The historic enmity between the two countries – now resurfacing in a dispute over sovereignty – threatens stability in East Asia
The large-scale demonstrations that erupted across China on Sunday, in response to activists from Japan landing on disputed islands in the East China Sea, were a fierce reminder that it takes little for the deeply rooted animosity between the two countries to rise to the surface. The islands lie near to Taiwan and not far from the Chinese coastline; they are a long way from the main Japanese islands, but not so far from Okinawa, one of Japan’s southernmost islands. How can such small, uninhabited islands – known by the Japanese as the Senkaku and by the Chinese as the Diaoyu – arouse such anger and passion?
The reason lies deep in history. The islands were for a long time regarded as Chinese, but they were taken by the Japanese – along with Taiwan and much else – following China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. It marked the beginning of Japanese expansionism in East Asia, with the subsequent colonisation of Korea as well as Taiwan. This reached its zenith after 1931 with the Japanese occupation of north-east China, and from 1937 with the Japanese conquest of further swathes of the country. This expansion was carried out with particular brutality – the Japanese looked down upon other East Asians as their inferior – the most famous example being the barbarity that was displayed in the taking of Nanking. There the Chinese claim more than 300,000 were killed.