Is it true, as the American philosopher George Santayana famously remarked just over a century ago, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? If it is, is the reverse necessarily false? Imagine he had said — his eye, for example, on the current discord between Japan and China — “Those who cannot forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Would he have been talking nonsense?

The bilateral relationship between Japan and China is one of the oldest in the world, dating back at least 2,000 years. China civilized Japan — not by conquering it but by teaching it, step by painful step; from wet rice agriculture to metal-working to literacy to architecture to Buddhism, Confucianism and the art of government. China’s benevolent tutelage and Japan’s eager discipleship constitute a rare, if not altogether unprecedented and inimitable, form of international relations.

That’s worth remembering, to be sure, and mutual affection might well be the dominant mood today had Japan’s Western-style modernization, begun with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, not turned China, then still backward by Western standards of science, technology and industry, into a vast proving ground of Japanese mettle. Japan declared war on China in 1894 over territorial disputes in Korea. Within a year it was victorious; within 40 years it had turned large swaths of China into a debased, ravaged colony; within 50 it had perpetrated atrocities which today are as vivid in China’s collective memory as they are faded in Japan’s.

Too much remembering may be as bad as too much convenient forgetting. In rural Shanxi Province, some 200 km southwest of Beijing, a writer for Shukan Post magazine finds an “anti-Japan theme park.” The presentations are theater and film buttressed by light shows, audio bursts, computer graphics and other high-tech paraphernalia. In one sector visitors are handed laser guns and invited to “attack” actors dressed in wartime Japanese uniforms. In another is shown Japanese troops bayoneting Chinese infants, the soldiers laughing as the babies wail in agony. This may all have happened, but the purpose seems less to preserve historical truth than to whip up hysteria, and it seems to be succeeding. Last month the weekly Shukan Shincho cited a public-opinion survey indicating 90 percent of Beijing residents are primed for war — with “evil Japan” or “little Japan,” one or the other adjective having lately grown almost inseparable from the country’s name.

The immediate inflaming issue is of course Japan’s unilateral nationalization last September of the disputed Senkaku islets, which the Chinese call Diaoyu. That was a watershed — and yet, in another sense it was not. One of the pleasures of reviewing old press clippings is the recurring discovery that, as the French proverb has it, the more things change the more they remain the same. Early in 1997 Shukan Gendai magazine cited a poll showing Japan to be the country most disliked by the Chinese (by 47 percent of respondents, as against 37.4 percent who disliked the runner-up, the United States). A runaway Chinese bestseller of the time was titled “The China That Can Say No,” coauthored by one Jang Shaopo. The mocking reference to “The Japan That Can Say No” is unmissable. The Japanese book is a declaration of independence from the U.S., coauthored in 1988 by the nationalist politician Shintaro Ishihara — who, as governor of Tokyo until his resignation last October, was central in provoking the Senkaku row. Jang Shaopo boasted to Shukan Gendai back in 1997 of winning wild applause from Chinese lecture audiences with lines like, “China refrains from demanding war reparations, and the Japanese (repay us by) denying the Nanking Massacre ever took place! What kind of nonsense is that? Japan is nothing more than an American colony!”

Diplomatic relations between Japan and China, long severed, were “normalized” in 1972. That implied a tacit agreement to let the war slip not into oblivion but once and for all into the regrettable but irreversible past. The damage done could not be undone but could, perhaps, be transcended. The Senkakus were in dispute then too. Chinese negotiator Deng Xiaoping, who later as China’s paramount leader launched a modernization drive oddly reminiscent of Meiji’s, said at the normalization talks, “It does not matter if the (Senkaku/Diaoyu) question is shelved for some time, say 10 years. Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. Our next generation will certainly be wiser.”

It was not, but at least it was as wise. The quiet shelving persisted — not for 10 years but for 40, until Japan’s central government acted as it did to head off an impetuous purchase bid by Tokyo under Gov. Ishihara.

Shukan Gendai earlier this month assessed the toll from the Japanese point of view. In 1980, it says, 78.6 percent of Japanese felt friendly towards China. Now only 18 percent do. If there is no serious war talk in Japan, there isn’t much cordiality either.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict is ultimately not about the uninhabited rocks, or even about potentially exploitable natural resources in the vicinity, argue two sociologists Shukan Gendai interviews. Masachi Osawa and Daisaburo Hashizume, coauthors of a best seller titled “Odoroki no Chugoku” (“Surprising China”), say the real issue is national pride, and that Japan’s handling of the spate of Chinese incursions into waters Japan considers unalterably Japanese has been less than deft in leaving China no room for an honorable retreat.

They say nothing, strangely enough, of China’s lack of deftness. Perhaps they take it for granted. Through long centuries of greatness, China grew accustomed to seeing itself as the center of the world. Japan’s coming to it as pupil to teacher seemed quite natural — to both parties. To one of the parties, that still seems the appropriate relationship. Osawa and Hashizume seem to be urging Japan to gently humor its old teacher.

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