Japan-China Relations: Looking to the Future

Society Culture

The Lessons of the Past

The year 2012 marks 40 years since the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. In terms of a human life, 40 is often an age of confidence and direction: “At forty, I had no doubts,” as Confucius put it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Japan-China relationship, which finds itself embroiled in a maelstrom of doubt, hesitation, discontent, and antagonism. The uneasy state of the relationship today makes it more vital than ever to think seriously about the future. What are the factors we need to bear in mind as we build toward the future, and what actions do we need to take to ensure better relations between our two countries in forty years’ time?

Japan and China have had a close political, economic, and cultural relationship for nearly 2,000 years, one of the longest bilateral relationships anywhere in the world. This long history has much to teach us about how to build stronger relations in the future.

Over the course of the past two millennia, Japan and China have gone to war five times: the Battle of Baekgang (“Hakusukinoe” in Japanese), fought on the Geum River in Korea between Tang China and Yamato Japan in 663, the Mongol Invasions of Japan in the thirteenth century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the late sixteenth century and the battles with Ming forces that followed, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, and the long conflict that broke out in the 1930s.

An analysis of the background to these conflicts reveals at least two main lessons for the present generation.

The Korean Peninsula: The Cause of Conflict

The first thing that stands out is that every one of these conflicts had its roots in a power struggle on the Korean Peninsula. Although it may seem that competing interests in Manchuria were the immediate fuse that sparked conflict in the 1930s, this actually took place against a wider historical background. The conflict was ultimately caused by Japanese efforts to stabilize control over the Korean Peninsula by suppressing Korean independence movements and associated “radical” groups in Japan.

This fact should serve to remind us of just how vital it is for Japan and China to remain engaged in dialogue on the situation in the Korean Peninsula today. This is an area which will continue to be of crucial importance to the bilateral relationship well into the future.

For this reason, it is essential to have more dialogue between Japan and China on what each side is thinking (not just at government level but also through “third track” dialogue between business leaders as well as other levels). We must work to broaden opportunities for such dialogue.

The second lesson is the importance of domestic politics for the Sino-Japanese relationship. The Battle of Baekgang was closely linked to political moves in Japan relating to the establishment of what became the imperial court. The Mongol invasions of Japan were likewise a result of the dilemma facing the Yuan Dynasty after it came to power and had to deal with the defeated Song regiments. Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea also stemmed largely from domestic motives: the need to regulate the feudal lords and strengthen national unity after a long period of civil war.

The same was true of the Sino-Japanese War at the end of the nineteenth century, where the growing influence at the Qing court of a conservative faction that wanted to preserve the prestige of the emperor and his court at all costs was a major factor that led to the outbreak of war. In the 1930s, there can be no doubt that domestic issues within both Japan and China played a decisive role. In Japan, politics was swept away by a nationalist fervour regarding control of Manchuria and protection for Japanese nationals in China. This led headlong into militarism. At the same time, political conflict and civil war in China made it difficult for the two sides to engage in the kind of calm negotiations that might otherwise have resolved the issues between the two countries.

The Need for Politicians with a Long-Term Perspective

Looking back on the history of conflicts between Japan and China in this way makes it abundantly clear that both countries must work hard to ensure that the relationship between them is not used (or misused) for the purposes of domestic politics. It is often argued that in a democratic society, particularly in the Internet age of instant communication, it is no longer possible to ignore or resist the complaints and emotions of the masses. But this way of thinking can easily lead to popularism and irresponsible political games. Political leaders cannot afford to be swayed by mass opinion—they need to come up with a vision for the future and make the case for their idea of what the country should look like in 40 or 80 years’ time. It will be difficult to make progress in this regard unless we start by considering the lessons to be learned from the past 2,000 years.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 23, 2012.)

Japan China Qing Korea Ogoura Kazuo normalization Sino-Japanese War Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations Baekgang Hakusukinoe Mongol invastions Hideyoshi