Jul 12, 2022 - World

Chinese nationalist celebration of Abe's death underscores anti-Japan sentiment

Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends the 8th trilateral leaders' meeting between China, South Korea and Japan in Chengdu on December 24, 2019.

Photo: Wang Zhao/Pool/Getty Images

The jubilation that many Chinese nationalist netizens expressed over last week's assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscores the depth of anti-Japan sentiment in China — and the challenge Beijing faces in controlling the domestic nationalism it has often stoked.

Why it matters: To the Chinese Communist Party and its domestic supporters, Abe represented what they saw as an unwelcome resurgence of Japanese nationalism and militarism.

  • The Chinese government distanced itself from the online revelry. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo offered condolences to Abe's family, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, "This unexpected incident should not be linked with China-Japan relations."

Details: The former Japanese prime minister died on July 8 after authorities said a 41-year-old unemployed Japanese man shot him with a homemade gun during a campaign event.

  • Abe first served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020, when he resigned citing medical issues, making him Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

What's happening: News of the assassination became a top trending topic on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where comments celebrating Abe's death proliferated and soon garnered tens of thousands of likes.

  • Some people called the shooter a "hero," while others posted champagne emoji.
  • Many comments referred to the atrocities the Japanese army committed during its World War II-era invasion of China. “We are not qualified to forgive the wicked for the millions of compatriots who died in the war against China and the Nanjing Massacre!!!” one such comment stated, per Politico.
  • Chinese people who appeared to mourn Abe's passing were also targeted. A Japan-based Chinese journalist who fought back tears during a live broadcast about Abe's death was accused of being unpatriotic on Chinese social media, with one commenter saying, “I’m baffled to see you crying, are you even Chinese?” The reporter later posted an apology.

Yes, but: Nationalist content is also less likely to get censored on China's tightly controlled internet, at times making pro-Beijing voices seem more dominant than they really are.

  • Some prominent nationalist voices also pushed back. Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Party-backed Global Times, wrote on Weibo that he felt sympathy over Abe's death and that political disputes should be set aside for now.

Between the lines: During his tenure, Abe angered Chinese nationalists by pushing for Japan to reject its constitutionally mandated pacifism and become a military power.

  • Abe championed a more assertive foreign policy, declaring in a 2013 speech that "Japan is back."
  • He strengthened Japan's partnership with the U.S. and urged like-minded democracies to work together in the "Indo-Pacific" — a term later adopted by the Trump administration to signal a vision of Asia in which China wasn't the dominant power.

Background: Anti-Japan sentiment in China runs deep. In addition to lingering anger over war crimes, many Chinese people support Beijing's territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea currently administered by Japan.

  • The party has also encouraged anti-Japanese sentiment through mandatory "patriotic education" in schools, which emphasizes China's victimization at the hands of foreign powers.

Yes, but: That state-fanned nationalism can cause problems for Beijing. “The Chinese authorities don’t want to see rampant nationalistic sentiment, which may affect China’s intention of easing relations with Japan and the U.S.,” former Tsinghua University political lecturer Wu Qiang told the South China Morning Post.

  • “Easing relations is critical for Beijing, especially after the Ukraine war. But the radical nationalist reaction [to Abe’s assassination] seems kind of out of control," Wu said.
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