Near Da Xing Gong in the center of Nanjing, there is a tiny little Japanese restaurant with two small tables and a bar, decorated with paper lanterns and calligraphy on the walls. I have been to this restaurant twice, and I am slightly obsessed. The sushi is freshly made behind the bar, and beautifully presented. The tomato udon noodles are fat and rich and savory. The miso soup is like crack—and I used to think I didn’t even like miso soup.

Only later did I realize the irony of eating delicious Japanese food in Nanjing, the focal point of every anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China in 1937, when the Japanese army invaded the city from three sides, wreaking utter havoc and destruction within. Known in the West as the Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, this incident represents the epitome of human brutality and ruthlessness. An estimated 300,000 innocent Nanjing residents were murdered at the hands of Japanese soldiers during a six-week period beginning December 13th, 1937. Even when Japanese victory was certain, the soldiers continued to rape and kill with total abandon. What could possibly cause a human being to lose all concept of humanity? We often compare the Nanjing Massacre to the Holocaust, but the Japanese invasion represented an entirely different kind of violence. The Holocaust was cold, calculated, and systematic, so that the responsibility of each individual was relatively small. It is one thing to give an order, or lock a door, or push a button. It is another thing to rape a seventy-year-old grandmother, to stab a pregnant woman in the stomach, or to compete with another soldier to see who could kill 100 people fastest using only a sword.

Although many of the perpetrators were later tried and punished for their crimes, the Japanese government did not formally apologize until 1995. Even now, Japanese officials continue to underestimate the casualties or even deny that the massacre ever occurred, and Japanese history textbooks frequently gloss over or minimize the incident.

Not surprisingly, the massacre has left a deep and lasting impression on Chinese culture.

I first became aware of anti-Japanese sentiment in China while I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011. A new sushi restaurant opened near the university campus, and my friend’s Chinese roommate refused to go, saying simply that she “did not like Japan.” We tried to reason with her, explaining that Japanese food isn’t the same thing as Japanese government (and Japanese government isn’t the same thing as Japanese people), but she still refused to go. Another time, a waiter in Hangzhou was chatting casually with us, when out of the blue he randomly burst out with “I don’t like Japan.” None of us quite knew what to say.

Last year, anti-Japanese sentiment in China reached a boiling point when Japan  purchased the uninhabited Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the South China Sea from a private owner. Sovereignty of the islands has long been disputed among China, Taiwan, and Japan, and in August 2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out across China. People burned flags, looted Japanese-owned businesses, and smashed Japanese-brand cars. The Chinese government cracked down on the protesters in mid-September to halt the rapidly escalating violence.

But for all the historical and political tensions, I have so far failed to witness any true animosity during my experience in Nanjing. One Chinese friend from Anhui Province agreed wholeheartedly with my opinion that modern, ordinary Japanese people should not be blamed for the mistakes of their grandfathers. My coworker from Wuxi explained that except for Nanjing residents whose family members were personally involved in the war, most Chinese people from other cities remain relatively neutral on the subject. Even my housemate, whose mother’s side of the family is from Nanjing, expressed very moderate views. She told me that she strongly disagreed with the Chinese riots and violence in 2012, and that she holds no particular animosity towards Japanese people living in Nanjing. Incidentally, my housemate was also the one who introduced me to the adorable little restaurant near Da Xing Gong.

Last weekend, I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. The award-winning museum is built around the preserved remains of an actual mass grave. While the exhibits are undeniably disturbing, and the atmosphere undeniably somber, the museum ends on a note of hope. One room honors the unlikely heroes who emerged from the tragedy, particularly the German Nazi Party-member John Rabe, who is credited with saving the lives of over 200,000 Chinese in Nanjing. Another room features audio recordings from Japanese soldiers apologizing for the actions of their military, and expressing deep regret for their own involvement in the massacre.

Finally, as visitors exit the museum, they are led through an outdoor Peace Garden complete with reflecting pool and neatly trimmed bushes. The wall of the garden is draped with thousands upon thousands of paper origami cranes sent from Japan, strung together like fluttering strands of rainbow prayer beads.

Like everything else in China, attitudes toward the Japanese are highly complex and not easily generalized.

I think, perhaps, the situation is best symbolized by Mr. Sushi (寿司先生).

Mr. Sushi is a takeout sushi chain for people who like to eat things wrapped in seaweed and rice, but prefer not to be reminded that sushi comes from Japan. Mr. Sushi’s made-to-order rolls are about as Japanese as a grilled cheese sandwich, a Chevy pickup, or not dying your hair pink and wearing Victorian dresses with six-inch platform shoes. The Mr. Sushi menu offers curry sushi, pizza sushi, Korean cheese sushi, Thai chicken sushi, and the intriguing “red wine cheese beef roulade.”

Only once does the menu mention Japan. This is in a little blurb at the bottom of the menu explaining that sushi was originally invented in Han Dynasty China, long before it reached Japan. “原来寿司也是中国的呢”—So in the end, sushi is Chinese!

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