Yaaaaay! Everybody happy, happy, happy! Image source: China Digital Times

Yaaaaay! Everybody happy, happy, happy! Image source: China Digital Times

This weekend marks the 70th anniversary of one of history’s biggest turning points: V-J Day, or the end of World War II. On that day, the Japanese Emperor, his country ravaged by bombs, his navy on the Pacific Ocean floor and his army in full retreat, surrendered. It marked the implosion of the Japanese Empire, the political force that had dominated East Asia for half a century, and the beginning of an era dominated by China. It is a time well-remembered by Chinese and Japanese today, despite how long ago it was, and the memories they have are bitter and not easily healed. In fact, seven decades later, China and Japan are once more enemies.

So it seems apt to return to my ongoing series on China’s relations with other countries. This week, I look at its relationship with Japan, a country with which it has a long, complicated, but mostly antagonistic story.

As I explained in my first post on China, China is the center of civilization in East Asia. Japan only appears in the historical record in the first millennium, thousands of years after China, and as a vassal kingdom across the sea. Early Japan imbibed a lot of cultural influence from China: Japan uses Chinese characters (and also some of its own, derived from Chinese characters; it’s complicated); Japanese art, architecture and poetry primarily followed the Chinese model; the early Japanese empire modeled its administrative system and law code after China’s; the medieval Japanese capitals of Nara and Kyouto followed Chinese urban guidelines; Buddhism, although imported via Korea, was heavily influenced by Chinese practices; Confucianism, China’s main social philosophy, was adopted; even traditional Japanese clothing is based on medieval Chinese clothing.

Much of this cultural borrowing dates from the Tang Dynasty, however, which was at its height in the 6 and 700s. By the 800s, the dynasty was clearly in decline, and Japan smugly decided it had nothing more to learn from China. Japan turned inward, and slowly began to develop its own distinctive civilization, heavily influenced by China’s but with its own characteristics (like samurai). China and Japan continued trading with each other and carrying on pirate raids on each other, but for most of the second millennium they avoided each other. (Two big exceptions were the Mongol invasions of the 1200s, which failed to conquer Japan, and a Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1500s, which failed to conquer China.) By the 1600s, both countries had closed up and sealed their borders, convinced that the outside world was boring and threatening.

This changed in 1853, when Japan was forced open by Matthew Perry and the US. Realizing how strong and technologically advanced the West was — and seeing how it had ravaged China earlier — Japan resolved to completely change its governing strategy and do whatever it needed to catch up with the West. It succeeded spectacularly: by the 1890s Japan had a modern education system, army, navy, industrial base, and railway system, and valued Western ideas, science and technology.

Meanwhile, China remained committed to its old ways and made no serious change to its imperial system. It had no real idea how to deal with the foreigners exploiting its coastal cities. Plenty of Chinese reformers, frustrated with how sclerotic the Manchu* court was, looked to Japan as a model for modernization and advancement. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, lived in Japan for a few years and got help from Japanese eager to cause trouble in China (or, uh, advance Chinese reform). Lu Xun, the most prominent Chinese writer in the early 1900s, studied in Japan. The Chinese reformist scholar Liang Qichao lived in Japan for 14 years and argued that Japan’s hybrid Western-imperial Japanese government system showed that China could reform without overthrowing the Manchus. Most Western terminology that entered China in this period did so via Japanese translations. Suddenly Japan was the teacher and not the pupil.

Chinese awe of Japan’s prowess was tempered with foreboding, though. By 1894 (41 years after Perry’s visit!), Japan had strengthened enough so that it had nothing to fear from the West and so that it could start beating up other Asians. It went to war with China, and despite its far smaller size (about 40 million vs. 400 million) and army (240,000 vs. 630,000), its superior technology, canny tactics, and disciplined army let it thrash China’s weaker army and navy. As a result, Japan won Taiwan and China lost its influence in Korea. The superiority of Japan’s model was made evident — as was Japan’s growing ambition and aggression.

Japanese imperialism only increased in the 1900s. It sent an army to Beijing to help suppress an anti-foreigner uprising in 1900. A war with Russia secured Japanese control of Korea, the Liaodong Peninsula (on the Chinese coast near Beijing), and Japanese influence over Manchuria (northeast China). Japan entered World War I to scoop up the German colony of Shandong, another peninsula on the Chinese coast near Beijing. During the war Japan imposed 21 demands on China that extended its control over the Chinese economy and parts of Chinese territory. Japan was clearly caught up in a predatory relationship with China, lured in by its vast natural resources, economic potential, and a leadership vacuum brought on by the collapse of the Chinese Empire in 1912. During the 1920s, Japanese imperialism eased up and Shandong was returned to China during a brief brightening of relations called the Taishou Era, but the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and civil war in China led to renewed imperialism. In 1931 the Japanese army created a puppet state in Manchuria; in 1932 Japan bombed Shanghai. Japanese encroachment in China far overshadowed anything the West had done.

