'Kimono' showdown stokes anti-Japanese prejudice in China

A graduation ceremony at Wuhan University on June 22.

Beijing (CNN)A video of university security guards attacking a man wearing a "kimono" last Sunday has gone viral in China, stirring heated debate online over the country's easily stoked anti-Japanese sentiment.

The widely circulated short clip shows a group of uniformed guards surrounding two young men and stopping them from entering Wuhan University, whose Japanese cherry blossom gardens have become a top tourist draw each spring. One man, clad in a Japanese kimono-style dress, is shown being violently pushed to the ground, while his friend is restrained in a choke-hold by another guard before collapsing.
As the video quickly spread online, local news media picked up the story Monday and interviewed the man in the "kimono," who identified himself as a college student from northeastern China visiting Wuhan to view the city's famous cherry blossoms.
    The man, who declined to be named, told Shangyou News that he was a fan of traditional Chinese culture and was actually wearing "tangzhuang" -- a type of garment that originated during the 7th Century Tang dynasty in ancient China and is believed by many to have provided the inspiration for the kimono, the full-length Japanese robe.
    Acknowledging he may have become agitated after being stopped at the gate for his attire, he insisted that the guards overreacted with physical violence.
    "I'm patriotic and didn't wear a kimono," he was quoted as saying. "I'm Chinese and the guards are also Chinese. Chinese shouldn't beat up fellow Chinese."
    He said that he would think twice about wearing clothes that "may cause misunderstandings" in public in the future, adding that he now just wanted to return home and leave all the controversy behind.
    However, many commentators see the guards' actions at the scene as rooted in the historical animosity between China and Japan, dating back to the early 20th Century during the Japanese imperial army's occupation of China.
    For decades, Japan's wartime atrocities -- such as the 1937 Nanking Massacre that China says saw the killing of some 300,000 soldiers and civilians in six weeks -- have been central to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's program of patriotic education.
    On the 80th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre two years ago, President Xi Jinping visited the former capital city to attend a large memorial service and the government in 2014 formally made December 13 a national day of remembrance to mark the occasion.
    Many people in China continue to hold ambivalent feelings toward Japan, which has become a leading destination for Chinese tourists. Despite the popularity of Japanese products and culture in China, calls to boycott all things Japanese are not uncommon whenever old grievances, triggered by current bilateral disputes, re-emerge.
    In 2012, a series of anti-Japanese protests in cities across China turned violent after Japan decided to nationalize a group of islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.
    Thousands of comments on this topic have been posted across Chinese social media since Sunday, with public opinions sharply divided. Many mocked the jingoistic sentiment expressed by the "anti-kimono" guards.
    "Those with smartphones should also be barred from entering because phones were invented by 'foreign devils' -- and same for those for those drive cars," wrote one user on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. "Wuhan University should also ban the teaching of modern sciences as those were invented by 'foreign devils,' too."
    Others sounded more sympathetic to the guards, pointing to the origin of Wuhan University's cherry blossoms to explain the guards' responses. After the city was conquered by Japanese forces in 1938, cherry blossom seeds were brought over from Japan and planted on the university campus, previously known for its architecture reminiscent of Oxford University.
    "The school regards this batch of cherry trees as a historical witness to the Japanese invasion and eventual Chinese victory," another Weibo user wrote. "It's fine to take pictures while wearing kimono in Japan, but it's highly inappropriate to do so in this special place."
    In a statement released Monday night, the university defended its guards, claiming one of two young men failed to make a required advance booking and became verbally abusive toward a female guard after being stopped at the gate. The university said surveillance videos showed the men acting "provocatively" for six minutes before the scuffling -- but didn't release the footage.
      The statement said school officials have "severely criticized and educated" the guards involved, adding that the school welcomes the public to visit and view the blooming flowers.
      "We also ask the public to abide by school regulations, behave in a civilized manner and dress appropriately," it said.