Books / Reviews

'Intimate Rivals' gives needed context to Japan and China's volatile relationship

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

The relationship between Japan and China extends back more than a millennium but, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) all that the two countries have borrowed, traded and shared, that relationship could be best summed up as “Intimate Rivals” — the title of Sheila A. Smith’s new book.

Intimate Rivals, by Sheila A. Smith
384 pages.
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, Nonfiction.

Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, an American research organization, keeps the focus of her worthy analysis on Japan and China’s recent history, from the period of normalization between the two countries beginning in the 1970s to the present day.

Over several chapters Smith addresses all the headline issues: the Senkaku Islands, maritime defense, food security and safety, and the impact of World War II on successive generations. But her book delves deeper and provides a great deal more context than a single newspaper article can.

Smith shows that all of the issues involved in Sino-Japanese relations — from territorial standoffs to “seemingly irreconcilable differences over policy” — have greatly influenced domestic politics locally. This is evident in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to roll back the pacifist Constitution or the debate over whether or not politicians should visit Yasukuni Shrine — visits that are as much about honoring the war dead as a symbolic act of not kowtowing to China.

Smith writes that “China’s influence is testing Japan’s ability to reform itself and to continue to rely on the norms and principles that have formed its own postwar ascension to global power.”

Change in Japan is incremental at best, but China’s ascension could well be the catalyst for greater cooperation or “bigger fences.”

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