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Facing the Traumatic Past Between China and Japan

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Anti-Japanese demonstration in China

In September this year, Japanese authorities detained a Chinese trawler captain whose fishing boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats. The incident took place in the East China Sea, near the disputed islands known as of Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan eventually released the captain following repeated requests from China. However, the incident renewed territory disputes over the islands between the two countries, and there is no sign of an effective resolution in the near future.

The clash has sparked a series of anti-Japan rallies in several major Chinese cities, where organized groups of people marched and shouted slogans such as “boycott Japan” and “return the Diaoyu Islands to us.” The crowds were dispersed peacefully by the Chinese police, but sentiments of adversity felt by many Chinese remain unmitigated.

Sino-Japanese relations are historically fragile, and the current friction between the two countries recalls many sensitive issues of the past that remain unresolved, intensifying feelings of hostility. The pivotal incident that informs Chinese resentment towards Japan is the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Nanjing Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese were raped and killed by Japanese soldiers, remains a trauma that plays in the national consciousness, as evidenced by the recent film City of Life and Death. Chinese critics express outrage that the Japanese government has not sufficiently apologized for such atrocities committed during the war, or making little to no mention of them in Japanese school history books. In return, Japanese critics accuse Chinese authorities of exploiting the past to stir up nationalist sentiments while distracting Chinese citizens from problems at home.

Director Ban Zhongyi’s documentary Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters (distributed by dGenerate) is a rare example of Chinese and Japanese working together to bring the pain of their nations’ shared history to full light. The film, produced for Japanese TV, tells the story of how Gai Shanxi and other Chinese women were taken by Japanese armies as sex slaves during the war. After Gai Shanxi dies at the onset of production, the film becomes a race to interview the women in time, their stories at risk of being buried with them. Featuring penetrating interviews with Japanese soldiers who took part in the atrocities, the film is an act of collaborative truth-seeking to examine and represent the historical traumas that continue to affect present day relations between the countries.


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