Tuesday, October 15, 2013

China vs. Japan, or: Why Can't We be Friends?

Tonight, on a very special Office Hours with the Brofessor...

I'm going to talk about something extremely sensitive today: Sino-Japanese relations.  I understand the personal nature of this topic, and would like to state here that it is not my intent to upset anyone.  If anything written here causes offense or discomfort, I wish to apologize in advance, and ask your indulgence for a laowai/gaijin who, despite his ignorance, genuinely wishes to treat his friends on either side of the Sea of Japan/East China Sea with respect.  Shout out to, most especially, Mitchell, Bonnie, Shota, Ryota and Ran.

Living in China, I often get asked whether or not I as a foreigner experience racism.  I've never been sure how to answer this question.  Sure, I'm treated differently because I'm foreign, and people often jump to conclusions about me, but I've (almost) never been made to feel unsafe solely on the basis of my ethnicity. 

I was discussing this with my roommate, who presumably knows a bit about racism, having grown up black in Savannah Georgia during the 70s.  He expressed the opinion that racism comes in two varieties: that of simple ignorance, and that of genuine hatred.  The former comes from a lack of personal experience with the demographic in question, and is not in itself malevolent. 

To illustrate, today I was talking with a Chinese friend of mine.  Somehow, the conversation turned to religion, and I mentioned that I was Christian.  She asked me the difference between Christianity and Judaism.  I told her about some of the similarities, e.g. most of the Bible, moral law.  Her response was "But I thought Christians hated Jews for being rich."

Of course, what she said wasn't driven by malevolence; she was just saying what she heard.  Later on, we were talking about TV programs, and I mentioned one show that I was enjoying.  She asked me if it was Chinese or American. "Actually, it's Japanese." I said.

She fell silent.  After a moment, she said quietly, "...I hate Japan. They have no heart, no humanity."

Every time a Chinese friend or coworker says this, my heart sinks a little.  The reason she says this needs little if any introduction.  The wartime atrocities of Imperial Japan are well known.  Bad blood between the two countries goes back centuries.  It is not my place to say who is ultimately right or wrong--all I will say is that to deny the horrors visited upon Japan's Asian neighbors in the 30s and 40s is no different from denying the Holocaust.  But that doesn't change the fact that there are a lot of Japanese people I'm privileged to call my friends.

I told her how sad it made me to hear that. I'm an ethnic German, and the atrocities of Nazi Germany were at least as terrible as those of Imperial Japan; did that mean I had no heart?  Even as an American, do the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib mean that I'm some sort of monster?

My friend explained that ultimately the difference between Japan and Germany was that Germany recognized the past and made amends--whereas Japan didn't.  I didn't feel it was appropriate time to mention the numerous postwar apologies made by Japan*, but she did have a point in that in Japan, denial of atrocities did not carry the same weight as in Germany, and that war criminals were interred along with legitimate war dead.**


That said, does not forgiveness have some value?  While I don't want to mitigate the suffering of the peoples under Japanese occupation, my Japanese friends never hurt anyone.  Why should they be stigmatized for the crimes of certain of their countrymen, three generations gone?

I've always said that China and Japan are estranged brothers.  Imagine what good could be accomplished if prejudices were put away! 

I've been thinking about this a lot lately.  How can I be loyal to two groups of friends with such enmity between them?  I'm thinking about convincing the Chinese friend mentioned above to sit down and actually talk with one of my Japanese friends.  I think they'd have a lot more in common than either of them think.

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