Many Japanese, when asked about their Chinese neighbors, will mention boisterous tourists crowding sightseeing spots in Japan or criticize recent military action in the South China Sea. How sadly reductive this view is becomes clear when reading Ezra Vogel’s new book “China and Japan: Facing History.” It’s a sweeping, often fascinating, account of a cultural and geopolitical relationship that Vogel calls “tense, dangerous, deep and complicated.”

China and Japan: Facing History, by Ezra F. Vogel,
526 pages

A preeminent scholar of East Asia and author of the 1979 classic “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America,” Vogel examines here the major touchstones in the 1,500 years of recorded Sino-Japanese contact. Given the frequent disputes between historians of the two countries, Vogel sees himself as a sympathetic outsider who may further mutual understanding.

“No countries can compare with China and Japan in terms of the length of their historical contact,” Vogel writes in the preface. While the grievances of this contact are well-recorded, Vogel makes clear that both countries have equal reason for gratitude toward one another. Impressively researched and smoothly written, “China and Japan” is a timely reminder of how public perceptions are shaped by political expediency, how new leaders and propaganda can efface existing goodwill.

“The Chinese people have little awareness of the positive side of their relationship with Japan, of how much they benefited from the ‘learn from Japan’ programs after 1895 and the ‘development assistance’ programs after 1978,” writes Vogel.

“They are not fully aware of the generosity of Japanese aid programs in the 1980s and 1990s. They are also not aware of the extent to which Japan has apologized, or how thoroughly the Japanese have renounced militarism and pursued peace.”

The tumultuous relationship between the two countries began in 600, when Empress Suiko, the sovereign of the Yamato clan, sent a diplomatic mission to China, aiming to import cultural elements that would help unify and control larger parts of Japan.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, Japan borrowed massively from the advanced Chinese civilization, including written characters, Buddhism, literature, music, architecture, philosophy and governmental structures. The exchange flourished until 838, when Japanese regions became stronger and the country’s administration became less centralized.

This cultural debt is seldom mentioned by the Japanese, who seem more comfortable admitting influence from the West. Tracing the two countries over the years, it becomes clear that, for long stretches, these two Asian giants have mostly been rivals.

“Throughout history the Japanese have had a deep sense of the Chinese as proud and arrogant people who demand subordination by other people,” writes Vogel. “Thus, ever since 607 (when the first Japanese monks arrived, to study Buddhism) the Japanese have maintained a reluctance to bow down to the Chinese and a determination to be treated as political equals.”

In the 19th century, Japan’s success in modernizing and its victory in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 changed the dynamic. The country became dominant and hubristic, which led to the horrors of the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945.

Positive interactions between the countries last peaked after 1972, following President Nixon’s visit to China, which resumed Sino-American diplomatic relations. The Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai — a team of “imaginative problem solvers” in Vogel’s description — signed an agreement that same year to normalize relations and oversaw rapidly expanding business ties. The Chinese wanted to learn management skills to aid their industrialization, looking for pointers on how to balance capitalism and socialism.

As for facing their own history, the Japanese provided generous technical and financial help to China in a spirit of reparations for World War II. A Japanese communique in 1972 stated: “The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproaches itself.”

Polled in 1978, some 78 percent of Japanese people reported positive feelings toward China. In turn, on a visit to Japan the same year, the Chinese foreign policy leader Deng Xiaoping conceded, “We are a backward country and we need to learn from Japan.”

In the 1990s, when key bridge builders in both countries left office, the relationship deteriorated again. Since then, the disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has become a symbol of two nations that seem unwilling to become too friendly.

“China and Japan” seems least generous when Vogel looks to the future. In a predictable vein, he holds that reckoning with the past, especially on the Japanese side, is the key to resetting relations. But no explanation follows as to how this would satisfy the Chinese or reap tangible gains for Japan.

In the end, if the two Asian giants choose to reconcile, it may be due to cooperation on China’s Belt and Road initiative or shared interests in facing up to U.S. pressure on trade. History does matter — and Vogel records it masterfully — but the Sino-Japanese reset, fraught as it is, may not be helped by an eye on a complex past.

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