The Odd Couple: Japan and China, The Politics of History and Identity

The Yasukuni Shrine has become a symbol of Japanese nationalism and a major target for Chinese criticism. China and Japan still carry bitterness since fighting each other during World War II, and Japanese leaders’ visits to the resting place for 14 class-A war criminals further strain the relationship. The bitterness, established in a Cold War framework, has little sense of purpose other than China striving for Japan to acknowledge atrocities during the war. Also compounding the troubles is “domestic political inertia” in both countries, both ruled by self-perpetuating, one-party systems that have weakened over time, according to author Haruko Satoh. Politicians’ inept handling of historical questions stemming from WWII only aggravates current diplomatic troubles. By reaching consensus on Yakusuni Shrine and other issues, the two nations could share a prosperous future. – YaleGlobal

The Odd Couple: Japan and China, The Politics of History and Identity

Haruko Satoh
Monday, August 7, 2006

In face of the invading Japanese army, Mao Zedung observed in 1938 that “this is a war that will change China, and it is also one in which Japan could be reborn.” He envisaged that Sino-Japanese peace would have a significant role to play in world peace. Mao had no inkling then that the Cold War would shut down any meaningful interaction between revolutionary China and vanquished Japan, with considerable cost to the way the current reencounter is being shaped.

China and Japan normalised relations in 1972, but the Second World War remains at the core of present disagreements. Both countries hold very different takes on the war. The need to arrive at a historical reconciliation has become central. This requires a re-examination of how, if at all, peace was established between the two countries. Yasukuni shrine, which has become synonymous with the word obstacle between the two countries, may in fact be the very key to reconciliation. And reconciliation, which is about politics and not history, reveals questions of legitimacy and identity of the ruling party in both countries.

The Diplomatic Faux Pas

The recent showdown between Beijing and Tokyo over history is one of the more spectacular diplomatic spats in the post-Cold War era. Both capitals seem bent on doing everything the wrong way. Japanese leaders find the idea of reconciliation hard to accept, let alone understand, confusing apology with reconciliation. Chinese leaders keep on digging fresh dirt to make the idea of reconciliation as humiliating and undignified an experience as possible for the Japanese.

Most agree that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s persistent visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the symbol of pre-war state Shinto where 2.5 million souls of soldiers fallen in Japan’s modern wars are enshrined, unnecessarily drove Beijing’s anti-Japan fury to the hilt, incensed China’s nationalist fervour, and led to further deterioration in Sino - Japanese diplomatic relations. At Yasukuni, the souls of 14 convicted as class-A war criminals by the allied powers following the Second World War are also enshrined.

Ever since the anti-Japanese riots in China in the spring of 2005, the United States has become increasingly concerned about Japan’s isolation in the region. Washington is now ambivalent about this “coalition of the willing” partner, which is making itself a liability in the American attempts to engage China as a “responsible stakeholder.” Even President George W. Bush is said to have hinted that Koizumi should stop visiting the Yasukuni shrine, but to no avail.

It should be noted, though, that it is not Prime Minister Koizumi but his would-be successors, such as the foreign minister, Taro Aso, and the chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, who play up their tough views on China to the media. Both are noted for their nationalist views, and it is their ideological defence of Yasukuni that gives the aura of a nationalist opinion on the rise. Unlike Koizumi, Abe has even questioned the legitimacy of the post-Second World War settlement, especially the verdicts of the Tokyo tribunal that convicted the class-A war criminals. There is a coterie unhappy with what it sees as victor’s justice.

Against such a nationalist backdrop, Koizumi may be at fault for not explaining his Yasukuni visits or where he stands in the nationalist ideological spectrum. He does not appear to be apologetic about the diplomatic impasse or even shaken by the anti-Japan riots in Chinese cities. Yet he remains optimistic about the future: “In many years down the road, the Chinese and the Koreans will understand.” For the moment, his singular optimism seems based on a vision as illusive as that harboured by Mao in 1938.

Both Tokyo and Beijing are now hoping that Koizumi’s departure in September 2006, when he is due to step down as the Liberal Democratic party leader and prime minister, will help calm things down. But while a moratorium on the Yasukuni visit appears to be the most sensible course of action, it is precisely over this issue that the political class has become agitated in Tokyo. Furthermore, while striking a “grand bargain” to set aside humility and to shake hands with China is the desirable goal, there is something ingrained in the logic of the two states that actually make this easier said than done.

It’s Been Sixty Years

There is yet a sense of purpose for Sino - Japanese peace among the leaders short on vision. The problem is inherent in the security architecture left over from the Cold War, which has contributed to the creation of a confrontational mindset.

With both countries contesting for regional leadership, the present situation reflects sixty years of historical separation, in which the mismatched status and power at their disposal were pitted against each other. After the war, the two countries grew into contrasting powers that moved in different circles. China is one of the victors of the Second World War, a charter member of the United Nations, a nuclear power with a veto in the UN Security Council. Japan, on the other hand, regained its international status as a constitutional pacifist on the strength of its economic power and security guarantee from the United States. It had little ability, or inclination, to influence international power politics.

