Mending Japan-China ties

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — European issues inevitably seem remote to readers in Japan just as Far Eastern problems are remote to the public in Britain. But no one concerned about world peace can be other than apprehensive about friction between major powers in the Far East, especially against the background of threats to Taiwan from China.

The more serious parts of the media in Britain have tended to be critical of Japan for failing to come to terms with its past activities in Asia and for approving history textbooks that gloss over tragic episodes in the Japanese occupations of China, Korea and countries in Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s memorial to its war dead, in an official capacity have also been considered, at best, insensitive and, at worst, pandering to rightist sentiments. But responsible commentators have given due prominence to Koizumi’s repetition of former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for the behavior of Japanese Imperial forces, noting that the latest brouhaha over approved history textbooks is somewhat artificial, not least because approval of a textbook does not necessarily mean that it will be used in a particular school.

They also recognize that, regardless of what a few rightwing nationalists such as Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara may say, Japanese public opinion, even if incensed by anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, remains basically pacific and that the chances of a revival of extreme nationalism and militarism in Japan are remote.

The Chinese have come in for a good deal of justifiable criticism. China remains under the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which permits only very limited dissent. The general impression is that the recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in a number of Chinese cities were at least condoned, if not actively encouraged and planned, by the party, which could have stopped them if it had wanted to do so. It is, however, surmised that the demonstrations may have developed rather further than the authorities wished and that reining back the demonstrations was not quite as easy as expected.

Some commentators have even suggested that the demonstrations were allowed to develop as far as they did because Beijing saw them as a way of allowing activists to let off steam in a way that was not directly harmful to the party. The CCP may have thought it preferable to encourage some anti-Japanese activities rather than allow pressures to develop for more democratic activities in China.

The evidence for this view is limited but it cannot be dismissed as implausible. It is also probable that the Chinese authorities wanted to make it clear both within and outside China that they were opposed to a permanent Japanese membership on the U.N. Security Council, which countries such as Britain now firmly support.

It has not escaped the attention of British commentators that China’s officially approved textbooks tend to play up Japanese atrocities during the war. The textbooks also fail to note the huge changes in Japanese society since the war’s end and the pacific nature of the Japanese Constitution and of public opinion.

Chinese textbooks, moreover, do not bring out the extent to which the Chinese people suffered as a result of the cruel and tyrannical policies of Mao Zedong during the horrific years of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese public have not yet been allowed to realize that Mao was at least as much, if not more, of a monster than former Russian dictator Josef Stalin.

Attention has rightly been focused on economic relations between Japan and China. The Chinese economy, as well as Japanese firms, have greatly benefited from Japanese investment in productive activities in China. Chinese threats to boycott Japanese-made products could well backfire and anti-Japanese strikes in Japanese-owned factories could damage Chinese exports and the Chinese economy.

One aim of the anti-Japanese demonstrations is thought to have been to warn the Japanese government to keep off what the Chinese regard as their turf, namely the Senkaku islands and gas reserves in the area.

They also no doubt want to persuade the Japanese to play a restraining role with the Americans in relation to the future of Taiwan. Recent Chinese legislation allowing the use of force against Taiwan — if the latter were to declare independence — was another warning to Japan. Beijing’s emphasis on this issue is seen by some as part of increasing Chinese self-confidence and a way of channeling growing Chinese nationalism.

From a London perspective, it is important that Japanese leaders try to avoid being provocative toward China. In particular, Koizumi would be wise to refrain from further official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and the Ministry of Education and Science should look long and hard at textbooks that play down the behavior of the Japanese Imperial armed forces.

Indeed, there is a strong case for ending the way in which history textbooks are “officially approved” by the ministry. In many other democratic countries, there is no system of censorship and vetting of textbooks. Although this is not in fact the case, the present system tends to suggest that Japanese textbooks are centrally compiled. None of these suggestions, however, means that Japan should condone damage caused by anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Nor should the Japanese be intimidated from pressing their case for permanent membership on the Security Council or from continuing to cooperate with the Americans in relation to Taiwan.

There is no need for Japan to send troops to the Senkaku islands, as Ishihara apparently advocates. A modus vivendi needs to be sought through bilateral talks between China and Japan. If this fails, outside arbitration might be considered. The relationship between China and Japan in the Far East is too important to be neglected or overlooked by any of us.