At a special exhibition being held at the Museum of Chinese People's Resistance Against The Japanese Invasion in Beijing, a girl takes a photo of wartime Japanese artifacts under a glass floor. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

There is little room for subtlety at the Museum of Chinese People’s Resistance Against the Japanese Invasion.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the “Chinese People’s Anti-
Japanese War and the World ­Anti-Fascist War Victory Commemoration Day,” as the end of World War II is known here, the museum has an array of wartime Japanese artifacts — including flags, medals and guns — in a special display case under a glass floor.

“We want to keep Japan under our feet,” Li Yake, a 22-year-old college student doing a summer internship at the museum, said as she led visitors around the exhibition.

Adults and children posed for photos atop the glass display case, smiling and making a V sign with their fingers, while one man carefully lined up a shot of his foot over a Japanese flag.

Nearby was the table where “China accepted Japan’s surrender,” as the sign explained. A security guard kept a close watch.

Beijing and Tokyo have been edging toward improved relations: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited to the huge anniversary military parade that will be held in Tiananmen Square on Sept. 3, China’s Victory Day, although he hasn’t yet decided whether to go, and there is talk of a summit with China’s President Xi Jinping this fall.

But at the same time, China’s propaganda machine has been ratcheting up the anti-Japanese rhetoric, prompting suggestions that it is trying to stoke fears of new Japanese militarism to focus attention on a foreign threat rather than Xi’s own ruthless efforts to centralize power.

“Anti-Japanese nationalism is so high and so combustible,” said Xie Yanmei, a Beijing-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, noting that the Chinese authorities unleashed a similar wave of anti-Japanese nationalism in the 1990s. Then, it was part of an effort to legitimize the leadership and stoke national unity after the Tiananmen Square incident. “It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”

On Tuesday, China sharply criticized Japan over its annual defense report, which described China’s efforts to expand its footprint in the East and South China seas as “unilateral” developments. Beijing accused Tokyo of exaggerating the “China military threat” and of trying to stir up tensions in the region, but at the same time it seemed to be trying to avoid derailing a broader effort to improve relations between the two countries.

Today there’s the special exhibition at the museum with thousands of photos and relics, many of which are on display for the first time. In line with Xi’s ambitious project to revitalize Communist rule and to secure the Communist Party’s future, the exhibition stresses the party’s role in securing China’s victory, with signs noting the party’s “extraordinary courage and wisdom” and lauding Xi’s current leadership.

On a recent day, children stood at the section devoted to the Nanjing Massacre, gawping at a skull in a display case and photos of severed heads, dead babies and emaciated Chinese prisoners at a labor camp.

But the exhibition is just a small part of the state-directed efforts to remind Chinese of Japan’s wartime brutality.

China’s national archives next month will publish a selection of confessions of Japanese war criminals, and state authorities are promoting war-related entertainment.

There’s the movie “Ballet in the Flames of War,” a love story of a Chinese girl who saved a Russian soldier injured by Japanese troops, and the TV series “The Waves,” about a group of intellectual youth who started a battlefield shooting team during the war and contributed to the revolutionary cause. Analysts note that part of the reason anti-
Japanese dramas are so popular right now is that they get through the censors much more easily than other types of shows.

There are 183 separate government-subsidized artistic performances — 128 of them new — being staged around the country from the likes of the Peking Opera Company and the National Theater for Children.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army museum has put on a painting and calligraphy exhibition to “commemorate the people and the officers and soldiers who made remarkable contributions” in the war, state media reported.

Separately, a group of more than 50 Japanese orphaned in China during the war and raised by adoptive Chinese parents visited the area where they were raised last week, at the government’s invitation. State media has been full of pictures of their gratitude for Chinese generosity in the wake of Japanese abandonment.

“The orphans, now over 70 years old, were taken in and raised by the very Chinese residents of those northeastern provinces who spent so many years suffering at the hands of the waifs’ parents,” the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

Relations between Japan and China have long been strained, but there is now more attention than usual focused on the historical issues that divide Japan and China because of the commemorations of the war’s end.

Abe, a conservative, will deliver a statement on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat, in which he is expected to express “deep remorse” over Japan’s wartime actions but to stop short of apologizing.

China and South Korea, which suffered at the hands of Imperial Japan, want Abe to repeat the apologies in previous statements for Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression.” But they fear he will try to minimize the amount of sorrow conveyed.

The focus on history has been sharpened by Abe’s efforts to re­interpret Japan’s pacifist constitution and the recent progress of security-related legislation in Japan that would allow that country’s soldiers to fight abroad for the first time since World War II, sparking fear among Japan’s neighbors that the country is remilitarizing.

As China last week released official figures of its losses during the war — 35 million killed or injured and $100 billion worth of lost property — Chinese analysts said the data would help “clarify” wartime history and will act as a deterrent to some Japanese right-wingers.

They were “a response to denials by Japanese right-wing forces of the [war] aggression and a reflection of the sacrifices made by Chinese people,” Li Zhongjie, former deputy director of the party history research office under the Communist Party of China Central Committee, told reporters at a news conference.

Peng Changzheng, a painter from the central Chinese city of Chengdu, said that it was important to learn from the past.

“Although the war is over, we are not trying to hold on to the hatred. We are trying to remember history so that history won’t repeat itself,” he said at the exhibition. “We want to remember the history so that we can face the future, so that we can avoid such wars and create a better life.”

Peng was taking pictures of postcards he had painted, lying them on top of the Japanese artifacts under the floor. The postcards showed pictures of two legendary figures from Chinese culture, one armed with a gun and the other next to a panda.

He even made up a little rhyme about the one with the gun, Zhong Kui, a figure from a Chinese folk story who can scare away ghosts and other evil beings. As fellow museum-goers gathered around, Peng rattled off the poem: “If the Japanese devil dares come again, the little bastards will have nowhere to run.”

Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.

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