The phones of the Japanese embassy in Beijing have been ringing off the hook since last month as the date approached for Japan to release the treated Fukushima water into the Pacific ocean.
And on 25 August when Japan started the discharge in a key step towards decommissioning Fukushima, the embassy in China’s capital said a staggering 40,000 people called in to register their protest.
Embassy officials dubbed these as “nuisance calls” – more than 400,000 in all – and said they have started to impede their day-to-day work. Often these callers either strongly criticised Japan or chose to remain silent, sources told the Japan Times.
But the “harassment” did not end there. Sources told the paper there were some threatening calls made to the embassy as well.
The local media, citing government sources, said on an average the embassy still continued to receive at least 10,000 of these “nuisance calls” per day. Soon after the Fukushima release, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida called upon China to put a stop to the continuous stream of phone calls and condemned several other violent incidents targeting Japanese schools and the embassy in Beijing.
Japan also raised concerns about these calls – purportedly from Chinese phone numbers – targeting local institutions and businesses.
The Fukushima plant suffered triple meltdowns after being hit by a tsunami in 2011 in the world’s worst nuclear plant disaster since Chernobyl 25 years earlier.
China even summoned the Japanese ambassador over the discharge of water and placed a ban on Japanese seafood which Tokyo said was “totally unacceptable”. Mr Kishida announced an emergency fund of $141m for exporters hit by China’s restriction.
China said the move was aimed at preventing “the risk of radioactive contamination of food safety caused by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear-contaminated water discharge”, and to protect the health of Chinese consumers.
The already strained China-Japan relations deteriorated since the day of the release.
It is not just China that has objected to the Fukushima water release. Several environmental groups and residents in both Japan and South Korea voiced their opposition to the release of the treated water.
However, the decision reportedly resulted in increasing surveillance of Japanese nationals living in China.
Local media, citing sources close to the government, reported that Beijing conducted investigations into the backgrounds of people engaged in negotiations regarding the discharge. China implemented a revised counterespionage law in July expanding the definition of espionage under and encompassing a wider range of activities .
According to Statista, as of October last year, approximately 102,100 Japanese residents lived in China – the lowest number since the past decade. “In the observed time frame, the number of Japanese residents decreased steadily each year, starting at more than 135 thousand Japanese expats in 2013,” it said.
Beijing maintained a staunch opposition to Japan’s ocean discharge, characterising it as “nuclear-contaminated” and insisting on its immediate cessation. Mr Kishida even ate a piece of fish caught in the area where radioactive wastewater was released to show that the water was safe.
But it barely mitigated the crisis.
The anger at Japan and the Japanese nationals in China is also driven by an anti-Japan campaign in Chinese state media. In fact, Chinese customers have been calling for the boycott of Japanese products from skincare to everyday household goods.
Earlier this week, driving the anger and resentment, China’s embassy in Japan alleged that China has not been invited to participate in the analysis and comparative testing of nuclear-contaminated water.
“If the Japanese side really has confidence in the treatment of nuclear-contaminated water, it should respond to it in a serious and responsible manner,” the embassy said.
Logically, an organisation that aims to combat misinformation, claimed that since January this year, the Chinese government and state media have been involved in a “coordinated disinformation campaign” centred on the release of nuclear waste water. As part of this campaign, mainstream news outlets in China consistently raised doubts about the scientific basis behind the discharge of nuclear wastewater.
“It is quite evident that this is politically motivated,” Hamsini Hariharan, a China expert at Logically, was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved the plan in July, saying that it met international standards and that the impact it would have on people and the environment was “negligible”.
Media reports in August said that Beijing faced accusations of hypocrisy and exploiting the incident to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment. Scientists noted that China’s own nuclear power plants release wastewater containing higher levels of tritium compared to the discharge from Fukushima, The Guardian reported. They emphasised that all these levels fall within safety limits that are not deemed harmful to human health.
A 2016 Pew Research Centre study said that “in the case of China and Japan, publics tend to hold largely negative stereotypes of one another”. It said that “the Chinese and the Japanese see each other as violent. Roughly eight-in-ten Japanese describe the Chinese as arrogant, while seven-in-ten Chinese see the Japanese in that light.”
The Japan-bashing has a historical context as well, given Japan’s troubled history in China during the 20th century, marked by wartime atrocities.
Several reports said that this history is a part of the curriculum for Chinese students, who are taught about Japan’s past wrongdoings and are often led to believe that Japan has not sufficiently apologised for its past actions. Now the release of Fukushima wastewater is another reason for the Xi Jinping regime to whip up the anti-Japan sentiment all over again.
For numerous decades, the leaders of China balanced their legitimacy on both economic achievements and nationalism as pillars to support the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the Washington Post quoted Suisheng Zhao, a scholar at the University of Denver as saying.
However, with China facing increasing economic challenges, there is a growing need for president Xi Jinping to emphasise and rely more heavily on nationalist expressions that are “anti-foreign” in nature, he said.
The last time the anti-Japan sentiment was whipped up like this was in 2012 when Shintaro Ishihara, who was then the governor of Tokyo, made a move to nationalise the disputed East China Sea islands. These islands are known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and as the Diaoyu Islands in China. This event led to widespread protests and tensions between Japan and China over territorial claims.
Several protests were allowed by the Beijing officials outside the Japanese embassy, according to reports. It was only when demonstrators started vandalising vehicles manufactured in Japan – like Honda and Nissan cars – that Beijing called for “rational” displays of patriotism.
Prior to this, Japan-China relations faced a significant strain in 2010 due to an incident involving a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coastguard vessel near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. The detention of the Chinese fishing boat captain as a result of this incident exacerbated tensions between the two countries and led to a diplomatic standoff.