A day after China’s parliament submitted a plan to introduce two new national holidays commemorating the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and Japan’s surrender at the end of World War Two, another gauntlet has been thrown in the mounting tensions between the two East Asian rivals. On Wednesday, a Chinese court accepted a case seeking compensation from Japanese firms over forced labor during World War Two.
The plaintiffs, which include Chinese citizens who claim to have been victims of this practice as well as lawyers and academics, are seeking more than just compensation, however. They are also demanding that Japan publish apologies for the historical abuses in newspapers in both countries. This outcome is, of course, incredibly unlikely, as the plaintiffs are no doubt aware. Even though the case will likely succeed in Chinese courts, any ruling will be nearly impossible to enforce. A top Japanese government spokesman referred to a joint statement in 1972 establishing diplomatic ties between the two governments in absolving Japan of any liability in these cases. Indeed, the same justification was used after a South Korean court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate families in a similar case last year.
Despite the almost certain failure of this specific bid for accountability, the case nonetheless serves a valuable purpose for China’s government at the moment. Beijing has been waging a public relations battle in the face of rising Japanese political aggression under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Drawing on historical atrocities committed by the Japanese (and the Nanjing massacre in particular) is part of the Beijing’s strategy to discredit Japan on the international stage and to remind the world of the links between present-day Japanese political ideology and that of the country’s not-so-distant past.
And Japan’s government has done its part in making Beijing’s case for them. Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine inspired widespread international outrage with later comments by prominent figures in his government only adding fuel to the fire. Earlier this month, one of the top bosses of Japan’s public broadcasters made headlines after denying the Nanjing massacre and dismissing the atrocity as mere “propaganda.” This, of course, plays into China’s hands and, along with these persistent public reminders of the devastation of Japanese historical atrocities, will continue to give Beijing the upper-ground in the PR war surrounding the regional feud.