In recent weeks, mass anti-Japanese protests, the largest since Tokyo and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, have occurred in major Chinese cities. As a result, Sino-Japanese relations, already considered cold on the political front, could cool economically.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should stop repeating his cliche of “seeking future-oriented relations” for the two countries and make a bold initiative to solve the controversies.

The disputes stem from differences in historical perceptions. Since taking office, Koizumi has paid annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo memorial to Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals. The visits infuriate China and South Korea for failing to acknowledge the criminals’ war responsibilities. Sino-Japanese relations have become frigid amid growing anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

Adding fuel to the fire was the education ministry’s approval April 5 of a controversial new series of history textbooks for use in junior high schools beginning next April. This sparked protests in China and South Korea over historical perceptions.

In particular, the textbooks compiled by the nationalist-leaning Society for History Textbook Reform took the brunt of criticism. The group, contending that past history textbooks were based on masochistic views, rewrote them to explain the Pacific War from the wartime Japanese perspective.

The Chinese government summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing and expressed anger over the screening results, saying that some textbooks were rightist-authored and denied past Japanese aggression.

Furthermore, a Chinese weekly magazine reported that 10 Japanese companies, including Asahi Breweries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, made financial contributions to the textbook reform group. The article was posted on a Chinese Web site, prompting a boycott of some Japanese products.

Meanwhile, the South Korean foreign minister met with his Japanese counterpart and protested a new civic studies textbook’s reference to the Takeshima islets in the Japan Sea as a territory “illegally occupied by South Korea.” The original edition compiled by the textbook reform group had referred to the island as the subject of territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan. South Korea protested what it called deliberate changes made by the government based on the opinion of textbook censors.

The education ministry said the original passage was misleading, but in my view it was more objective and desirable for use in a textbook. Perhaps students should conduct classroom debate on the pros and the cons of the dispute. The Takeshima issue is nothing new, but its has been revived since the Shimane Prefectural Assembly in February approved an ordinance declaring “Takeshima Day.”

The Foreign Ministry contends that in the mid-17th century Japan established effective control over the island and that it is a Japanese territory under international law. However, South Korea has stationed security personnel there since 1954. It built a manned lighthouse on the island in 1998.

In 1954, Japan proposed to South Korea that the issue be taken to the International Court of Justice, but the latter refused. If Japan has definitive evidence to establish its territorial rights, it should appeal for an international court settlement.

Disagreement is also brewing between Japan and China over the exploration of natural-gas deposits in unmarked waters in the East China Sea. On April 13, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that it would start processing applications for test drilling — which it has put off for the past 30 years — in an area adjacent to natural-gas fields that China had already begun exploring. The move was ill-timed; China called it a serious provocation.

Territorial disputes have a way of developing into a military conflict. Japan and China should promptly discuss joint exploration of resources.

Amid frictions over historical perceptions and territory, it is hardly surprising that critics in China and South Korea should object to Japan’s plan to seek a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Koizumi’s passion for cooperating with the United States while neglecting Asian neighbors is responsible for the recent trouble.

The violent anti-Japanese protests, which Beijing initially had been unable to control, demonstrated that China remains a developing country in cultural terms, despite fast economic growth in recent years. The mob attacks on the Japanese Embassy and Japanese supermarkets reminded the international community of the investment risks in China, where economics and politics are inseparable.

Meanwhile, the European Union is reportedly moving to delay the lifting of an arms embargo vis-a-vis China, as doubts about the country linger because of human rights problems 16 years after the military crackdown on prodemocracy crowds in Tiananmen Square.

China, which joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, will be treated as a nonmarket economy for 15 years. As a result, Chinese products may be easily targeted for antidumping assessments and thus disadvantaged in the international market. So China is urging other countries to recognize it as a market economy, but prolonged anti-Japanese protests could undermine the Chinese campaign.

Admittedly Japan has lacked sincerity in settling postwar issues. However, Japan has not gone to war for 60 years, while China and South Korea fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars. This should merit international appreciation.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea hope to conclude a free trade agreement, and could join forces to create an East Asian Community. Friction among the three economic powerhouses would set back these aims. It is hoped that the three countries will overlook their minor differences for the common good.

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