In 1937 the gathering storm finally broke. A clash between the Chinese and Japanese armies outside of Beijing escalated into a full-scale war. Japanese armies poured south from Manchuria, easily pushing back the disorganized Chinese. Nanjing, China’s capital at the time, fell within 5 months and was subjected to one of history’s most brutal pillages ever. Japanese soldiers ransacked the city with little restraint from their commanders (and even active encouragement). Tens of thousands were raped; 300,000 were murdered, often in mass executions outside the city but sometimes in wanton slaughter house by house. This so-called “Rape of Nanjing” has come to symbolize Japanese barbarity, but it was only one of a series of massacres and episodes of mistreatment that characterized the war. Chinese cities were bombed and its civilians strafed from the air. Soldiers set fire to farmers’ fields and razed villages. Women were conscripted as sex slaves and gang-raped on a daily basis. A sinister army unit in Manchuria conducted biological weapons experiments on Chinese prisoners. With the Japanese army increasingly bogged down in China’s vastness, it resorted to cruelty and mercilessness on a massive scale to wipe out as many Chinese as possible and bring the country to its knees. It was a horrific counterpart to the similarly total war raging in the Soviet Union at the time, and it cost China 20 million deaths and about 100 million refugees.

But, obviously, Japan failed. Even its crack troops, fearsome airplanes, and brutally efficient administration couldn’t subdue China. Harassed by guerrilla attacks and bogged down in its other campaigns in Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese army collapsed in 1945 and withdrew. Japan’s martial ambitions had swelled by 1940 to envision domination of all of East Asia and becoming a true world power, but by 1945 it was left with only its home archipelago.

In the postwar years, China and Japan both underwent major transformations. Japan was occupied by America and remolded into a democratic, pro-Western state with a sharply reduced military and dependent on the U.S. China unfortunately went through a few more years of war before consolidating into a monolithic Communist regime. Japan, which had developed by adopting the Western model (with some modifications of course), was anti-Communist (it was one of the reasons it invaded China, supposedly), and besides, as a new client of the U.S. its foreign policy independence was reduced. China and Japan were on opposite sides of the Cold War and shunned each other. Yet relations were not as antagonistic as they were between China and America; Japan’s new model was an export-driven economy, and China was still the biggest potential market and source of natural resources. Japanese businessmen hoped for a less strict policy towards China.

In 1972, America and China finally reestablished diplomatic relations, and although Japan was irked that it hadn’t been consulted, it quickly fell into line. Its prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, visited Beijing (again China’s capital). Economic ties were established once again, although more between equals this time. Deng Xiaoping, China’s chairman, visited Toukyou in 1978 to sign a treaty putting the grievances of the war to rest. He hugged Japan’s prime minister and wrote in a guestbook that “we learn from and pay respect to the Japanese people, who are great, diligent, brave and intelligent.” The complementary nature of the Chinese economy — resource rich with a huge labor pool — and the Japanese economy — resource poor with lousy demographics but expertise in technology, science and modern enterprises — led once again to close partnerships between Japanese and Chinese companies, especially when Deng loosened restrictions on private enterprise.

But the ghosts of the war never really went away either. The calamity had traumatized China, and it had never really forgiven Japan. The issue began to fester in the 1980s, when Japanese politicians began to take visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial in Toukyou that enshrines the memories of the valiant soldiers who gave their lives for the emperor. It also enshrines war criminals and the generals who pushed Japan into the war. These aren’t simple visits, either: In Japanese religion, dead soldiers are revered as gods, and the politicians worship them. China considered it an insult, and it certainly served to keep the memory of the war alive.

If it feels like I’ve dwelt too long on history, that’s because history overshadows the Sino-Japanese relationship. Despite the close economic and cultural ties between China and Japan (which are also informed by history, of course), it’s the war and the record of Japanese imperialism that most dominate the relationship. It has taken center stage in recent times because of 2 developments: one in China, one in Japan.

In China, Communism has fallen by the wayside. Although it is still ruled by the Communist Party, Chinese society is more informed by capitalism and globalization now than by old Communist ideologies. This means the government needs a new ideological prop for its rule; just “making money” seems a little hollow. It has turned to nationalism (a strategy I excoriated in an earlier post), hoping that stimulating pride in the country will also buttress its rule. As usual, this nationalism needs an enemy, and China has found it in Japan. (America is too important to anger.) Keeping memories of Japanese wartime atrocities fresh and making sure the young are well-informed of them induces pride in the country and a sense of sorrow and grievance at how China was victimized and humiliated.

In Japan, largely because of China’s rise, the postwar order of relying on America for defense seems more and more shaky. Would America really come to Japan’s aid if it came under attack? To hedge its bets, a big part of the Japanese ruling class is determined to revise Japan’s constitution to let it have a proper military that can contribute to the East Asian security system and deter China. Japan’s current leader, Shinzou Abe, is part of this group. He is also part of a smaller fringe group that looks back on the imperial era with nostalgia, venerating the emperor, missing the dynamic and masculine attitude of Japan back then, and seeing the browbeating attitude the Japanese left has towards Japan’s atrocities as unnecessarily holding the country back. He wants Japan to have a real military and reassert its role as a Great Power in East Asia.

These 2 developments have set China and Japan on a collision course. China wants to make Japan look bad to make itself look better in comparison; Japan wants to be more like it was in the early 1900s. Both have the effect of keeping the war a vital part of both country’s dialogues, and it makes Japan look bad.

