As Japan Marks One Year After the Tsunami, China Wonders Why Rebuilding Is So Slow

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James Nachtwey for TIME

Sorting debris for recycling in Rikuzentakata, Japan, on Feb. 23, 2012

Marking the first anniversary of the March 11 Japanese tsunami tragedy, the Global Times, a Beijing-based daily with links to the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial on Sino-Japanese relations. The thrust was this: China, which has long viewed Japan with suspicion, does “not need to react too emotionally” to a historic enemy that invaded more than half a century ago. Why? Because China has eclipsed Japan economically. “While Japan is advanced in some specific areas, it is not beyond reach anymore,” said the editorial. “China now has the confidence to review Japan objectively.”

The slow pace of recovery in Japan after its natural disaster mystifies some Chinese, who are used to the speed — a massive factory built in little more than two months, a 30-story tower erected in 15 days — with which development occurs in China. The rebuilding after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was astonishingly fast, especially given the amount of devastation in and poverty of the affected region. An entire new city, for instance, was built within two years to replace the rubble of Beichuan. It does help, of course, when a nation is ruled by an authoritarian government — orders from above tend to carry weight in such places. But the Japanese are famous for their attention to detail and to-the-second precision.

(PHOTOS: China’s Sichuan Quake: Six Months Later)

There are reasons for the Japanese lassitude. Some mounds of detritus cannot be burned, for instance, because of fears that they may contain trace amounts of radiation from the nuclear-power-plant disaster. It’s unlikely that Chinese planning czars would have delayed waste incineration because of a small risk of low levels of radiation. Still, the paralytic cautiousness of posttsunami Japan is real — and it has dashed hopes that the natural disaster might catalyze the political reform the country so desperately needs. For China, whose economy eclipsed Japan’s in 2010, it’s just another sign of how the mighty have fallen. “Japan’s economic situation is also not optimistic,” said an op-ed in the China Daily, the government’s English-language mouthpiece. “Japan needs an extended period of self-restraint and patience if it wants to overcome its structural contradictions.”

Relations between Japan and China have frayed over the past couple of weeks, after Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura told visiting Chinese Communist Party officials that he doubted the Nanjing Massacre occurred. In 1937, Japanese soldiers marauded through the then Chinese capital, killing some 300,000 people, according to official Chinese estimates. But nationalist Japanese have refused to acknowledge the atrocity.

(MORE: Re-evaluating the Rape of Nanjing)

Conservative Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara sadly and predictably echoed his Nagoya colleague’s claim that Japanese troops would not have killed such numbers of Chinese civilians. Nanjing, which was a sister city to Nagoya, promptly suspended any fraternal relationship. Several official exchanges between the two countries were canceled by the Chinese. During the National People’s Congress annual session, which is currently under way in Beijing, one legislator from Nanjing proposed criminalizing any denial of the Nanjing Massacre.

Anti-Japanese resentment has been stoked by a Chinese Communist Party leadership eager to highlight Japan’s dismal wartime record, even as it obscures its own historic failings. Statements by nationalist Japanese politicians that underplay Japan’s wartime record in China do their corrosive part too. But as the countries mark four decades since normalizing diplomatic ties, there’s also no question that East Asia’s two powers are increasingly economically interdependent. Indeed, the Global Times noted that power dynamic has switched between the two countries and that China should try to defuse any tensions:

“The more powerful side should act first. Japan used to hold that role in the region, but didn’t act maturely. The role will now be taken by China, and we should perform accordingly. The Chinese wholeheartedly feel for the Japanese and hope their neighbor can pull itself out of its 20-year-long recession. We want to share development opportunities with them and don’t envy their advantages over us. Only when we start to wish our neighboring countries the best, can our nation embrace its own prosperity.”

MORE: A Year On from Fukushima: Japan’s Unquiet People

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