The Tohoku-Kanto earthquake and tsunami of March 11 has altered the relationship between Japan and its neighbors, particularly the relationship with China. Given the sympathy for the plight of hundreds of thousands of residents of the Tohoku region of northeast Japan, the Chinese media’s old “bash Japan into the ground” campaign has become untenable.

As for the Japanese, up to last month’s tragedy they had been agonizing over a big puzzle that they had been unable to solve — none other than their “China Puzzle.”

Specifically, it seemed that the newly acquired wealth and status of their mainland neighbor had flummoxed and spooked the people of these islands so thoroughly that they were experiencing a collapse of national confidence.

Earlier this year, not a day passed without the print and electronic media pushing the point that Japan was caught between the Scylla of American strategic hegemony in Asia and the Charybdis of the Chinese “threat” to its integrity as an Asian power. Add to that the Russian Cerberus of the four disputed islands north of Hokkaido (called the Northern Territories in Japan; the Southern Kurils in Russia) — and you had a Japan that appeared to be hemmed in on all sides by unfriendly elements.

In addition, with many Okinawans railing against the U.S. military bases hosted there, and justifiably up in arms about the government in Tokyo riding roughshod over their interests, Japan could well have been called the “Caged Islands.”

It certainly looked as if Japan in the 21st century was being held hostage to the deviations of history triggered by the defeat in World War II. However, that take on Japan’s geopolitical dilemma now seems somehow dated.

History is to a great extent about perceptions of past realities in the present. Looked at from the situation brought about by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, Japan and China are now being presented with an opportunity to revisit those realities, and to realign priorities and policies accordingly.

It is clear that the Japan-China relationship, with the active participation of South Korea, will define East Asian geopolitics for the first half of this century, if not beyond. Hence now it is time for the key players to sit down, to talk and to listen to each other regarding the entire sweep of their relationships as they have existed for many hundreds of years.

On the Japanese side, it is a chance for the government to assist in the total recognition of Japanese atrocities committed during the 15-year war in China, from 1930-45, and to allow the Emperor to visit China, in order to bring this dark legacy into the light of day once and for all.

On the Chinese side, it is high time that Chinese children were taught some of the positive elements of Sino-Japanese history. For one thing, China’s stunning economic rise would not have been possible without the exceedingly generous grants and aid, both financial and technical, that Japan has provided since 1979. At this time, sympathy among Chinese citizens toward the Japanese victims of March 11’s triple disaster will make it easier for Chinese officials to acknowledge their debt to Japan.

The Chinese government should also seize this time to look back objectively at the history of the two countries. Chinese children are taught about the importance of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that led to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of China as a modern republic in 1912 — a precursor, as it transpired, to their Communist Revolution of 1949.

But little or nothing is taught in Chinese schools about the major role that Japanese individuals, both within and outside the government, played in making the revolution of 1911 possible, particularly in the support of the man who is considered the revolution’s key figure, Sun Yat-sen, the first provisional president of the new republic.

Many of those Japanese figures, among them the future prime minister, Ki Inukai, and members of the pro-China organization Genyosha, were fluent in Chinese history and affairs. It was the Genyosha leaders who provided a safe haven for Sun, supporting him with funds and a place to live for some of the 10 years he spent in Japan during the period of turmoil in China.

Sun wrote in “The Vital Problem of China,” a booklet published in 1917: “The relationship between China and Japan is one of common existence or extinction. Without Japan, there would be no China; without China, there would be no Japan. . . . Japan, because of its similarity in language and race with China, can be of even greater assistance to China than America.”

Of course, the Japanese who encouraged an independent China had a nationalist agenda, which, in the Taisho Era (1912-26), turned ever more hostile to true Chinese aspirations. But during the turbulent decades of the preceding Meiji Era (1868-1912) — which witnessed a widespread fight in East Asia for independence from European colonial oppression — it was not at all certain that sincere Japanese support for post-Xinhai Revolution China would turn to pernicious retribution.

The number of Chinese students studying the Japanese miracle of modernization at the turn of the 20th century was enormous, rising to 8,000 in 1905 and 13,000 in 1906. Many of those students mistrusted the Japanese government — and rightly so — but many also were extremely well-disposed to the Japanese people and grateful for their sympathy and generosity.

Alas, fanatical Japanese nationalism and military adventurism spoiled all of the beneficial ties that Chinese and Japanese people had built up and cherished.

This must not be allowed to happen again. So-called strategic interests, whether based on perceived gain from access to natural resources, or on a one-sided and warped take on mutual hostility, must be relegated to the last wagon in this long train of the historical relationship.

Both sides should acknowledge to each other — conspicuously to their own citizens — the negatives and positives of this vital relationship. If politicians and scholars on both sides do not have the courage and freedom to rewrite history in the name of fact, that long train is headed for, at best, certain derailment and, at worst, a terrible crash.

The losers will be all the Chinese and Japanese victims of history.

Territorial issues that remain serious bones of contention between Japan and its neighbors on all sides — the four islands off the north coast of Hokkaido, the disputed islands with China (in the East China Sea) and Korea (in the Sea of Japan), and the bases issue in Okinawa, which is a strategic dispute between Japan and the United States — can only be solved in the context of a proper review of history between Japan and its neighbors, with all of the soul searching on every side that this entails.

Once again, the tragedy witnessed by the whole world last month can act as an equalizer: No one wins in an aggressive confrontation.

Sun’s words, written nearly a century ago, resound today: “On the reconciliation with Japan depend the welfare of China, peace in the Far East, and the very civilization of the world.”

That is an excellent place from which to start anew, to reassess, rebuild and reinforce a relationship that for very many centuries was one of mutual and profound respect.

Such a reconciliation could be the basis for peaceful and liberating solutions to dilemmas that until now seemed to be confining Japan to a minor role on the world stage.

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