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.