China has canceled festivities to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Japan due to the two countries' increasingly vitriolic spat over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Forty years of "normalizing" relations between China and Japan have pretty much run aground over the last few weeks due to a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
In Japan, people are not going to quickly forget the pictures of Chinese demonstrators carrying banners reading "Kill the Japanese." Especially symbolic were the arson attacks on a factory owned by Panasonic, Japan's largest electronics company. In 1978, China's leader Deng Xiaoping personally visited Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita to ask for help in modernizing China's economy. For Japan, when Chinese protesters set fire to the factory; an entire era of Deng's pragmatism went up in flames.
Since the reestablishment of relations in 1972, Japanese investments in China have created some five million jobs. Billions of dollars of government aid have flowed from Tokyo to Beijing. At one point, China became Japan's most important trading partner. Every year, hundreds of Japanese businessmen travel to China for exchanges and talks with Chinese officials and political leaders. And not long ago, there was also talk of a free trade agreement.
'No common language'
Political ties, however, have not grown and expanded to the same extent as the economic ties. In their 1978 Peace and Friendship Treaty, the island dispute was pushed aside. "Our generation is not wise enough to find a common language on this question," Deng said at the time, adding the next generation would be wiser.
But that prediction has not come to pass, mainly because the relationship between the two countries has fundamentally changed. Forty years ago, China was a poor, underdeveloped country. Japan could afford to be charitable, despite losing the war. But China's rapid modernization means China is on par with Japan. For the first time in their history, the two sides are major powers at the same time.
"China and Japan have never had this kind of relationship," emphasizes Michael Yahuda, a former professor for international relations at the London School of Economics. There are no historic precedents to fall back on and no institutional avenues to give expression to these ties, he added. "The result is a very uncomfortable relationship," he said.
Imperialism vs. pacifism
Up to modern times, Japan accepted China as the greater center of culture and civilization, said Yahuda. But under Emperor Meiji (1852-1912), Japan modernized so quickly that it defeated China in 1895 in their war over Korea, triggering a feeling of superiority, he noted. Some 40 years later, Japan occupied Manchuria and conquered half of Asia. The Nanking massacre, or the experiments on humans in the secret "Unit 731" of the imperial army illustrated to the Chinese that the Japanese viewed them as inferior.
After losing World War Two, Japan abruptly switched from imperialism to pacifism. The imperial army was transformed into a self-defense force; the constitution prohibited any and all forms of armed aggression. "Even racism was turned off like a water faucet," wrote the US historian John Dower. At the same time, Japan swept its war crimes under the proverbial carpet. Japanese school books called the Nanking massacre a "mishap." The abuse of Korean "comfort women" in brothels for the imperial troops was almost never mentioned.
Shame, not blame
One reason for the silence is cultural: Feelings of shame in Japan are more pronounced than feelings of blame. The second reason has to do with the end of the war. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made it easier for the Japanese to suppress their own crimes.
"In Japan, Nanking is taboo because it disrupts the view many Japanese have that they were not just warmongers but also war victims," explains Japanese author Yoshikazu Kato.
Vis-a-vis its neighbors, Japan has admitted its guilt time and again, but there was only one official apology in 1993, and not all political parties stood firmly behind it. Other countries in Asia have interpreted that as evidence that Japan does not really take its pacifism seriously.
Japanis still stuck in this dilemma today. The rise of China has forced Japan to become more self-assertive, but the pacifism and war blame get in the way. Conservative Japanese, such as the new chairman of the Liberal Democrats Shinzo Abe, are already declaring that there have been enough apologies. Osaka's popular mayor, Toru Hasimoto, has even proposed striking pacifism out of the constitution.
This trend, no doubt, will magnify the concerns of many neighbors that Japan was never serious about its admission of guilt for its aggressions. From the Japanese point of view, however, this is a misconception. This time, in their version of the new historical situation, the imperialism is emanating from China and Japan is just defending itself.