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.

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