The issue is complicated by how shallow ties between the countries are on a deeper level. There is a Chinese minority in Japan and a reasonably big Chinatown in Yokohama, but little understanding of China, especially in its modern form. There is no Japanese minority in China; very, very few Chinese know any Japanese or have ever met them. The languages, despite the shared characters, are very, very different, and from completely different language families in their spoken form. This means both countries have outdated impressions of the other. Japan associates China with old literary classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West, cute Chinese girls in qipao and hair buns, and occasionally as stern Maoist officials. China associates Japan with samurai and the shrieking, barbaric murderers of the 1930s (and sometimes as the weirdly contradictory image of passive, effeminate perverts).

Thus, when Japanese officials visit Yasukuni Shrine or say something about the war that it isn’t completely condemnatory, Chinese go berserk. They see a Japan refusing to own up to its past and hell-bent on reviving its empire and military. It gives China an enemy to rally against and an excuse for further military buildup and muscle-flexing. Chinese passions are aroused to the extent that Japanese businesses are boycotted (and even smashed up in the worst cases) and any Japanese they can find are beaten and discriminated against, but China can get away with it: In modern East Asia, with a growing number of technology, finance and innovation hubs, Japan isn’t as important or special as it once was. Meanwhile, in Japan, emotions are much more restrained, but there is a backlash against China as well.

To calm tempers, Japanese prime ministers have issued several apologies on anniversaries of V-J Day. Tomiichi Murayama comprehensively apologized for Japan’s crimes on the 50th anniversary; Shinzou Abe has sort of apologized as well (he upheld previous apologies). These apologies have been diluted by other actions, not the least of which is worshiping at Yasukuni Shrine, which Abe and several of his predecessors and lower-level Japanese politicians have done, but also things like rewriting textbooks to minimize the war and Japanese atrocities in it. Some of Abe’s close associates even deny or doubt some of the horror stories; until recently the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t accepted as fact by many Japanese (and it’s usually just called “the Nanjing Incident”). Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was an administrator in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Japan’s minister of munitions during the war.

So China screams at Japan to stop bringing up the war, but it actually wants to keep doing it to prop up the government’s legitimacy and keep Chinese in a victim mindset. Japan pleads with China to stop bringing up the war, but the government’s conservative, backward-looking mindset and attempts at a military buildup ensure that Chinese won’t forget about the war anytime soon. China keeps the war alive through numerous historical TV dramas, theme parks, and museum exhibits. Japan minimizes the war in China and sometimes outright denies that its conquest was a war of attrition and bloodshed. It’s an impasse that would be comical if the issues weren’t so serious.

So why not just forget about the war? It was 70 years ago, after all. The trauma of the 1930s and ’40s was overlooked in the decades afterwards, as China and Japan both recognized that good relations were more important than getting hung up over past crimes. Why can’t the war be overlooked now?

This brings us to the second reality — the geopolitical shift in the 3rd millennium. China is no longer a weak, chaotic, helpless country preyed on by foreign devils, but a resurgent, prosperous, unified, ambitious Great Power. Economically, East Asia is in orbit around China. It is the region’s 2nd-strongest military power as well (unless you count America as a foreign power). Japan is no longer an ambitious, unique, imperialist power preying on weaker Asians but a declining, democratic, inward-looking country sheltered by America. Abe isn’t motivated just by nostalgia and machismo, but by concern about China. Japan isn’t a weak country, but it is now overshadowed by a China with similar ambitions and dynamism to Japan’s 100 years ago. Abe is naturally worried about relying so much on America for defense and unsure of China’s intentions.

Image source: Gigazine

Image source: Gigazine

This geopolitical clash is illustrated by another ongoing Sino-Japanese dispute: the Senkaku Islands. These are a few small islands north of Taiwan (who also claims them) that have been under Japanese control since the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, but are now claimed by China, who calls them the Diaoyus. Chinese fishing boats have been entering the Senkaku area more and more recently (as seen above). When the Japanese government bought them from a private owner in 2012, the dispute roared back into diplomatic consciousness. In 2012 and 2013, Chinese ships entered the waters around the Senkakus and engaged in water cannon battles with the Japanese navy. The dispute has since died down somewhat, but Japan and the world has been put on notice that China reacts to any hint of being taken advantage of strongly.

China and Japan are not predestined to hate each other. Their cultural links are strong. Japanese love Chinese food and traditional Chinese culture; Chinese admire Japanese skill and enterprise and enjoy its pop culture. But they are both self-absorbed and proud peoples, and China in particular sees itself as the rightful master of East Asia, pointing to its long history as the star around which other countries orbited. Japan is seen as an upstart country whose eclipse of China in the late 1800s and early 1900s must never be repeated. Japan is a democratic, capitalist, peace-loving nation beholden to the U.S.; China is an authoritarian nation that rules through force and seeks to challenge the U.S. No matter what the circumstances of how the war and Japanese imperialism are remembered, the two countries are natural enemies.


China was ruled at the time by Manchus, people from the northeast, adding to the distance between China’s emperor and his people.


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