Don’t Let the Disaster Wreck Sino-Japanese Relations

China specialist Kawashima Shin reviews the ups and downs in Sino-Japanese relations following major earthquakes in China and Japan and calls for a concerted effort to ensure that the Great East Japan Earthquake does not cause a deterioration in the relationship.

China specialist Kawashima Shin reviews the ups and downs in Sino-Japanese relations following major earthquakes in China and Japan and calls for a concerted effort to ensure that the Great East Japan Earthquake does not cause a deterioration in the relationship.

Natural disasters can provide impetus for change in international relations—but the change is not necessarily for the better. When the Great Kantō Earthquake struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923, relations between Japan and China were quite poor. Although the anti-Japanese movement campaigning for the return of Ryojun and Dairen[1] to Chinese control had been quiescent since July that year, there were still many outstanding diplomatic issues between the two countries, and anti-Japanese sentiment was widespread in China. After the earthquake, though, there was a popular swelling of sentiment across factional lines in favor of aiding Japan. Both the Japanese government and the private sector expressed appreciation for this support from China.

But then matters took an unexpected turn. Massacres of Chinese laborers occurred in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, and Chinese students in Japan who attempted to investigate these events were murdered. The death toll was in the hundreds. These events exacerbated the mistrust of Japan that already existed in China.

In 2008, 85 years after the Great Kantō Earthquake, a major quake struck Wenchuan in Sichuan. Despite initial differences of opinion about whether aircraft from Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force should fly to the disaster area as part of the relief effort, the activities of the rescue team from Japan were widely reported in the Chinese media and won high acclaim; the image of Japan in the popular mind improved as a result. Beijing hosted the Olympics later that year, but by then Japanese sentiment toward China had deteriorated sharply, reaching an all-time low following problems relating to food safety, notably the discovery of poison in gyōza dumplings imported from China.[2] The improvement in Chinese people’s feelings toward Japan after the earthquake was thus not sufficient to improve the bilateral relationship.

Fears of Deterioration in Bilateral Sentiment

Will the March 11 disaster be the occasion for a change in Sino-Japanese relations? Since we are still in the midst of the disaster, it is difficult to gauge what the situation will look like once the dust settles. But looking at media commentary so far makes me concerned that the disaster may lead to a deterioration of the bilateral relationship and a hardening of popular sentiment in both countries.

After the earthquake and tsunami struck, the Chinese government directed Chinese students and tourists in Japan to leave the country. Even so, the Chinese media carried many stories praising the calm, patient reaction of Japanese people in the face of the disaster. This led to a huge outpouring of sympathy and raised the possibility of a general improvement in the way Chinese people viewed Japan.

But the Chinese media turned highly critical in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident, particularly after radioactive water was released into the ocean. There was also a campaign of complaints about Japan’s alleged failure to observe international norms in the way it handled Chinese donations of bottled drinking water.

Criticism intensified after Japan effectively turned down China’s offer to send a military medical care vessel. Some of the Chinese commentary would have horrified victims of the disaster or any other Japanese who might have happened to see it.

Nevertheless, China did dispatch a rescue team, and Chinese individuals and organizations have donated large sums of money to aid the disaster victims. We on the Japanese side need to thank the Chinese people for their kindness. And if it true that we have violated international ethics or norms, we must apologize and correct our behavior.

Even so, it has been disheartening to see so much Chinese commentary relying on emotional attacks on the Japanese “race,” linking the nuclear crisis with Japan’s past wartime aggression against China, and propagating a distorted and negative image of Japan based on rumor and hearsay.

The Need to Prevent Relations from Deteriorating

Japan is now embarking on the task of reconstruction. Of course we face many problems, but we are doing our best to move forward. Will we be able to do so hand in hand with our Chinese neighbors? That is a crucial question at this juncture. Recently the large amount of assistance offered by Taiwan has become a talking point in Japan, and is making a strong impression on Japanese people.

The biggest issue for Sino-Japanese relations is confidence building. Particularly at a time like this we need to do everything we can to turn the disaster into an opportunity for promoting mutual trust. At the very least we need to think about how we can prevent it from causing any further deterioration in our bilateral ties. (Written on April 30, 2011.)

[1] Ryojun (Port Arthur) and Dairen were two ports in Manchuria (northeastern China) that had been under Japanese administration since the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Their modern Chinese names are Lüshun and Dalian, respectively.—Ed.

[2] In a public opinion survey concerning foreign relations conducted by the Cabinet Office that year, the number of respondents believing that Sino-Japanese relations were “not good” reached a record high of 71.9%.—Ed.


In This Series
Sino-Japanese Relations and the Earthquake Disaster
Don’t Let the Disaster Wreck Sino-Japanese Relations (April 30)
3.11: Japan’s Triple Disaster (April 2)

Kawashima Shin

Kawashima Shin

Graduated from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese. Received his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Tokyo. After a stint as assistant professor at Hokkaido University, since 2006 has been assistant professor at the University of Tokyo. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy) and other works.