Living in two worlds organised by different ideas, the two nations were predisposed to be mutually suspicious and envious. They did not share political or economic systems and expressed power in different ways. Only in the last decade has the relationship become interactive and economically interdependent, leading to a new phase of co-existence in an increasingly globalised world. Most significantly, they now influence each other’s domestic policies as they share markets and harmonise those markets with international rules and regulations of trade and business practices.

Legitimacy of Rule

But further entrenching the “leftover” confrontational structure is domestic political inertia. Beijing and Tokyo are capitals of two of the longest, self-perpetuating, one-party rule. What brings the history problem to the fore diplomatically is the growing weakness of both the Chinese Communist party and the Japanese Liberal Democratic party.

For Beijing, the shift to market economy has meant the ditching of the idea of social equality. So far, the party has been unable to come up with a new rationale on which to base its legitimacy. The dramatic transformation of China has placed huge pressure on governance, too. Rising nationalism in China is, therefore, a symptom of a nation in need of a new identity. Beijing’s anti-Japan propaganda might have kept popular dissent from turning against the regime, as the Japanese suspected in the last decade, but even this is probably becoming an old trick. Nevertheless, its repercussions on Japanese politics are hard to ignore.

Although it is a matter of degree, the same agent has propelled the decline of the Liberal-Democratic party: social change. Political and economic reform has been a protracted process, but ever since the bubble economy burst in 1991 and the post-war “iron triangle” of close ties between politicians, businesses and the bureaucracy became unsustainable, the Liberal-Democratic power-base has weakened. Pork-barrel politics is becoming a thing of the past, society is becoming diverse, and the people are asking for smaller government. Koizumi has been determined to deliver this and said that if the party does not change he will destroy it.

The problem with the Liberal-Democratic party is not its inability to change, but how its singular view of international politics affects Sino - Japanese relations. The party established its domestic power base in the secure Cold War environment, and grew accustomed to relying on the United States for security. It has little practice in lateral, or multilateral, thinking. Social change may induce change in governance, like increasing decentralisation, and the Liberal-Democratic party may adapt as it tries to survive. However, its present difficulty in establishing successful relationship with both the United States and China is worrying.

Identity versus Interest

In a sense, the present diplomatic impasse has to do with the preservation of party identity against the groundswell of social change that is occurring in both nations. Foreign policy is not always about interest, but could also be about expressing identity. This may be truer for Japan than it is for China. The way that Japanese leaders are responding to China’s Japan bashing today is really not to preserve Japan’s interests in the long term, but to express ideas about Japan. Yasukuni is a prime example, but the dispute on history is also about the Liberal-Democratic interpretation of the Second World War and its raison d’etre as the repository of Japanese identity. They have become “official” and authentic because of the party’s long rule - almost continuously since the party’s founding in 1955.

In this, there is a mixture of nationalist ideas about “restoring” the state with the proper reinstitution of a national army, as well as the dilemma of being a constitutional pacifist, and the frustration of being perpetually under the control of the United States. Nationalism in Japan is about lost or suppressed identity. For the Liberal-Democratic party, the Japanese state means “one nation under the sovereign emperor” - this cannot be helped because this image of the state, which is the Meiji state, born in 1868 and collapsed on 15 August 1945, is the only memory modern Japan has of a state other than the present one.

China’s nationalism is often seen as intended to deliberately provoking Japanese nationalism - an obvious recipe for disaster. More than this, however, the two nationalisms do not pair up. China’s anti-Japan sentiment is based on the memory of Imperial Japan, the atrocities of which are undisputable. Japan’s anti-China sentiment is not rooted in the past, although harsh and prejudiced opinions about China exist. The current hardening of attitude toward China is a reflection of the domestic squabble resulting from Koizumi’s political reform. Most notably, the influence of the pro-China clique in the foreign policy community has declined, because Koizumi ousted from the party the elder statesmen who had held sway over Japan’s China policy.

And the Yasukuni controversy has set alight hawkish politicians and pundits who are now busy painting the picture of a China as a threat: its military expenditure is rising too fast, and it is not a democracy and therefore cannot share values with Japan. These hawks want Beijing to know that Japan is no longer a pushover for aid.

This sort of hawkish-ness is certainly new for Japan. For the public, which had increasingly come to wonder, “Why provide more carrots to a seemingly ungrateful country that can now launch its own space rocket?” this kind of bravado from their leaders comes as a breath of fresh air. It administers a tiny bit of justice to a country that behaves rudely. But beyond this point, the hawks and the public part ways. Talking sense into the Chinese leaders and driving them up the wall with no clear sense of where the bilateral relationship might land are completely different things. The absence of a core strategy to manage relations with China is abundantly clear.

Ending the Last War

Not surprisingly, Sino - Japanese relations loom ominously as the most important diplomatic agenda for the next Japanese leader. The vortex of national politics is under an unusual situation where concerns over foreign relations compete for attention with issues of domestic social and economic life.

