History repeats, but which way - China or Japan?


While on a visit to Japan in 1978, then Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping put it well: For 2,500 years China and Japan had a history of good relations, except from 1895 to 1945.

Since Japan’s defeat in World War II, both nations have been debating but souring their relations. China thinks of Japan as an aggressor. Japan insists on improved relations under a changed international order. Can anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese rhetoric be ended? Can emotions cool down at both ends? 

Let’s bury history because it often repeats itself and creates new tragedies. Postwar Japan and China have failed to cultivate a new wisdom for tranquility. They often repeat and talk about war memories, which are still fresh in the minds of many.

Conversely, Japan wants India and Pakistan to improve their relations and solve the Kashmir dispute amicably. So does China. Both have been improving relations with India but Pakistan and India are locked into historical differences and wars – not dissimilar to what both Japan and China are doing with each other. Nevertheless, Japan-China economic ties have touched new heights without having repaired political ties, while Pakistan and India still do not have much increased economic ties. The “baggage of bad memories” is always fresh between them. Likewise, China time and again reminds Japan of the war.

Neither China-Japan ties nor Pakistan-India ties present a recipe on which a modern relationship can be built at the moment. They are marred by acute differences and moved by their own historical perspectives under peculiar circumstances.

For Japan, World War II ended on a miserable note: the country was divested by the two atomic bombs, its government was demilitarized, and 28 leaders were given sentences for their war crimes, including two elected prime ministers. This was how justice was done and the edifice of the postwar international order was orchestrated by fully punishing Japan. Punishment meted out to the nation was more than what any human mind could have imagined – nuclear devastation and demilitarization.

For many nations, even that wasn’t enough punishment for Japan. China, which was liberated after the defeat of Japan, asked for more severe punishment. China normalized diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972 but political differences were never settled. Japan’s occupation of China created an unending mistrust between the two nations. China worries about what is being taught in textbooks of history and geography to school children in Japan. Chinese also strongly objects to Japanese leaders visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. For Chinese, the shrine is a symbol of Japanese militarism and ultra-nationalism.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine in 2001 and incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine last year. Official homage to the shrine negatively impacts upon normalizing relations between the two nations. China wants a ban on that. Is it possible?

Can Japanese leaders avoid paying homage to their war dead on Chinese pleas? It’s a difficult question to answer. In the same way, could Chinese stop paying tribute at the mausoleums of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Beijing? These are unanswerable questions because dealing with history honestly is a point of debate among most nations.

China is a rising power. Japan has moved to reinterpret Article 9 of its postwar pacifist constitution, removing the ban on the right to collective self-defense. China wants to lead its own international order in the Asia-Pacific region, but Japan also wants to dominate the region with U.S. support and its regional allies. 

Author Infomation

Ahmad Rashid Malik
Ahmad Rashid Malik
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and former Fellow of the Japan Foundation in Tokyo and the Korea Foundation in Seoul. He specializes in East Asian affairs.
  • 4


    They often repeat and talk about war memories, which are still fresh in the minds of many.

    interesting comparison to india/pakistan. part of the problem with china/japan is that china is actively promoting the discord for political advantage. china's anti-japanese education only started in the early '90s. they need an outside enemy to take the people's eye off domestic problems. most japanese bear no animosity for the chinese but recently i feel its rising in response to the constant whining by the chinese. after all they didn't do anything wrong to the chinese.

  • 1


    "Conversely, Japan wants India and Pakistan to improve their relations and solve the Kashmir dispute amicably. So does China."

    Uh, where are you getting this notion from? China is Pakistan's closest strategic ally, and Pakistan is probably the world's largest purchaser of Chinese-made weapons. Discord in Kashmir between India and Pakistan accrues to China's advantage, which has its own designs on Indian-controlled territory in that neighborhood.

  • 0


    If people only new the real reality of World events. The problem is that their self sense of righteousness is clouding their understanding.

  • 0


    Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping put it well: For 2,500 years China and Japan had a history of good relations, except from 1895 to 1945.

    I really wish that reporters would do even the tiniest bit of research before publishing China and Japan have been attacking each other for the last 1000 years.

  • 0


    History repeats may be one way of looking at it.

    The problem that many overlook in East Asia is a cultural one. In Western countries the tendency is to regard the present and the future as independent from the past. Towards the end of the middle ages there was a shift in that way of thinking. The past was often rejected if it conflicted with the findings of the present or the future.

    However, most of the world does not share this approach to history. The Confucionist socieites of China, Korea and Japan, are countries that consider the present and the future as being wholly contingent on the past. The present and future are both informed by the past, and must be reconciled with the past.

    Therein lies the problem. Historical actuality becomes distorted into a narrative that can be comfortably reconciled with the present, rather than being rejected or put aside. It is within this context that the mistakes of the past are ignored, or the most spectacular failings are presented as the most spectacular victories.

    A modern Asia with the most advanced technologies in world and a mentality that requires the past be reconciled with the present is a troubling prospect.

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    Marilyn Marie Lee

    Maybe China is feeling insecured, but its projects have been very beneficial to development in my country. Perhaps there should be dialogue between the countries. Perhaps we should have a body that holds the respect of Japan, China and the world. A body with fair representation from various countries, like the way the European Union works, of course the EU is a very developed political and economic body that we do not have in Asia with China and Japan participating in it. I rather have dialogue to avert war than after a war.

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