'WE GET lots of Japanese tourists here in the summer,' said a shopkeeper near the Marco Polo bridge, a few miles south-west of Peking. 'They climb off their buses, take a quick look round the bridge and go. Very few of them visit the museum. I think they still feel kuixin (guilt) in their hearts.'
The question of kuixin was skirted by the Japanese Emperor Akihito when he arrived yesterday for the first imperial visit in 2,000 years. Referring at a banquet to the Japanese occupation of large portions of China between 1931 and 1945, during which 20 million Chinese were killed or wounded, he spoke of 'an unfortunate period in which my country inflicted great sufferings on the people of China' and said: 'I deeply deplore this.' In Japanese the words the Emperor used are closer to 'I feel deep sadness about this'.
As the Emperor and Empress Michiko were welcomed by President Yang Shangkun outside the Great Hall of the People in Peking, both sides were anxious to gloss over recent unfortunate history. Anything approaching a proper apology by the Emperor would have fuelled right-wing anger in Japan over the visit. The Chinese authorities, who want more Japanese investment and trade, did not press him. His itinerary has been scrupulously drafted to avoid reminders of war. He flies to the ancient capital of Xian tomorrow, but he is not expected see the 2,000-year-old terracotta army there.
But other memories were roused by yesterday's welcoming ceremony on Tiananmen Square, where democracy protests in 1989 ended in the massacre of at least 800 demonstrators and a political clampdown which has lasted ever since. When news of the Emperor's visit stirred demands in China for a full apology and compensation, the government first tacitly encouraged the movement, then reversed course, fearing it could become a vehicle for other grievances. It now insists that the matter was settled in 1972, when diplomatic relations were normalised and China waived any claims for reparations.
Only last month, however, Vice-President Wang Zhen acknowledged that Japanese atrocities in China 'left a wound to the Chinese people's spirit that will never be forgotten'. The evidence is preserved near Marco Polo bridge, which was nearly a century old when the explorer saw its 480 lion carvings, all different, in 1290.
On 7 July 1937 Japanese troops attacked the bridge as they began the capture of Peking. Later that year, they seized Nanking. More than 300,000 people were shot, bayoneted, decapitated and buried alive in a six-week frenzy about which every Chinese schoolchild knows, but which is still glossed over in Japan.
The museum, opened 50 years after 'the Marco Polo bridge incident', contains little anti-Japanese rhetoric. Among hundreds of photographs, there are only six of the Rape of Nanking, and fewer of the notorious laboratories in north-western China, where human subjects were injected with plague germs, frozen to death or vivisected.
'Nasty,' said some identically tracksuited schoolboys, but their interest in history was as fleeting as any average pupil's. They did not know the Emperor was coming. Passers-by who were asked about their reaction to the museum commented on the impressive building rather than its contents. 'The past is past,' said a student teacher, when prompted.
Should the Emperor apologise? 'I haven't considered that, but if he is going to mention history at all, I suppose he would have to.'
The same readiness to compartmentalise the past was shown by a woman old enough to remember the invasion. 'I was their age then,' she said, gesturing to the pupils of Wanping No 1 Elementary School, scampering by in their yellow caps. 'The Japanese ran about with guns and bayonets, screaming at us in a language we couldn't understand, killing people. Everyone was afraid to sleep at night. There was shooting all the time.' But asked if she could forgive them, she replied: 'It was not today's Japanese who did it.'
The same message is conveyed by the final section of the exhibit, entitled 'Past Experience, if Not Forgotten, is a Guide to the Future', which records that Japan renounced war in its post-1945 constitution. Whatever happened half a century ago, there is a new relationship now.
In China, history is constantly being redefined. The name of the museum has changed, even though it is only five years old. Known as the Memorial Hall of the Chinese People's Resistant War against the Japanese Imperialist Invasion when it opened, the 'Imperialist' has been dropped.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies