History overshadows present, future Japan-China relations

Can Tokyo and Beijing finally put aside the past and build a new forward-looking relationship?


Special To The Japan Times

Can Japan and China find a way to reduce the risk of conflict, and prevent continuing hostilities that could last decades? Can they peacefully coexist in the new era when they are both great powers?

The current tensions, greatly heightened by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, cannot be eliminated without confronting the passions stemming from unresolved historical issues that arose beginning late in the 19th century when Japan modernized first.

Many Chinese retain a deep sense of humiliation at being surpassed by a small island nation and a deep sense of anger at their widespread suffering caused by Japan, an anger that helped Mao Zedong unify China in 1949.

Japanese are still working to combine pride in their history with expressions of remorse over the suffering they caused to neighboring countries. Chinese leaders confront these unresolved historical problems and the fear of a revived Japanese militarism. Japanese leaders face a China where anti-Japanese expressions are widespread, and the economy and military, already larger than Japan’s, continue to grow faster.

The difficulties between China and Japan also focus on the conflicting territorial claims over islands the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call Diaoyu. The dangers of accident and conflict are real, and if an accident occurred, reconciliation between China and Japan could be delayed for decades or even longer. This would be bad for Japan, for China and for the rest of the world.

There are some reasons for tensions to be focused on these barren rocks. Nearby maritime resources have some value. Fishermen from both countries, to meet global demand for fish, have exhausted the areas nearer their own shores and moved further offshore, clashing with their counterparts from the other country.

The locations have military strategic value as Beijing seeks to gain control over Taiwan and allow its ships easy access into the Pacific.

But these factors alone cannot explain the emotional responses in Beijing and Tokyo, which are infused with historical memories.

Some 90 percent of the public in each country have a negative opinion of the other country. In China, World War II movies with brutal Japanese soldiers appear frequently on TV, the Internet is filled with hostile expressions toward Japanese and some Chinese military officers openly express confidence that in the event of conflict, they would win.

In Japan, TV has fewer open expressions of hostility toward China, but repeated pictures of menacing Chinese ships and planes threatening the Senkakus (Diaoyu), and of the Chinese public attacking Japanese people and Japanese goods provoke fear and hostility among viewers. Japanese military officers do not publicly talk of their superiority over Chinese forces but among themselves they express confidence that in the event of conflict, they would prevail and if necessary, the Americans would come to their aid.

Chinese leaders are genuinely concerned about the rise of Japanese militarism. We Americans also fought Japan in World War II, but our closest contact with Japanese has come not from invading Japanese soldiers, but from close personal contacts with Japanese civilians after the war. I first lived in Japan from 1958 to 1960 and have visited Japan every year since. I and other Americans who have lived in Japan after 1945 can see how thoroughly the Japanese people have renounced militarism. The Chinese people had their closest contact with Japan in World War II and those memories are kept alive by the Chinese media.

Chinese leaders warn Japan about the rise of militarism, and yet paradoxically it is their own military buildup and pressure on Japan that is beginning to strengthen Japanese convictions that they should relax their restraints on military buildup.

In the 1980s, thanks to initiatives China took under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, it appeared that Japan and China could build a harmonious relationship for the 21st century. When he visited Japan in 1978, Deng said that in the 2,500-year history of relations between China and Japan, there was only a period of 50 years when relations were bad and he vowed to revive the good relations that existed before. In Japan, Deng met the Emperor, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda and Japanese business leaders, and the talks went well. Deng later reported that the Emperor apologized for Japan’s actions in World War II and vowed that such things would never occur again.

When Deng talked at the Japan National Press Club, those present joined in long and loud sustained applause. For the first time in history, a Chinese leader rode on a high-speed train. After Deng’s visit, Japanese business leaders joined in helping Chinese to learn how to build modern factories in electronics, steel, automobiles and other industries.

To strengthen the relationship, Deng brought to China Japanese novels, movies and TV programs. Under Deng’s leadership, exchange programs between Chinese and Japanese youth began.

Deng’s efforts met a very favorable response in both countries. In the 1980s, Japan provided far more aid to China than any other country and Japanese companies helped set up modern factories in China. Japanese tourists went to China in large numbers. Several hundred local Japanese communities, from all over Japan, formed sister relationships with Chinese counterparts.

Japanese groups visiting China expressed apologies for the damage that Japan caused China in World War II. In the 1990s, Chinese leaders launched education programs to teach patriotism and in China nothing stirred patriotism more than a discussion of Japanese cruelties in World War II. Criticisms of Japanese failures to detail the history of their aggression in China were widespread, not only in China, but also in the West.

Many Chinese fear that if young Japanese do not learn about the suffering Japan caused in its invasions of other countries, Japan may resume its path of militarism. When young Japanese visit China, many Chinese hosts are upset that the Japanese youth have little knowledge of the suffering that Japan caused. Why, they ask, are young Japanese not taught about their history in their textbooks? Why do Japanese museums not do more to show the horrors of war? And why do Japanese visit museums that seem to glorify their own military history? Not just Chinese, but Westerners as well, wonder why Japanese could not be more like Germans and continue to express sorrow?

Japanese are aware that after World War II, the Chinese government, under Chiang Kai-shek, signed an agreement that China would not ask for reparations for World War II. Yet in the 1980s, Japan gave more aid to China than any other country. To many Japanese, this was a way of expressing remorse for World War II. Japanese are upset that few Chinese people today are aware of Japanese apologies given by their leaders and their citizens who met Chinese, and also unaware of the extent of Japanese contributions to China in the 1980s.

Many young Japanese people wonder why they should be asked to apologize for actions that took place before they were born. Some Japanese historians who read Chinese accounts of cruelties are convinced that many are exaggerated while the Chinese ignore the cruelties of Chinese to each other in their civil war and during the Cultural Revolution.

And yet the fact is that not only Chinese, but Westerners, believe that the apologies of certain leaders on Japan’s part are not enough to show continuing remorse. To maintain the goodwill of other countries, it is advisable for Japanese to show continuing remorse for the problems caused by their earlier generations.

All leaders want to take pride in their country. Chinese who are ashamed of their country’s slowness in modernizing in the 19th century can justifiably take pride in their extraordinary recent economic progress.

Japanese who are ashamed of the cruelties of their country in World War II can take pride in their extraordinary contributions to peace after World War II — for its contributions to peaceful development around the world, to keeping military expenditure down to 1 percent of GNP, for maintaining a small military, to foregoing the development of nuclear weapons.

All leaders must show that they are strong leaders. It is difficult for Chinese President Xi Jinping or Prime Minister Abe to take initiatives that will gain the cooperation of the other. Japanese leaders, convinced that showing weakness to China would only lead to escalating demands and further military advances, are determined to make it clear that they cannot be intimidated.

As difficult as it is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, there may be no better time than the present for beginning that process. Xi Jinping has consolidated his power and is expected to lead his country for eight more years. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister in years to be assured of continuing in office for at least three more years and possibly longer. Xi and Abe are known as committed patriots who have a strong base for taking difficult steps to improve relations.

As one who has studied China and Japan for half a century, and has good friends in both places, I deeply hope these two great countries can work together peacefully. If the leaders of the two countries have the same goal, I suggest that they consider the following:

Beginning now

Japan should avoid actions China considers provocative.

Japan’s top leaders should not again visit Yasukuni Shrine and should reaffirm Japan’s apologies for tragedies caused by their invasions.

China should not use armed pressure in an effort to determine the sovereignty of territories claimed by Japan and should reaffirm its determination to prevent domestic demonstrations against Japanese.

Chinese and Japanese representatives should seek a formula so both sides could with honor back down from confrontations over territorial disputes such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and affirm their determination to resolve these issues peacefully at a later time.

Both sides should select a small number of high-level leaders likely to play an important role in their government for many years ahead. These leaders, representing their respective countries, should meet frequently for comprehensive discussions on a broad range of issues to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation. Japan should select leaders representing major political parties so that whichever party is in power contacts could continue without interruption.

Over the next several years

Japanese leaders should prepare a statement (several tens of pages) stressing their many contributions to peace since World War II. Japan could emphasize its renunciation of military action; contributions to developing countries, to the United Nations and other international organizations; limitation of defense spending to 1 percent of GNP; restraint in producing nuclear weapons; and refusal to send troops abroad to undertake military actions. Japan should prepare a statement of similar length summarizing its role in other Asian countries since the Meiji Era, including an objective account of the suffering its military aggression caused in Taiwan, Korea, mainland China and Southeast Asia in World War II. It should lengthen the time for required study of Japanese history since Meiji and prepare guidance for textbooks in required courses so all Japanese students acquire a comprehensive understanding of Asian criticisms, as well as Japan’s successes in modernization and contributions to other Asian countries before and after World War II.

China should reduce the cultural presentations that inspire hostility to Japan in its movies, books and TV, and increase the public recognition of Japan’s contribution to China’s development since 1978, and publicize the Japanese commitment to peace since 1945. China should return to the policies of the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, introducing Japanese literature, movies, TV and other products of Japanese culture on a wide scale.

Exchange programs between Chinese and Japanese people should be greatly expanded.

