LONDON – Visiting China in 1928, when a rising Japan had begun to prey on its neighbor, the Japanese poet Akiko Yosano took a surprisingly broad-minded view of anti-Japanese passion among the Chinese: “It’s surely frightful from the imperialists’ point of view,” she wrote in her travelogue, “but for the Chinese people it must be celebrated in the name of humanity.”
Writing last year in the Asahi Shimbun, as anti-Japanese rioting erupted in China, the writer Haruki Murakami had a wholly unsympathetic take on the same phenomenon. He assailed the “cheap alcohol” of nationalism that “makes you speak loudly and act rudely” and leaves you “with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.”
I was recently reminded of these contrasting responses, as Chinese and Korean leaders protested high-profile Japanese visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates, among others, Japanese indicted for war crimes during Japan’s early 20th-century invasions and occupations of China and Korea.
The South Korean foreign minister canceled his visit to Japan. Japan’s conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe then caused further outrage by appearing to question whether Japan had actually invaded its neighboring countries.
Abe’s remarks were never likely to go down well in South Korea, where anti-Japanese sentiments are kept on the boil by the issue of “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese in their occupation of Asia during World War II.
But the reaction in China, where Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was accused of employing Chinese as slave labor in the 1930s, was also predictably fierce.
Undaunted, Abe threatened a robust military response by Japan to any Chinese presence on the Senkaku Islands.
This dangerous diplomatic brinkmanship, which could spark war, cannot be grasped without reference to Asia’s tormented history in the first half of the 20th century, when Japanese imperialists sought to turn a large part of the Asian mainland into a resource for their hungry economy. But the exploration of “ancient enmities” can only take us part of the way in understanding the real sources and potential of conflict today. It is always worth asking about resurgent nationalisms or freshly ignited tempers over territorial disputes: Why now?
When in the 1920s Yosano wrote benevolently about the nascent Chinese sense of nationality, it seemed essential to the survival of a country ravaged by civil war and threatened by Japanese imperialism. But why have anti-Japanese sentiments resurfaced in 2013 when Japan is trying to recover from two lost decades and China seems to have surpassed its old rival’s economic and political power?
A plausible explanation of the fresh outbreaks of nationalism in East Asia must necessarily begin with internal politics and the vulnerability of rulers.
It may seem strange today, but Mao Zedong discouraged public discourse about the Japanese invasion and waived reparations. During his reign, “the Rape of Nanking” was far from becoming Chinese shorthand for Japanese brutality.
The People’s Republic of China sought diplomatic recognition from Japan. Furthermore, the communists in the 1950s and 1960s already had a bogey: the nationalists in Taiwan and Western imperialists worldwide.
China’s troubled history with Japan came to be reinterpreted, as the historian Rana Mitter shows in his forthcoming book on the Sino-Japanese War, in the post-Mao era. This was when communist leaders, ushering their country into a market economy, first began to face the problems of uneven growth, which now included social unrest on a huge scale.
They became desperate to boost their credibility after the killings of unarmed protesters near Tiananmen Square in 1989, and images of the perfidious and vicious Japanese came in handy. The commemoration of the Sino-Japanese War is now central to the post-Cold War Chinese strategy of finding new foils internationally and fresh ideological legitimacy at home.
And it can claim some success: Chinese nationalists, both virtual and real, have been a force to reckon with since NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 sparked large demonstrations.
As in China, anti-Japanese nationalism in South Korea has a potentially large constituency and is a touchstone of national identity. But it coexists in uneasy symbiosis with extreme inequality and unemployment — problems created by a lopsided national development that favored state support for big conglomerates.
Certainly the country’s new president, Park Geun Hye, faces many other challenges besides a rogue neighbor to the north and an impenitent former occupier to the east. But she, too, may discover that in an unequal and fractious country, anti-Japanese nationalism remains the best way to orchestrate national unity.
Abe is also playing a tricky domestic game that shapes his international gambits. He has just started an ambitious program to stem years of falling prices and reinflate Japan’s economy.
A majority of Japanese public opinion remains opposed to his historical revisionism. But a rising stock market and improving business sentiment — among other initial results of Abenomics — seem to have emboldened Abe, and account at least partly for his confident diplomatic maneuvering aimed at the Chinese.
But Abe still needs Chinese and Korean tolerance for the steadily devalued yen, and his growth strategy will suffer if Japan’s exports to China don’t recover. Japan also seeks to cooperate with China in dealing with the looming threat from North Korea.
If Abenomics turns out to be more sizzle than steak, as the economist and Japan watcher Richard Katz argues, economic setbacks at home will make Abe assume a more aggressive posture with his neighbors. Nationalism remains, despite decades of economic and cultural globalization, the default escape mode for politicians in trouble; and, as the events of 1914 proved, populist amplifications of it can quickly destroy the geopolitical equilibrium achieved by deeply interdependent economies.
Certainly, as the centenary of World War I approaches, some extra caution will become imperative for “politicians and polemicists,” who, as Murakami wrote, “lavish us with this cheap alcohol and allow things to get out of control.”
Pankaj Mishra (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed here are his own.