As Tokyo’s neighbours cry foul over the potential environmental disaster, its friends across the ocean maintain it’s not a threat
Tensions between China and Japan are escalating after Tokyo started dumping radioactive water from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant into the ocean.
Beijing, which insists the water is a hazard to the environment, has banned the import of seafood from Japan in response – and although South Korea’s right-wing, pro-Japanese government has sidestepped the issue, it has caused public outrage in the country.
The United States, as well as the pro-Western media, back Tokyo’s decision and insist that the discharge is safe, including through a deliberately misleading narrative that China dumps more “nuclear water” of its own into the ocean than Japan does, ignoring the facts that 1) there has been no nuclear disaster in China and 2) the isotopes involved are different. Despite this, the campaign to downplay China’s concerns as hypocritical and politically motivated has been coordinated.
The Fukushima water-dumping saga nonetheless reveals China’s lasting sensitivities about Japan, and in contrast, displays how the West is willing to defend Tokyo no matter what. How, for one, do you think the media would have reacted if China were responsible for such a disaster? The response to Covid-19 is a helpful template, with Beijing still being accused of a “cover up” and a “lack of transparency” over the origins of the pandemic and demands being bandied around that China “must pay” for its impact on the rest of the world. We can only imagine the concerted political outrage that would follow if Beijing were the one releasing potentially dangerous nuclear wastewater into the ocean. These contrasting reactions show us how, in political terms, Japan enjoys great privileges that China does not. One is able to get away with murder while the other is condemned for jaywalking (even when it’s only allegations).
The Empire of Japan committed grave historical atrocities during its war against, and occupation of, parts of China. The best-known of these is the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-1938, when an estimated 200,000-300,000 Chinese were murdered at the hands of the Japanese. From China’s perspective, the Nanjing Massacre was perhaps the single worst act of foreign aggression in modern history, which scarred the country’s public consciousness. Worse still is the perception, which is also shared in Korea after its own occupation, that Japan never truly had to atone for its crimes, there was no justice for the aggression and atrocities committed by Tokyo during this era.
This lack of justice stems from the fact that Japan, unlike Nazi Germany, surrendered unilaterally to the US, which took the opportunity to immediately make the state its own strategic vassal in East Asia. In doing so, the US opted to give Japan a new constitution, but keep its leadership and society completely intact for fear of a communist takeover, which stood in contrast to the denazifaction of Germany, where former Nazi leaders were put on trial, jailed and executed, with its ideology completely dismantled and outlawed. Japan may have suffered from two atomic bombings, but it was otherwise rebranded and whitewashed, never having to come to terms with what it did. This history sowed great resentment in China.
Since that time, Japan has remained a highly privileged member of the G7, the primary US partner in Asia, and therefore a tool of containment against Beijing. Washington has seen the country as key to expanding NATO’s influence inside Asia, and is also keen to marshal South Korea into a trilateral alliance, something President Yoon Suk-yeol is perfectly happy to do. As a result, it is a strategic design of the US that Japan faces no repercussions for the mismanagement of the Fukushima disaster, and the subsequent water dumping, whatsoever. For China, this becomes a venting opportunity against Tokyo for its alignment with the US and Beijing’s inability to undermine its reputation. Thus, the water issue has become hyper-politicised.
China’s perspective, however, is dismissed as mere propaganda. This is because, as evident from the above, the West does not care about Japan’s historical atrocities in China. While the West takes the opportunity every year to remind the world of the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, little to no attention is being paid to the memory of the Nanjing Massacre. This in turn reveals the structural inequalities between how China’s voice and perspective is ignored, but Japan is given a comfortable, protected status. While Japan is admired, China is loathed. It goes without question that concerning Fukushima, Beijing would never be allowed to get away with the same things, which is also a reminder of how “outrage” is manufactured, selective, and politically motivated. What China can do may be in any case branded a threat and crime against the entire world, but Japan? Nothing to worry about.