10/30/2012 02:10 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST

Islands Dispute Ignites Old Tensions Between Chinese, Japanese

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SHENZHEN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 16: Anti-Japanese protesters are confronted by police as they demonstrate over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, on September 16, 2012 in Shenzhen, China. Protests have taken place across China in a dispute that is becoming increasingly worrying for regional stability. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

I was backpacking in central China in the spring of 2011 when I felt sick to my stomach. It was just a month or so after Japan was struck by a powerful earthquake -- the largest in the country's recorded history -- triggering tsunami waves over 40 metres tall.

The horrifying images from the news reports were still fresh in my mind: a wall of water rising up and over the coast, swallowing entire towns, flattening homes and sweeping people off rooftops. I watched a television report about how some children had drowned in their school gymnasium, the waves pushing their little bodies up towards the ceiling and then pulling them under like a merciless vortex.

I was spending time in the ancient town of Fenghuang in Hunan Province and in one of the town's alleyways, I stopped to read the verses of what looked like a poem -- Chinese characters written by hand on colourful sheets of paper pasted on the windows of a coffee shop. I soon realized what I was reading was not poetry, but hate speech.

"If Japan were to disappear under a giant tsunami today, I would rejoice," one line read. "If all Japanese people died tomorrow, I would dance..." And then I saw the sign: NO JAPANESE DOGS ALLOWED.

Disgusted, I kept on walking. But later I wondered: Why did the owner put up such terrible sentiments up on his storefront. What happened to this person to incite such hatred for all Japanese people? What could possibly justify a celebration in the wake of so many tragic deaths?


In the last month, a dispute brewing in the East China Sea has stirred much anger and hatred among the Chinese -- not only in mainland China but all around the world. The outpouring of hate rhetoric reminds me of what I saw on the windows of that café in Fenghuang.

Anecdotally, people often quip that "the Chinese are everywhere." Indeed, the facts support this observation: there are 40 million people of Chinese descent living outside of China to be exact, and collectively they represent the largest diaspora in the world.

But there is much diversity among us. We come from different parts of China, have settled in different parts of the world, and hold vastly different ideologies and world views from one another. Yet, across the diaspora, many seem to agree on what needs to be done about a small collection of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.

They are known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and both countries claim the islands are theirs. When Japan's government purchased some of the islands from their private Japanese owners in September, Beijing sent surveillance ships to challenge the move, igniting old tensions in a long simmering dispute.

Both sides argue about fishing rights and about natural gas and oil exploration. They have historians on either side digging up records that support their respective versions of history. But most alarming is the rise of fervent nationalism on both sides of this conflict.

japan china conflict Anti-Japanese protesters are confronted by police as they demonstrate over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, on Sept. 16, 2012 in Shenzhen, China. Protests have taken place across China in a dispute that is becoming increasingly worrying for regional stability. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Rather sedate demonstrations have been held in Japan. But in China, where mass public gatherings are forbidden and where protests are usually quickly quelled by state police, citizens have been given a rare opportunity to vent their anger on the streets. People torched Japanese factories, damaged businesses that sold Japanese goods, called for the boycott of Japanese products, and in one case, brutally beat a Chinese man into a coma for driving a Japanese car (that was made in China). This went on for days in dozens of Chinese cities.

Around the globe, members of the Chinese diaspora have held peaceful yet emotional protests in cities across Europe, the United States and Canada. For many in the Chinese community here in British Columbia, the island dispute isn't a simple territorial dispute between China and Japan -- it's yet another display of Japanese military imperialism.

The Chinese I've spoken to here in Vancouver will often bring up the horrific crimes committed during between the second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. The most notable conflict, as documented by the late Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking, was when Japanese soldiers spent weeks pillaging the city of Nanjing, brutally murdering its citizens and raping and mutilating women. Pregnant women had their babies ripped out from inside their bellies. Young children were cut open so that Japanese soldiers could gang rape them. Reading up on the war, I felt sick once again.

The tensions that exist between the two nations are not contained to diplomats and politicians, they reverberate among people in both countries and across a 40 million-strong diaspora.

It doesn't help that Japanese politicians still deny the full extent of the massacre and the crimes of their soldiers are not acknowledged in textbooks and classrooms across Japan. And while senior diplomats are meeting this week, they are continuing to beat their chests both with rhetoric and with the sending of armed ships to circle the islands in a show of military might. The situation is escalating.

Here in Canada, many Chinese-Canadians are polite and speak only among themselves about such issues. Lately, I've been thinking: Can members of the diasporas here in British Columbia take it upon themselves to start a dialogue? Can some distance bring clearer perspectives and calmer attitudes?

To me, Vancouver seems to be the perfect place for such a summit. Japanese-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian communities can set an example for the rest of the world and send the message that peace is attainable and reconciliation is possible. Are we up for the challenge?