HONG KONG — China and Japan celebrated the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations on Saturday with glittering diplomatic receptions and an exchange of congratulatory messages by leaders of the two countries.
While these formalities would have been held in any event, they held special significance this year because of the inauguration of a new prime minister in Japan who is much better disposed toward China than his two predecessors.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who was sworn into office Sept. 25, is the son of Takeo Fukuda, who was prime minister when Japan and China signed their peace and friendship treaty in 1978. For that reason alone, he would have been hailed by China as an old friend. But the new prime minister is known as a moderate in foreign affairs who wants solid relations with China and South Korea, in addition to maintaining a strong alliance with the United States.
Sino-Japanese relations were on the rocks during the five years of Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership, largely because he insisted on paying regular visits to controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted “Class A” war criminals are enshrined along with Japan’s war dead. His successor, Shinzo Abe, though also a Japanese nationalist, desisted from visiting the shrine, but to please his supporters he would not promise not to go.
Fukuda, by contrast, said during the campaign that “prime ministers should not visit the shrine” and promised not to do so if elected. “There is no need to do things that others hate,” he said.
In fact, while serving as chief Cabinet secretary during the Koizumi administration, he had urged the setting up of a national war memorial facility to replace Yasukuni Shrine, a suggestion that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refused to act on.
Not visiting the shrine removes a major obstacle to the development of the Sino-Japanese relationship. It allows the relationship to resume a semblance of normalcy. But that is far from enough. Much damage has been done in recent years and there is a need for wounds to heal.
One of the main issues has been the handling of history, such as changes in Japanese textbooks as well as differences over whether “comfort women” were coerced and the actual death toll in the Nanjing massacre of 1937.
Historians tasked with coming up with a mutually acceptable version of events from the 1930s and 1940s failed to do so. However, this effort may no longer be necessary if the new Fukuda government desists from further provocative acts.
But it is unclear whether efforts to whitewash the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army will halt under the Fukuda administration. For example, tens of thousands of people in Okinawa staged a protest Saturday over a decision by the education ministry to cut out references in high school textbooks to the forced mass suicide of thousands of civilians during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
Another major issue is conflicting territorial claims in the East China Sea to a group of uninhabited islets known as the Senkakus to Japan and the Diaoyu islands to China.
Moreover, China has already started drilling in the East China Sea for oil and gas, and while Japan concedes that the drilling area is not contested, Tokyo fears that the Chinese may be sucking out oil and gas from the Japanese side. The two countries have agreed in principle to joint exploitation, but so far an agreement has been elusive.
Japan’s Defense Ministry has depicted China as well as North Korea as possible threats. China, for its part, fears that Japan’s alliance with the United States will see Tokyo backing Washington in any confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan.
Distrust and ill will bedevil the relationship. Japanese sports teams competing in China have been booed while surveys show that fewer and fewer Japanese feel close to China. In 1980, 79 percent of those polled felt an affinity with China, but that fell last year to 34 percent.
If the relationship is to be nursed back to health, it will require prolonged efforts by leaders on both sides. At present, it is unclear how long the 71-year-old Fukuda will remain in office. He was chosen not because he was seen as a strong leader but because he was acceptable to the various factions within the governing Liberal Democratic Party.
The LDP itself is in trouble, having lost the Upper House to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan in July. So while Fukuda’s rise is a positive sign, it is not at all clear that the Sino-Japanese relationship is out of the woods.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.