Being Both Bambi and Godzilla


In 2009, the international relations scholar John Mearsheimer famously quipped that in the dangerous world of international politics, “it is better for states to be Godzilla than Bambi.” According to him, China’s continued military rise and its quest for regional hegemony constitute a natural insurance policy for maximizing its security and defending its interests.

A Standoff Between Godzilla and Voldemort?

Fast-forward to late 2012, when China flexed its military and economic muscles to challenge Japan’s effective control of the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by China) following the Japanese government’s nationalization of three islets previously owned by a private Japanese citizen. Rather than acknowledging the existence of a territorial dispute, the Abe Shinzō administration stood up to an assertive Xi Jinping: it beefed up Japan’s hard power and security partnerships and made full use of the country’s economic statecraft in response to the China challenge. In other words, Tokyo understood that being Bambi would give Japan slim chance to win the bilateral power game.

Yet the Japan-China standoff over the Senkakus led to a slow but steady escalation in the two governments’ moves on the security and economic chessboards. The more Tokyo and Beijing resorted to the Godzilla model to press the counterpart into making concessions, the more their stances hardened and the higher the risks grew of a potentially serious clash.

In addition, since each side sees the other as vulnerable to public relations warfare on both the international and domestic stages, the power game necessarily spilled over onto a third chessboard, that of communications. China and Japan cast accusations at each other to win the support of foreign governments and to gain an edge in the court of domestic and international public opinion. For instance, China seized upon Abe’s controversial December 2013 pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine, crafting an international campaign aimed at denouncing the dangers of what Beijing calls “a militarist, revisionist Japan defying the world order created after the war against fascism.” By early February 2014, as many as 73 Chinese ambassadors all around the world had penned editorials or granted interviews along the above lines—in turn inviting stern Japanese rebuttals and countercriticism in favor of Japan.

In an interesting twist, in January 2014 the two governments’ ambassadors to Britain, Liu Xiaoming and Hayashi Keiichi, traded comparisons of the other nation to Voldemort, the evil wizard in the popular Harry Potter series, even exchanging accusations on prime time TV on a popular BBC show devoted to current affairs (see the video below). The conflict had finally led to reality becoming fantasy, or—at the very least—the rise of catchy pop-culture references in serious international relations debates.

The APEC Summit and Prospects for a Disney Happy Ending 

The parallel statements and informal bilateral summit between Abe and Xi on the fringes of the November 2014 APEC summit meeting signaled China’s and Japan’s intention to avoid further escalation. The recent bilateral security talks and the possible establishment of a bilateral maritime liaison mechanism between the two governments will cool the standoff and prevent the world’s second- and third-largest economies from turning the prosperous and stable Asia-Pacific region into the setting for the next kaijū monster movie. After all, while Bambi may have been defenseless in the face of his mother’s death, kaijū battles always entail a lot of collateral damage.

But can China and Japan aspire for a Disneyesque happy ending to their tensions? I argue that the communication standoff has contributed to the crystallization of animosity in areas going beyond the Senkaku/Diaoyu power game. In recent years, both countries’ official government statements and mass media have produced powerful narratives of growing intensity and hostility, particularly following the flaring of the territorial issue, that exacerbate bilateral animosity.

It is possible to disentangle a set of mirroring narratives that characterize Japan’s mainstream discourses on China, and vice-versa. The first paints Japan (or China) as a benign and peaceful power pitted against an aggressive counterpart, on the lines of the exchange between the two ambassadors to London. The second stresses the revisionist nature of the counterpart as a challenge to the international order, while depicting Japan (or China) as a status quo country that abides by international norms. The third set of images, meanwhile, is variegated. Japan highlights its political modernization as the first Asian country to uphold universal values, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, to underline the differences with autocratic China, whose economy surpassed Japan’s in 2010 by some reckonings. In lieu of democratic values, Chinese discourses underline some Japanese leaders’ historical revisionism as a sign of Japan’s supposed militaristic behavior, although evidence for this is clearly wanting.(*1)

A scene at the November 2014 APEC summit. Can China and Japan find a way to see eye to eye? (© Jiji)

The Abe administration understands well the merits of countering negative campaigns against Japan by presenting a positive image to international counterparts and focusing on the merits of a constructive relationship with China. In fact, the Japanese government usually makes oblique reference to China when criticizing it—not unlike the fictional Lord Voldemort, whose name is not to be spoken aloud. On the contrary, the Chinese government’s arguments have typically been more negative in character and accusatory in tone. While bilateral accusations have toned down from their peak in early 2014, public discourse remains heated, likely contributing to the staggeringly negative image each side has of the other.