At Harvard, professor Ezra Vogel was director of the U.S.-Japan Program, the Fairbank Center and the Asia Center. His book “Japan As Number One” (1979) was a best-seller in Japan. His book “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” (2011) was a best-seller in China.

  • Dipak Bose

    Nothing would stop China to invade Vietnam, Phillipines, Malaysia and Indonesia. These countries never invaded China or raped Chinese women or killed Chinese men.

    China had war against every countries on its border. China has occupied Tibet, Formlosa, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, East Turkistan, 20 percent of Jammu & Kashmir state of India.

    Thus, the analysis is totally false. Japan`s behaviour is not rersponsible for Chinese demand for Senkeku island.

    • pervertt

      Your unsupported propositions are the antithesis of Vogel’s thoughtful article. Unlike your analysis, Vogel sees the relationship between Japan and China in historical terms, ie. it is much more than a dispute over territorial boundaries. Why not apply Vogel’s analysis to other countries with bad blood in the region, eg. between India and Pakistan. You may find that jingoistic sentiment is the enemy of reason and reconciliation.

    • risq

      Funny how you are purposefully selective. Because Tibet, Manchuria and Mongolia have invaded and raped China in the past. As has Japan, most recently. Thus your analysis is totally false and possibly intentionally misleading.

    • hellojst

      Your claim is just ridiculous. Why not saying China is going to conquer the universe?

      Your knowlege of history is obiviousely twisted by your biased intention.

  • rdomain

    I disagree that Chinese were “humiliated” by being beaten by the island nation of Japan. Were the Jews “humiliated” because they were the victims of Nazi atrocities? It’s more an anger, if anything else. Ezra Vogel either doesn’t understand the Chinese psyche, or is confusing the Chinese psyche with the Japanese psyche (Japan is more prone to humiliation than the Chinese). But I do agree that Japan shouldn’t engage in historical revisionism, especially with regards to their textbooks.

    • risq

      For those who care, it’s not so much history, revenge or humiliation. It’s the increasing parallels between 1920’s Japan and the Japan of today. Witness the recent states secrets law, the LDP’s draft to restore the Emperor as the official head of state and to grant the Japanese Imperial forces the right to pre-emptive attack. The visit to the shrine is merely the cherry on top. A proof that Abe has kowtowed to his ultranationalist masters. Their goal is the economic and military domination of Asia, which includes the removal of US influence from the sphere.

      • Scott Reynolds

        I think you are a bit off the mark here. Abe is not being manipulated by anyone. He is working to advance what he sees as his life’s work: the dismantling of the postwar order (which he views as having been imposed on Japan by the US) and a return to the “spiritual” Japan of the prewar period, with the emperor at the center. This is why he is obsessed with trashing the postwar constitution: To people like Abe it embodies the postwar order they claim to despise.

        But even so, this is not really anything like the situation in the 1920s or 1930s. Abe is well aware that a strong alliance with the US is essential to Japan’s security and prosperity. So he wants to have his nationalist cake and eat it too by retaining the backing of the US even as he claims to repudiate all they have done for his country.

        There is an obvious contradiction here, but I also think that realistically there is no danger that Abe and his ilk will ever try to achieve the “military domination of Asia.” Their view of history may be a fantasy, but they aren’t totally delusional with regard to today’s global power realities.

      • risq

        I didn’t say that Abe was being manipulated though. It’s more that he’s the public face for the ruling elites of the LDP, their backers, the Japanese Business Federation (keidanren), and the yakuza. (Though perhaps the last two groups have less influence on the rulers.) They are definitely manipulating the Japanese people who have no interest in such things.

        Right now their goal isn’t to dominate militarily, but it’s the natural step after economic domination. Hegemony isn’t always about military, just being able to order your “allies” and “friends” around in the region. It’s what the US does in various areas of the world and Japan wants to supplant them.

        Ultimately Japan is offering a false dichotomy to the US and other ASEAN countries. “If you don’t like China, you must accept a fully re-militarized Imperial Japan, with our fully independent machinations.” It is this choice which is absurd.

  • Roy Warner

    This a timely and apt analysis of the current situation and Dr. Vogel’s proposals are wise. I would argue with one statement:” Japanese are still working to combine pride in their history with expressions of remorse over the suffering they caused to neighboring countries.” Whilst this might be accurate, unfortunately Japan’s leaders are now working to use pride as a means to smother past official expressions and current feelings of remorse in the Japanese citizenry.

