FANGZHENG, China — At the end of a narrow road in Fangzheng, a remote town in northeastern China, next to a hushed forest of birch and pine trees, stands the locked iron gate of the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden.
But inside is no garden. Instead, there are graves of some 5,000 Japanese who died in what was then known as Manchuria when the Japanese Empire collapsed in defeat at the end of World War II, and victorious Soviet armies swept in.
The Friendship Garden was built as a memorial to this tragic period of history, and became a symbol of the unusually close ties that have bound Fangzheng to Japan since the war.
The town was once so proud of its connections to Japan that it erected Japanese-language shop signs, and sent a fifth of its population to live and work in Japan. But when rivalries between Japan and China flared, people in Fangzheng found themselves branded as traitors.
In 2011, the garden was closed after angry anti-Japanese nationalists splashed it with red paint.
Now, though, the town’s people are watching with wary hope as ties seem to have warmed again in recent months between China and Japan, driven together by a defusing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and the shared threat of a trade war with the United States.
These days the garden is guarded by an older couple who live in a small house next to the gate, and stop the rare visitor from entering without permission from the town government.
The town, like its cemetery, has found itself caught up in the complex and tortured history that still divides Asia’s two economic giants.
Fangzheng’s bonds to Japan go back to the 1930s, when this region of China, now known as Heilongjiang Province, was part of a Japanese-created puppet state in Manchuria. In its efforts to control this de facto colony, Japan sent over some 380,000 settlers, mostly impoverished farmers.
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, about 10,000 of these colonists were trapped in Fangzheng by the advancing Soviets. Cut off from escape, thousands died from cold, sickness and starvation, as well as group suicide.
Thousands of other Japanese stayed, many of them children who were given to Chinese families by desperate parents, or abandoned as orphans.
Their story was forgotten until 1963, when Zhou Enlai, China’s No. 2 leader under Mao, ordered the town to excavate the Japanese bones from the hills and forests around the town for cremation and burial. The ashes were interred at what later became the Friendship Garden.
When Japan became prosperous in the 1980s, it began repatriating its war orphans from northeastern China. They, in turn, helped their Chinese relatives and friends to move to Japan for work, study and marriage.
According to the Fangzheng government website, 38,000 people from the town — one fifth of Fangzheng’s population — now live overseas, overwhelmingly in Japan.
In 1995, a repatriated former orphan built a monument in the cemetery to the Chinese parents who adopted Japanese children. Many of the former orphans, some of whom kept their Chinese names while others took Japanese names on returning, are now among the most frequent visitors to the Friendship Garden.
“The Friendship Garden is a meaningful place,” said Gao Fengqin, 74, a former Japanese war orphan now living in Harbin, about 120 miles from Fangzheng. “The visits are not paid to the Japanese soldiers, but the Chinese parents who brought us up.”
The bonds are apparent in the billboards around town that advertise “consultancy centers” to help with everything from applying for visas to finding work and marriage partners in Japan.
Nearby, a high-end gated community is called the Overseas Chinese Village Homeland, a reference to the 48,000 residents and their families who have returned to this once poor rice-farming town after living in Japan.
“It’s glorious if someone’s daughter married to Japan,” said Chen Zhongbo, 45, a taxi driver in Fangzheng. “Japan is still considered richer, much more developed.”
In 2006, the town went a step further, declaring itself a “Hometown for Chinese Living in Japan” in order to attract more investment from there. As part of the rebranding, all shops in Fangzheng were required to have both the Chinese and Japanese languages on signs.
The troubles began not long after that, as economic and political competition between Tokyo and Beijing reignited old disputes over contested islands and Japanese efforts to whitewash wartime atrocities.
Every time a Japanese politician visited the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, or denied the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, when rampaging Japanese troops slaughtered civilians in that city, hatred welled up online.
This anger increasingly spilled over onto Fangzheng.
In 2011, Fangzheng provoked online outrage when it spent more than 700,000 yuan, or about $110,000, to build a memorial wall in the cemetery inscribed with the names of Japanese settlers who were believed to be buried there. Later that year, five young men climbed into the cemetery and splashed red paint on the wall.
The town government knocked it down during the night and buried the pieces in the graveyard.
That did not end the criticism. Fangzheng came to be mocked as the “hometown of traitors.” At the entrance to an underground shopping center, a sign appeared saying “Japanese and dogs not allowed,” a reference to past humiliations of Chinese people by imperialist powers.
Almost all the Japanese-language signs in the streets have since disappeared, and the town has removed the name of the cemetery from road signs.
“Without the business related to Japan, Fangzheng is nothing,” said Wang Dongjun, the owner of Huarui Language School, which teaches Japanese. “Fangzheng people are well-off. This is a miracle given that there aren’t many industries here. It’s obvious the wealth comes from Japan.”
“When there are sensitive days, like the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day, I sometimes close my training school to avoid trouble,” he said.
Bowing to the pressure, the town released a plan in January to turn the cemetery into a “patriotism education base” by “adding more content to show Chinese people’s spirit of persistence and resistance against Japan’s aggression.”
“It’s torture for people like me who love both countries,” said Sumie Ikeda, a former war orphan who is now director of Association of Friendship of Repatriates from China. “Fangzheng could be a place for reminding people of the history to avoid same mistakes, not a resource for generating hatred.”
Others just wish that the disputes would leave them alone.
“As common Chinese people, we don’t care about politics,” said Yang Shuang, a 25-year-old woman who worked for three years in a film factory near Tokyo. “When we have the connection, why don’t we use it?”