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Since the 20th century, the relationship between China and Japan has been strained by a constant tension from territorial and political disputes. This has been further challenged in recent weeks by a controversial move from the Tokyo-based hotel chain APA.

The Controversy

At the center of controversy is Toshio Motoya, the president and chief executive of Japan’s largest hospitality chain APA, who disputes Chinese accusations that the Japanese imperial army killed 300,000 people in Nanjing between December 1937 and January 1938. He instead claims that the incident “was fabricated by the Chinese side and did not actually happen.” These revisionist views are expressed in Mr. Motoya’s book The Real History of Japan: Theoretical Modern History II, which is said to be available in every room of the chain’s approximately 400 hotels and their gift shops.

The issue has generated much controversy in China. A spokesman for the China National Tourism Administration described the actions of the hotel as an “open provocation to Chinese tourists,” and  subsequently ordered all operations within international tours and online platforms to completely halt all cooperation with the APA hotels. The matter also instigated heated debates on Chinese social media, with many netizens asking for a formal apology from the chain and calling for a boycott. Moreover, on February 5, 2017, some 200 Chinese citizens living in Japan took to the street in downtown Tokyo to protest the hotel chain.

This highly negative reception has generated mixed results in Japan. On the one hand, APA Hotel in Sapporo, the host of the 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games that took place from February 19 to 26, agreed to remove the contentious material from its rooms. However, APA defended its position on the grounds of freedom of expression. In a formal statement, the chain claimed that notwithstanding any variations in historic interpretation in different nations, the book does not aim to “criticize any specific state or nation, but [to let] readers learn the fact-based true interpretation of modern history.” The author of the book Mr. Motoya further added that Chinese people made up only 5 per cent of the guests in his hotels and that he was not worried about the impact of any potential boycott.

Serious Rise of Nationalism or a Reaction to the “China Threat?”

The Nanjing Massacre is one of the most sensitive subjects between Asia’s two largest economies, and indeed one of the largest reasons why Beijing continues to accuse Tokyo of failing to properly apologise for its wartime past. The issue has become a symbol of Chinese nationalism and in 2014, the state introduced December 13 as the national day for the Nanjing Massacre and has since commemorated it annually.

Amidst these disagreements, it should be noted that the Nanjing Massacre is not an isolated example of tension between China and Japan. Among others, frequent visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine – where 14 leaders convicted as war criminals are honoured with the war dead – is another example that has repeatedly angered Japan’s neighbours, mainly China and South Korea. Both nations suffered greatly under imperial Japan’s brutal rule before its defeat in 1945. These moves have often been interpreted as an expression of conservative ideologies that never fully left Japan’s national fabric. As a result, it is no surprise that China’s state media Xinhua described the APA scandal as “only the iceberg of Japan’s ultra-right wing efforts to revise the nation’s war history” and their desperation to “erase the historical crime.”

Although Mr. Motoya has not explicitly made ideological statements, his views could arguably reflect the position of many right-leaning Japanese nationalists who are deeply concerned with the contemporary rise of a more aggressive China. For instance, in response to China’s territorial claim over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyudao in Chinese), the right-wing former governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara attempted to purchase the Islands – a controversial move that has sparked several anti-Japanese riots across China. He defended his intentions as he wished for the downfall of Beijing, because he “hated it.”

What Happens Next?

Whether it’s a revival of an imperial historical legacy, or simply a response to China’s rise, nationalism has remained present in Japanese politics. However, it might be reassuring to consider that despite the controversies sparked by Japan’s right-wing forces, a big part of the country’s general public ignores, or at least pays very little attention to, the strength and prevalence of nationalism – a phenomenon that is said to be rooted in the “de-politicization of Japanese civil society since the 1970s.”

To be sure, there has been an increase in nationalistic fervour in the last two decades, which has largely been attributed to Japan’s steady economic decline. However, the movement is largely driven by the establishment and the elite – rather than at the grassroots level – and the nature of Japan’s political realities makes it difficult for these elites to push forth their nationalist agenda with ease. More specifically, since its foundation in 1955, except for a short period from 1993-1994 and again in 2009-2012, the Liberal Democratic Party has almost continuously been in power. The Party has always had its share of classical nationalists, but it is also a conglomeration of other competing – yet not necessarily right-wing – factors that do not always support the expansion of nationalist policies.

Lastly, in Europe and the United States, immigration has arguably played a key role in nurturing the rise of nationalism and populism. Contrastingly, Tokyo is well-known for its restrictive immigration laws and reluctance to welcome refugees; the country accepted only 28 refugees in 2016. This reality has greatly limited the number of targets that right-wing politicians could utilize to cultivate nationalistic forces in Japan. For all these reasons, Japanese nationalism seems unlikely to become unhinged, or generate any fundamental right-leaning policy seen elsewhere in the foreseeable future. Despite this, it will arguably continue to occupy a small, but permanent space in Japan’s national fabric, and will most likely continue to shape Japan’s foreign policy agenda in the Asia-Pacific realm.

Photo Source: Creative Commons, Bin

Author Rinchen-Dolma Karma

Rinchen-Dolma is a second year Master of Global Affairs student at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. She graduated from McGill University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and East Asian Studies. Her research interests include: Central and East Asian politics, human rights, international law, and refugee politics. In summer 2016, she interned in the political section of the Embassy of Canada to Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. LinkedIn: Rinchen-Dolma Karma

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