At the same time, both Chinese and Japanese leaders understand that the restoration of working relations at the top political level requires a marked change of the language register and a toning down of history-related acrimony. However, China’s and Japan’s timid rapprochement will be under some stress in 2015, the year of history. Among its many anniversaries are the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the 120th anniversary (two full Chinese sexagenary cycles) of the end of the first Sino-Japanese war. This 1894–95 conflict gave birth to modern Japanese and Chinese nationalism, signaled the end of Qing China’s regional primacy at the hands of modern Japan, and de facto allowed Japan’s quiet annexation of the Senkaku Islands in early 1895. It will be very hard for China and Japan to altogether avoid reference to both the war and the islands in this sensitive year. At the same time, the more confident Abe-Xi handshake and bilateral summit on the fringes of the sixtieth anniversary of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung on April 22 presages the primacy of Chinese and Japanese political and economic imperatives over historical sensitivities.

Japan’s Soft Power in the Year of History

What about the international angle to the Japan-China communications standoff, and what can Japan do to resolve this situation? Japan’s Godzilla moment from 2012 to 2014 coincided with its drop from first to fifth place in the ranking of the world’s most positively rated countries in a popular BBC global opinion poll. These results still show strong international trust in Japan, though. Interestingly, among Western respondents Germans have the least favorable views of Japan’s influence on the world stage: 46% lean negatively, and only 28% hold favorable views. (It should be noted, though, that German respondents are traditionally more critical compared to their Western counterparts and that their responses on China were more starkly negative. See pp. 20–21 and 37–38 in the above-linked poll results.)

It is a well-known fact that China makes full use of the “history card” to pit Japan against Germany, the model penitent state in international discourses, but this has borne mixed results. In fact, Western governments are well aware of China’s political use of history, as demonstrated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal to allow President Xi to visit the Berlin Holocaust memorial as part of his official visit. On the other hand, though, informed observers struggle to understand the insistence in some Japanese circles on historical revisionism, particularly as this does not make sense at a strategic level. An American student of mine once paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt in suggesting a possible course of action for the country: “If Japan wants to carry a big stick, it should speak more softly.”

In fact, the Abe administration has already shown an appreciation of Roosevelt’s maxim with its insistence on universal values and on “proactive contribution to peace” to legitimize a more muscular security policy. Abe’s intensive diplomatic trips have also been aimed at securing foreign governments’ explicit endorsement of his security agenda, because Japan’s “proactive pacifism” mantra understands that one of Japan’s largest soft power resources is hardly mentioned in public and scholarly debates: its consistent postwar pacifist complexion. In other words, global views of Japan have traditionally been favorable precisely due to its Bambi image. On the contrary, and although evidence does not corroborate this simplistic image, China has widely suffered from the opposite perception.

For the above reasons, Chancellor Merkel, among many, has blessed Japan’s quest for a proactive role in upholding the international liberal order, and even Pope Francis has recognized Japan’s constructive role in world affairs. At the same time, both Chancellor Merkel and the Pope have hinted that Japan needs to re-examine and discuss its past wrongdoings to achieve full-fledged reconciliation with its neighbors. For these reasons, although Japan has successfully upheld a strong pacifist image throughout the postwar international liberal order, a parallel and consistent recognition of its past wrongdoings would only serve to reinforce its positive image during Abe’s delicate quest to rebuild a powerful Japan. At the same time, the recognition of historical blunders would constitute an indispensable step for Japan’s reconciliation with its neighbors—and the prelude to a meaningful Sino-Japanese détente that rests on more than shaky and rapidly changing political and economic foundations.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō walk past one another at the November 2014 APEC summit. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ For further details on this topic please refer to my forthcoming “Japan: Between a China Question and a China Obsession,” in Asia Maior 2014, ed. by Michelguglielmo Torri and Nicola Mocci, Bologna, 2015. The article will be available at the Asia Maior website or directly from the author:

China Abe Shinzō Senkaku Islands Xi Jinping Sino-Japanese Diaoyu