THE STREETS OF DOWNTOWN SHANGHAI are Filled with angry students loudly protesting against Japanese aggression and demanding that the Chinese government stand up to the imperialists from across the sea. This is not the spring of 2005, when anti-Japanese protests in cities across China shocked observers around the world with their virulence, but December 9th, 1935, when students took to the streets, angered by the increasing encroachment of the Japanese empire into north China.
Seventy years after those demonstrations, it seems that Chinese anger against Japan is still a factor that can give rise to popular protest and even threaten governments. Why should this theatre of war remain a flashpoint? Often, the issue is portrayed in stark terms. The argument heard on the Chinese side is that, unlike the Germans, the Japanese have not accepted their war guilt, that Japanese school children do not learn about their country's brutal wartime past in school, and that there is a rising right-wing tide in Japan that wants to rehabilitate the war as a noble undertaking.
Before we in the West pass judgement on the inability of Japan and China to come to terms with the legacy of the Sino-Japanese War sixty years after it ended in 1945, we should consider just how shamefully little we know about that war. The Japanese state, which had had a significant empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century, reacted to economic crisis in the late 1920s with aggression, and encroached onto Chinese territory throughout the 1930s. It justified its occupation of Manchuria and the north by claiming it had a special role in liberating China from Western imperialism, but Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communists were united in seeing Japanese occupation as merely the replacement of one empire with another. China and Japan coexisted uneasily for several years, until an unplanned clash near Beijing on July 7th, 1937, finally escalated into all-out war.
Over the next few months the Nationalist government desperately attempted to defend China's cultural and economic heartland in the east as Japanese troops poured in from Manchuria, Korea, and by sea. Shanghai was lost by autumn, and the Chinese capital, Nanjing, was evacuated inland to Chongqing (Chungking). What was notable in those early months was the sheer savagery of the conflict. It quickly became a modern 'total war', involving civilians and military alike. The Japanese troops had been encouraged to believe that they would quickly conquer the Chinese, who were portrayed in propaganda as weak and cowardly. When they found that many Chinese troops were well trained and fought bravely, the Japanese became even wilder and more frustrated, laying bloody waste to the areas they conquered. As the Chinese troops retreated, it was often the civilian population that was on the end of the Japanese Imperial Army's anger, as in the notorious Nanjing Massacre (Rape of Nanking) of December 1937-January 1938, when Japanese troops murdered huge numbers of Chinese civilians.
The achievement of the Chinese, and particularly of the Nationalist government, in holding down close to a million Japanese troops in China has been underplayed in later historical accounts, even though the conflict became a part of the wider world war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In the absence of detailed figures, estimates of the number of Chinese killed in the war run from 15 to 35 million, comparable to the huge loss of life in the Soviet Union. The number of refugees within China has been calculated at 80 million. The Communist victory in 1949 has been, rightly, attributed in part to the wide sense of disgust at the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalist government. But we should also recognize that the devastation of the Japanese onslaught from 1937 threw the Nationalists utterly off- course and cut short Chiang Kai-shek's attempts to build up a modern state. …