In the 1980s, even though America’s Japan-bashing over trade and the incessant application of pressure to liberalise the Japanese market had been causes of diplomatic rift, the Liberal-Democratic party did not come unstuck as it is doing now. Nationalists and right wingers resented the fact that the United States had the final say, given its responsibility for Japan’s security, but most politicians were resigned to accepting. This kind of existential angst still exists, and it will do so as long as Japan remains attached to the United States for security. That is why American caution toward Yasukuni has unnerved the Liberal-Democratic leaders. In this picture, how Japan manages relations with China is very much the business of the alliance, and Japanese leaders have reasons to fret.

But those who now argue that Koizumi has taken the wrong issue, Yasukuni, on which to make a stand against China may want to ask whether Yasukuni was the wrong issue at all, as there is something uncanny about what Koizumi has done. He put the shrine, the undisputable symbol and legacy of pre-1945 ultra-nationalism, in the limelight by exposing it to Beijing’s unbridled criticism. Yet the diplomatic havoc that it caused also unsettled post-war conservative politics’ handling of the history question. What is at issue is the closure of the last war.

Metaphorically, the war that Mao spoke about is not over. Japan’s post-war narrative of the war has predominantly been about the war lost to the Americans that began in 1941, and the experience of defeat forged the collective Japanese memory from Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is only recently that this narrow definition of the Second World War has become questionable in Japan. Incorporating the longer war in China - starting from the Manchurian invasion in 1931 has become less controversial. It is this episode of the protracted war that the Chinese today want closure, and the Japanese are only coming to recognise it in a different light.

There is hope, for the history question is no longer dismissible as a “misunderstanding” between statesmen. Easing of the ideological tension of the Cold War has brought more freedom within Japan to express anti-Imperial Japan views, which were held by the political left but suppressed as too pro-China by the political conservative and the public as well.

When Japanese and Chinese stories begin to meet, in a more comprehensive and objective narrative of the long war, the operative words “change” and “reborn” in Mao’s observation acquire new meanings - they become, for one, related to each other. Of course, after 1945, China changed dramatically and Japan was reborn. China became a communist regime, and Japan turned into a capitalist democracy. But how much did China inform Japan’s rebirth as a constitutional pacifist? As the re-emergence of China lays out a new and tangible international environment for Japan, this question is becoming relevant. As if the two spent the last sixty years in a separate time and space (in a way, they did), the two are weaving a new narrative where the war in Asia is the dominant story, beginning at the point where they merely cease-fired as enemies.

A New World

What the Japanese foreign policy community fails to see is that Japan’s manner of reckoning with the past matters today because regional relations have reached the stage of building mutual trust. This is a sea change from what Japan has long been accustomed to. But the old mindset is a product of what is arguably a unique history of success that Japan weaved in the realm of the modernising powers. It is entrenched in the notion of being and acting as an independent state with a monopoly of force. Nationalism in Japan is about regaining this status, which the conservative leaders felt were lost with the post-war settlement.

Modern history for Japan has been about catching up with the West. Sources of pride and punishment for the small island nation lay in the dealings as a player in the Western world. In this conception of its place in the modern world, Japan was able to look down on China for the first time in its 2000-year history, as China became a shadow of its former self as the pinnacle of hierarchy in East Asia and Japan rose.

But East Asia is no longer an arena of rivalling spheres of influence, empires or aid-dependent developing economies. With the re-emergence of China, coupled with the political and economic maturity of other smaller Asian nations, Japan’s historical status as a dominant power has become relative. The same applies to China.

What is at least assuring is that both countries take peace to be something valuable. This underlines the fact that the two are aware of where the future lies: closer economic integration, which is possible only under peaceful conditions. But there is also an absurdity. The two countries are upstaging each other’s pacific intentions, to see whose version of peace is more appealing and trustworthy.

In this kind of comparison with China, it becomes sadly evident that, despite the fact that Japan has not warred with anyone in the last sixty years, pacifism remains an abstract notion, or an ideal constantly trampled upon by pragmatic security concern of the day, with the result of it being regarded as nothing more than a decoy for an unrepentant and unchanged nationalist Japan. This is lazy thinking, however, and the border between being realistic about security and being an irrational nationalist is still a fine line for this constitutional pacifist democracy.

There is no knowing from the ineloquent prime minister whether his intention to destroy the old Liberal-Democratic party included a stab at Yasukuni. But what he precipitated by taking the issue to the extreme with China may be a turning point in Japan’s long post-war identity crisis. But one is tempted to think that Japan’s deep-seated ambivalence of itself vis-a-vis the West might find a kindred spirit in China, and that there is no better timing than now because both Japan and China are tied to prosper together. This is supposed to be good not only of themselves, but also and most importantly of world prosperity and peace. Unfortunately, sixty years of closeted nationalism must come out first into the mainstream of open, democratic debates. Perhaps Koizumi had intended for that to happen all along. The question remains: can China wait?

Haruko Satoh is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University’s Center of International Studies and former fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs.

© Copyright 2006 JIIA. All Rights Reserved.

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