Chinese actor, Zhang Zhehan (张哲瀚), rose to prominence after starring in this year’s surprise hit drama, “Word of Honor”. In recent weeks, he has been plagued with rumors surrounding his personal life. On August 13, Zhang Zhehan was in the hot seat when old pictures of him visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and Nogi Shrine in Japan started going viral. Zhang Zhehan was being labeled by netizens as not loving his country and pro-Japan.
Historical background behind the Yasukuni Shrine and Nogi Shrine
Why has Zhang Zhehan’s past visits to these shrines caused such an uproar? The Yasukuni Shrine was formed in 1869 to commemorate the casualties of Japan’s wars including 14 convicted Class-A war criminals that served in the Imperial Japanese Army and have committed war atrocities against China, Korea, and more. The Chinese and Korean governments have repeatedly condemned the shrines as glorification of Japan’s war atrocities.
Zhang Zhehan had taken tourist-like pictures at the shrine, which netizens felt was offensive to the suffering China experienced during that tragic period.
As for the Nogi Shrine, it was established in memory of the Imperial Japanese Army general, Nogi Maresuke, who was seen as a war hero that successfully seized the Lüshunkou naval base from China during the Battle of Lüshunkou. Zhang Zhehan had attended a friend’s wedding in 2019 that was held at the Nogi Shrine. Pictures of Zhang Zhehan attending the wedding spurred on the discussions about him being unpatriotic.
Someone claiming to be the groom of the wedding that Zhang Zhehan attended explained he is mixed with Chinese and Japanese ancestries. He married a Chinese girl and said Nogi Shrine is a popular Japanese wedding venue. They didn’t do much research into the history behind Nogi Shrine and weren’t aware of its political history. He apologized for the trouble it has caused their wedding guests and the pain caused to people for their choice in the wedding venue.
Zhang Zhehan also took a picture with another wedding guest, Dewi Sukarno, one of the wives of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. Zhang Zhehan’s friend explained there were guests from many different countries and they weren’t clear about Dewi Sukarno’s political background either. Dewi Sukarno is a controversial Japanese figure who previously made comments in 2017 on a panel defending the Japanese hotel chain, APA, supplying its rooms with books that denied the existence of the Nanjing Massacre and claimed that period in history was fabricated by the Chinese. It’s reported the CEO of the APA hotel chain was also in attendance at the wedding.
Dewi Sukarno supported APA saying that Japan has the right to free speech and they can provide those books as they wished. She also criticized China for “still complaining about the war even though the war has already been over for more than 70 years”. She continued to say China is always using the “Nanjing Incident” to smear Japan and get it registered as a World Heritage Site. Dewi Sukarno characterized China as being “domineering” and “hegemonic” in the way they carried out their affairs, giving examples such as occupying Tibet, ostracizing the Dalai Lama, and the battle for the Diaoyu Islands.
Netizens also found an old post of Zhang Zhehan posting a picture of a car that had the rising sun flag painted on. The flag was used by the Imperial Japanese Army during war time.
At the time, he received a lot of criticism about the picture. He reacted in a new post seemingly hinting that people were meddling into other people’s business. He later deleted the post and explained to fans that he only did it because he didn’t want them fighting with those netizens.
On China’s National Day Holiday (国庆节) in 2018, Zhang Zhehan wrote a post saying he had to return to the motherland because of the holiday to celebrate her birthday. He wrote, “During the National Holiday, I am not going anywhere, will only stay at home to experience the warmth of the motherland. Happy Birthday, I love you, China.” However, netizens noticed his pictures were taken in Japan based on the landmarks in the background.
Netizens also found Zhang Zhehan’s old posts and criticized his inappropriate behavior in both pictures. It’s unknown when these were taken.
When the discussions started going viral, Zhang Zhehan’s studio had pinned a previous statement dated from July that expressed their love for the Communist Party and China. As more pictures were uncovered, Zhang Zhehan was being labeled a Japanophile and not loving his country. Netizens started leaving comments on his posts demanding he’d be blacklisted. His brand deals started terminating their partnerships with him.
On August 13, 1:39 pm, Zhang Zhehan issued an apology, saying:
“Today, I deeply apologize for my past ignorance, my shame, and especially my previous improper behavior.
I attended a friend’s wedding in Japan. It is my mistake for the oversight of [not knowing] the historical background behind the wedding venue and the political backgrounds of the other wedding guests.
When I used to travel everywhere, I liked to casually take pictures. Due to the lack of understanding for the local architecture and the history and being careless about the content when taking pictures, when I took the pictures, it resulted in content that seriously harmed the feelings of compatriots. I also solemnly apologize here, I am sorry.
I am not a Japanophile, I am Chinese! I have never published comments harmful to the motherland on any occasion! I deeply love my motherland! Everyone can criticize me for being ignorant. I am especially grateful to everyone’s supervisions and criticisms. As a public figure, I should’ve kept in mind the pain of history at the time. From now on, I will seriously study historical and cultural knowledge even more, enrich my own professional qualities, and be even more cautious and self-disciplined. Once again, I solemnly apologize.”
Three hours later, the state’s largest newspaper, “People’s Daily”, commented on Zhang Zhehan’s apology saying, “This apology is to take responsibility for your own ignorance and also to seek forgiveness for offending the sentiments of compatriots. As a public figure, you really shouldn’t have such a lack of historical knowledge and be totally unaware of the nation’s suffering. This is a matter of national justice. It doesn’t tolerate any type of probing and it especially doesn’t tolerate any challenges. If it was knowingly committed, then a heavy price must be paid.”
Zhang Zhehan reposted “People’s Daily’s” comments about an hour later, saying that he accepts all criticisms and corrections from everyone. He will reflect deeply and learn from this lesson. Zhang Zhehan also said, “As a Chinese, I firmly support the motherland. The firm stance of loving the party and loving the country has never wavered before. From here on out, I will use even more practical behavior to love the motherland.” He also asked everyone to treat him as a warning and stressed, “Pay attention to history, study history, remember history!”
In one day, all 26 brands including Coke, LANVIN, Clinique, and Pandora had terminated their partnerships with Zhang Zhehan. The production team behind the ensemble cast movie, “Formed Police Unit”, in which Zhang Zhehan is part of, announced they had ended all collaborations with him. Variety show, “The Hero”, also announced they had terminated all collaborations with Zhang Zhehan.
Zhang Zhehan’s studio also apologized and expressed love for the motherland. Zhang Zhehan’s official fan club apologized on behalf of Zhang Zhehan and for a few fans’ inappropriate comments. They also expressed they will self-reflect with Zhang Zhehan, expressed their love for their motherland, and stated “What’s wrong is wrong.”
Chinese netizens aren’t accepting Zhang Zhehan’s apology and aren’t convinced with his excuse that his lack of historical and cultural awareness was due to ignorance. They’ve said there is no way Zhang Zhehan wouldn’t have known the historical context behind the shrines especially as a college graduate and also having the reputation of being well read. There are some netizens who have said that while Zhang Zhehan’s past behavior is wrong, calling him unpatriotic or a traitor isn’t accurate. Many netizens continue to comment “Get the f*ck out of China, go back to Japan” on his posts or related posts. There are plenty of comments under People’s Daily’s post calling for action to blacklist Zhang Zhehan.