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Pride and propaganda

Mainland China seems to be on a collision course with Japan, and arguably the national mood indicates many are itching for some sort of confrontation. Chinese ships have clipped Japanese vessels in the seas between the two countries, and the rhetoric has escalated to the point that the U.S. has discreetly registered alarm, not least by dispatching its vice president on a recent visit to the region.     

     In recent weeks, tensions mounted further as Beijing declared a controversial new air defense identification zone around a set of islands at the core of an intractable territorial dispute. Why the increased hostility and why now?

     During the 1980s, the "Rambo" series was a popular distraction for American cinema audiences, and the hated Soviets were always portrayed as the bad guys. In the last 10 years, stereotyped Middle Eastern or former Yugoslavian gangsters have become a staple of Western screens. Caricature mock-ups of villains by their nationality consistently play well at the box office, and nowhere is this more obvious than in China, where the selection of baddies has actually been pared down.

     Over the last decade, the entrenched image of a bumbling yet threatening Japanese soldier has taken on much darker undertones in Chinese television entertainment. The prevalence of such violent, one-dimensional depictions has even caused some bloggers in China to question the country's own morality and the causes behind the avalanche of prime-time viewing that centers on only one theme -- the brutality of the Japanese and violent Chinese disposal of their prime enemy.

     By 2011, this tendency toward more violent and bloody anti-Japanese war dramas virtually monopolized Chinese TV viewing. The exceedingly popular series "Surprising Tales of Anti-Japanese Heroes" contains a scene in which a Chinese resistance fighter literally rips a Japanese imperial soldier in two with a single punch. As a commentator critically noted in a popular Chinese TV talk show, "We fought against the Japanese for eight years. If we could split them in two that easily, what were we doing all that time?"

Enemy to ally to enemy

How different the angry calls across the seas are from the situation in August 1945, when Japan surrendered to the Allies. Back then, both Chinese leaders vying for postwar power, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, announced to their respective constituencies that the time for continued violence against the Japanese had ended and that the moment had arrived for China to act magnanimously towards its former enemy.     

     This policy was taken not only because the Chinese believed in the morality of their justice but also because both Chinese Nationalists and Communists urgently needed Japanese technical assistance and wished to restart trade with their formerly belligerent neighbor. Chinese leaders espoused these ideals in their war crimes trials of Japanese military personnel, and although China arguably suffered longer under Japanese imperial domination, it executed far fewer Japanese than did the Dutch, Australians or even the British.

     Since the first appearance of an inept, bumbling Japanese officer in a mainstream Chinese film, 1955's "Guerillas on the Plain,"  the "Japanese soldier as devil" theme fit with Mao's instructions to mobilize society and to use new media to achieve the revolution. This era saw a growth in the portrayal of Japanese in Chinese cinema and the establishment of several key stereotypes that remain enduring symbols.

     There is a constant refrain both from the Japanese left and the Chinese side that Japan is at the heart of the problem. This opinion is not necessarily wrong, and Japan needs to reflect carefully on its responsibility for its imperial past. However, blame for the brewing animosity may also lie with Chinese consumers who continually soak up these images of the Japanese and produce few new works that tear down the boundaries of closed-minded thinking. These attitudes are further underscored by Japanese prime minister's inability to stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, as Shinzo Abe did in December.

     The recent Chinese talk show said it best. While many contemporary Japanese movies center on a variety of themes, in contemporary China the range has narrowed so drastically that audiences are often only treated to a constant stream of monochromatic movies and TV shows that highlight Japanese brutality. These stories are not necessarily always historically incorrect, but they have created a world of entertainment that pivots on virtually one story to the exclusion of science fiction, romance and action films that do not revolve around Japan.

Lessons forgotten

The Chinese appear to have locked themselves into a world of circular reasoning that is starting to reflect, perhaps, how they see reality. This is not an image that everyone agrees with in China, as evidenced in critical newspaper and blogging articles. But due to censorship and tight budgets, these anti-Japan themes stand a greater chance of getting produced over more experimental or complex stories.

     The old adage is that "time heals all wounds," but in this case, history is now serving to fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment as a form of entertainment. It is difficult to suggest that Chinese television series create serious government policy, but what the prevalence of such entertainment demonstrates is that factors beyond Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine affect the manner in which Chinese see the world and their role in it.

     The policy strategy of breaking the cycle of violence seems to have fallen by the wayside in Beijing, and the rhetoric now reflects a much angrier Chinese stance that neglects what the country's own leaders previously chose as the best avenue for future peace.

Barak Kushner is senior lecturer in modern Japanese history at the University of Cambridge.

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