Staring Into the Face of Nationalism | By Jiannan Zhang

Nationalism is considered by some to be a concept of the 20th century. Most of us have learned to understand nationalism either through boring history classes that put us to sleep, or some ancient story our grandparents told us when we were young just to get us to shut up. We are now in the 21st century, the information age. An age of globalization, multiculturalism, and most importantly, mutual understanding. The destructive ideology that has brought tremendous losses to the world is no longer with us… right?


The recent development in the East China Sea should alarm whoever thinks that nationalism is a thing of the past. The growing national sentiment in China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has caused great concerns for the world. The island chain contains large areas of natural gas reserves, which is often believed to be the reason behind the sovereignty struggle between the second and third largest economies of the world.  It is, however, more than just economic resources that are causing anti-Japanese protests in over 50 cities in China over the past few weeks. What is it then, that is encouraging young people to go to the streets in China with provocative slogans, smashing anything that they believe to be Japanese? How is it possible that perhaps the most educated generation in China’s modern history became so violent and hooligan-like over a string of islands that almost none of them have ever seen?

Due to the long and controversial history between the two neighbors, most recently the events during the Second World War, neither country is willing to take a step back to resolve the problem. Moreover, the respective governments appear to be using this opportunity to direct domestic anger towards the outside in order to gain political support. In China, anti-Japanese sentiment lies deep within the society. It is something that has been passed down generations. Even though none of the current young generation of people lived through the war, they certainly have heard an earful from schools, parents, grandparents, and television. The fact that Toyota, Sony, and Anime cartoons are thriving in China does not change the young peoples’ attitudes towards Japan. The hatred towards Japan was born in the war, but some 67 years after the war, it continues to live on without any signs of disappearing. Needless to say, any sovereignty challenges to China, especially the ones from Japan, are viewed as signs of national intrusion and Japanese expansion. On the contrary, Japan has tried to move on from the darkness of the war. Its miraculous reconstruction in the post-war era has established the island nation as the third largest economy with some of the best technologies the world has ever seen.

This accomplishment, however, does not include apologizing to its neighbors for its mistakes during the war. Japanese history books are often central to controversies as both China and Korea demand Japan to face its past. In recent years, far-right politicians have gained much support in Japan, in which one of the most famous nationalists Ishihara, wished to begin the process of purchasing the islands from its ‘private owner’ recognized by the Japanese government. This move was blocked by the national government, which resulted in the government nationalizing Diaoyu/Senkaku. The step taken by the Japanese government, though, is considered illegal in China, where historical documents show that the Diaoyu/Senkaku is part of its territory since ancient times. To certify China’s sovereignty, some Baodiao (Protect Diaoyu) personnel from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, reached the islands and were arrested by Japanese law enforcements.

To add fuel to the blazing fire, the event occurred just days before the 81st anniversary of the 9.18 incident which signified the beginning of the Japanese invasion in China during WWII. The conditions have set up a perfect environment for a nationalist uprising in China. In less than three weeks, over 50 cities in China exploded with anti-Japanese demonstrations that saw Japanese factories burnt, Japanese-made cars destroyed, Japanese department stores smashed, and Japanese restaurants forced to put up signs that say “Diaoyu Islands are China’s” just to avoid being smashed. The hooligan-like behaviors in these demonstrations have triggered growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan, especially in the right-wing nationalist circles. Many demonstrations are scheduled to take place in various cities in Japan, while there already have been reports of Chinese language schools being burnt down or damaged. Diplomatic talks are stalled, and at one point it seemed likely that a minor military confrontation was going to take place in the East China Sea.

During a critical time like this, we must remember what the face of nationalism looks like. While it is certainly not difficult to support one side over the other, one must realize the consequences of such actions in the event of a conflict. History has taught us that constraints and mutual understanding are some of the highest virtues. Let us embrace the ones who try to practice these virtues, and let us condemn those who use nationalism as an excuse to damage society and its innocent people. We must not take diplomatic relationships for granted, which countless people have made many efforts to establish. We must support the ones who call for peace, as they are the ones truly speaking for the people. Finally, we must stare nationalism in the face without fear, and work together to maintain the world that we live in.

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  • Andrej Korenic

    It’s a great article but I don’t think anyone honestly believes nationalism is dead

  • Longbow

    ^ You’d be surprised by the idealism amongst university students.