  • Viva75

    A very well written article. Without meaning to be pedantic, I agree with rdomain that Japanese definitely suffer form humiliation/shame/dishonour more than Chinese…but overall an excellent piece

  • Will

    Again I see the false argument that “because a lot of Chinese killed a lot of Chinese, it’s ok for Japanese to kill Chinese”. This is no more true than to say “because a lot of American killed Americans in the civil war, it’s ok to kill Americans.”

  • tiger

    i am chinese. i understand the japanese motive. japan has been a castrated country for decades, it’s natural to want to be a normal country. and i do not think china is unable to forgive japan.
    but there are two issues that make china unwilling to forgive japan. the first is an attitude issue. if japan show remorse in a genuine fashion, such as removing war criminals from the shrines, acknowledge the comfort women wrongdoings, or pay a visit to the war atrocity memorials like the germans did, then no one in china will be hating japanese the way they do now.
    the second is a position issue, which is harder to solve. japan is an ally of china’s geopolitical competitor. except bilateral trade, any gain by the japanese is likely to come at a loss of china. unless japan realigns itself to asia, china cannot trust japan.
    as for me, being a chinese personal, i fully support china, even that i can understand the japanese position. china is not making excessive claims here, our claims are also backed by history, laws, and power. if confrontation is the only resolve then so be it. but i do hope we can come to an understanding someday (apparently must be after mr abe steps down, as he is a personal non grata in china now).

  • Ludwig Von B.

    The author is clearly pulling down China as saying that China was not modernizing quite enough fast in the 19th century, forgetting that it was Westerners like France (and I’m a French guy), Germany, UK, USA and Japan that was taking concessions of China by sharing it. China has also had the more quickly development in the history in the last 30 years. Also, the author forget to speak about the conditions at the end of WWII and Chiang Kai Shek was not the leader in 1949 but has rather received Taiwan from Japan to flee against Mao. The island Diaoyu/Senkaku have had to be given back at this time, it was part of an agreement as Japan has lost the war. And please, don’t forget either that America has then relations with China as an ally who has lost 40 millions of casualties. You’re speaking about Japan as a good partner since the end of the war, but China didn’t get the privilege to be helped at the end of the war like the Marshall Plan has been to Japan or France.

    You also have to be clear with yourself. America can’t say something against France who has colonized Algeria like Japan to China, with the same proportions of a little country to a big one, and decide then that China has to forgive. To China can forgive, Japan has to stop bless war criminals and the actual prime minister Abe has to ask pardon for his attitude since its arrival to the power.

    You can’t ask neither that China reduce its military spending as they didn’t mistake themselves like Japan during WWII, saving even the most number of Jews in the world, and as they have not showed any hostile attitude to Japan. They’re even the first automobile market for Japan and USA among many other economic market. China is not threatening any country with his ADIZ, as Japan has one as well South Korea which since has even expanded its ! I don’t see why China which has a staunch ally of USA and UK in WWII should have to pay the mistakes of Japan and, in my opinion, Japan has more odds to repeat its bad attitude toward China than China seek any retaliation against Japan. Japanese who live today are like us French toward Algerians and have nothing to see with the guilty feeling for what has been before between two nations. And all I can say is that on Chinese newspapers I’ve read already about Chinese leaders who make condemned Chinese who have attacked Japanese memorials. Japanese would get honor to do so, beginning with his first Minister Shinzo Abe.

  • Ludwig Von B.

    China didn’t take revenge in 1949 as Tibet was already a Chinese territory since many centuries despite the time when British took it at the end of the 19th century. Manchuria and Mongolia have ruled China, they were the dynasty Qing, Lol. And the Mongolia has ruled China with the Yuan dynasty. And I can also learn you that the Daila-Lama himself made a poem at the praise of Mao when this latter came to meet him. The relations were good then and you certainly not ignore that America has recognized to have kindled break of Tibet out of China as Russia has threatened China with Xinjiang.

  • Ludwig Von B.

    Of course, Japan is the colonizer like France has colonized Algeria. Why don’t you want to accept and recognize it ? Of course also Chiang Kai Shek was a war lord as well as Mao Tse Tung because they were invaded by Japan. Don’t you know Nanking rape and experimentation on human ? Are you trying to deny it ? China has not attacked USSR, they’ve helped them against America to Korea war before to break up the relations. They attacked India as they were not agree with the borders that UK have dressed in favor of India without concerting China. Japan has done the same to China that they’ve done to South Korea and Philippines. USA has had to send two nuclear bombs to Japan so obsessive they were with their ideology. China has never retaliated against Japan and has no interest to as their history is explicite : they never search hegemony. And even South Korea is claiming Diaoyu/ Senkaku Island. In my opinion, Japan has to calm down and stop to bless War Lords like the Prime Minister has done this year again.