Yukio Hatoyama bows in memory of the victims of the wartime massacre. (Photo/CNS)
Yukio Hatoyama, Japan's prime minister from 2009-2010, has taken the surprising step of apologizing for Japanese war crimes in China on a visit to the country this week and has furthermore urged Tokyo to admit the existence of the sovereignty dispute concerning the Diaoyutai islands (known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan). His remarks, out of keeping with a nationalistic brand of politics that has become mainstream in Japan, drew swift criticism from other officials as well as internet users back home.
Hatoyama on Thursday visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall dedicated to the victims of the notorious Rape of Nanking following the fall of the Nationalist China capital to Imperial Japanese forces in December 1937, and planted a ginkgo tree in the garden of the memorial to symbolize hope for friendship between the two countries. The former prime minister bowed silently before a tombstone dedicated to the memory of the victims and apologized for the atrocities carried out by the Japanese army during their invasion of China. He is the third former prime minister to have visited the memorial following Tomiichi Murayama and Toshiki Kaifu.
Hatoyama issued a formal apology to the victims and said Japan should take responsibility for the massacre.
The former prime minister also urged the Japanese government to acknowledge the territorial dispute between the two countries over islands in the East China Sea when he met Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on Wednesday. Hatoyama said the controversy, the current flashpoint in Sino-Japan relations since Tokyo nationalized three of the contested islands in September, could never be resolved if the Japanese side would not admit the existence of the dispute.
Though welcomed in China, Hatoyama's words met with an immediate backlash in Japan. Yoshihide Suga, the country's chief cabinet secretary, said he regretted the former prime minister's remarks, which went against the government's position on the islands, while Japanese internet users labeled Hatoyama a "spy" and a "man of sin." Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera also blasted Hatoyama as a "traitor" in an interview with Fuji Television. Onodera said the islands were not disputed but undeniably a part of Japan's territory. He said the Chinese government will take advantage of Hatoyama's words to claim sovereignty over the islands to the world, according to the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times.
The Nanjing Massacre, which occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) remains a controversial issue between the two countries. In a six-week orgy of violence following the fall of Chiang Kai-shek's capital, Japanese soldiers killed up to 300,000 fugitive soldiers and civilians. Women were rounded up to be raped and non-combatants were killed for sport as the army ran riot. Revisionist accounts of the killings have become a staple of modern Japanese nationalism despite an abundance of documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts, a lasting cause of resentment in China and other nations that were victims of Japan's invasion of mainland Asia. Beijing also routinely protests whenever a Japanese leader pays a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines among Japan's war dead the spirits of officers executed by postwar tribunals for their part in the atrocities.