, curators at the museum dedicated to Japan’s 1931-45 occupation of the mainland have tacked on an awkward postscript that highlights just how unfriendly things have gotten between the two governments lately.
One new panel denounces Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December 2013 trip to a shrine that honors Japan’s combat dead, including some senior war criminals. Another poster highlights China’s recent declaration of two new national days of commemoration related to Japan’s World War II invasion, known here as the Anti-Japanese War.
On the way out, visitors can buy postcards at the nation’s “first Anti-Japanese War post office,” which opened Friday. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the museum and gave a high-profile address commemorating the 77th anniversary of a 1937 battle that’s considered the start to the full-scale war between the two countries.
The amended exhibits and Xi’s speech are part of an increasingly intense effort by Chinese authorities to remind citizens at home and the world at large of Tokyo’s wartime brutality as the two nations spar over territory and jockey for power and influence in Asia.
Japan contends that it has made amends and that an increasingly assertive China is overreacting to its efforts to become a more “normal country” after seven decades of pacifism.
China, though, is warning against what it sees as renewed Japanese efforts to downplay its wartime history and even remilitarize; Japan last week “reinterpreted” its pacifist post-World War II Constitution to allow its military to help defend the U.S. and other allies.
The battle over history has come as China’s economy has surpassed Japan’s to become No. 2 in the world and as Beijing has gotten involved in increasingly testy territorial disputes with neighbors including the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Japan.
“History is history, and facts are facts. Nobody can change history and facts,” Xi declared Monday at the museum before an audience of 1,000, his words carried live by state-run television, a relatively rare occurrence in China. “Anyone who wants to deny, distort or beautify the history of the invasion will definitely not find agreement from the people of China or the rest of the world.”
Last week, Xi took a similar message to South Koreans in the hope of strengthening Beijing’s ties with Seoul, a longtime U.S. ally.
In public remarks, he sought to emphasize how China and South Korea had been victimized by Japan’s 20th century aggression, and he told the speaker of parliament that “China and South Korea have similar experience in history and shared interest on the issue of history related to Japan.”
He even suggested joint events with South Korea next year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of both countries’ liberation from Japan in 1945.
That proposal follows a request by China last month to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, to register the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” compelled to work in Japanese military brothels in its “Memory of the World” documentary program. China has also invited foreign reporters on trips to Nanjing in the hope that they’ll write about wartime atrocities in the city.
“This is a new strategy,” Lye Liang Fook, assistant director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said of China’s publicity campaign. “It has both a bilateral and a regional dimension.”
Japan isn’t taking China’s PR offensive lying down. “Attempts to take up history in vain and make it an international issue will not contribute at all to building peace and cooperation in the region,” Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said at a news conference after Xi’s remarks in Seoul.
This week, Abe embarked on some regional diplomacy of his own, visiting Australia, where he was to sign a deal for the two nations to jointly develop submarine technology. On the trip, he told a newspaper that his “door is always open for dialogue” with China.
But that small overture was quickly overshadowed by a fresh dust-up: Abe’s foreign minister complained that a Chinese newspaper had recently printed a graphic with a headline saying, “Japan wants a war again.” The map in the Chongqing Youth News showed mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities where the U.S. dropped atomic bombs in 1945.
Some in Japan are worried that Tokyo isn’t doing enough to counter Beijing’s increasingly large megaphone. The Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, published a report last week noting that China has poured billions of dollars into the global expansion of its state-run media network, including CCTV and the China Daily newspaper, and that Japan spends a fraction of that on overseas programming for national broadcaster NHK.
Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Center in Hawaii, said the increasingly high-volume battle between China and Japan is unnerving for other countries in the region.
“Most countries would like China to be getting along with its neighbors,” Morrison said. “I remember one very senior Vietnamese official once saying, ‘If this is how China treats Japan, just think how they’ll treat those of us who are much smaller or weaker.’”
Although Japan and China are increasingly airing their differences before a global audience, insecurities on the domestic front also may play a significant role in explaining why the two sides cannot seem to heal old wounds.
“Both societies are somewhat brittle now. The Japanese still are feeling that their economy is not yet out of the woods; there’s kind of a crisis of confidence and they’re being overshadowed by China,” Morrison said. “I think there is a strong feeling that they need to stand up for their own interests, and that’s behind the kinds of stances that have been taken on collective defense ... and the (shrine) visit and other things that have really annoyed the Chinese.”
On the Chinese side, a tough stance on Japan might help Xi increase his stature within the military ranks and among a segment of society that’s strongly nationalistic and very vocal online, Morrison said.
“There’s also a good deal of social tension and there’s also the ethnic violence that we’re starting to see more and more evidence of,” he said, with minority Uighurs stepping up terrorist attacks.
For decades, the economies of Japan and China have been closely linked, providing ballast for more stormy political relations. Japanese investment was a significant factor in China’s transformation from a centrally planned agrarian state to the world’s factory floor.
But the two economies appear to be de-linking to some degree. Japan’s trade with China fell 6.5 percent to $312 billion in 2013, down for the second consecutive year. And Japanese investments in China have dropped as companies look increasingly to Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, a number of Chinese said they thought the downturn in relations was not a permanent shift.
Bill Xiong, 21, a college student majoring in chemistry, was visiting the museum Monday and recalled growing up watching Japanese cartoons and reading Japanese comics. “On the grass-roots level there’s still a strong connection, but on a national level, it’s hard right now,” he said.
Li Yunzhen, 80, who fled Shanghai during the war, said she came to the museum hoping to buy some stamps for her collection.
“Since Abe took office, he hasn’t done anything good; he’s just holding fast to his nationalist ideas,” she said. “But I think most people in Japan don’t want war again, and it’s the same for China. I think it will get better after Abe leaves office.”
Tommy Yang in the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.