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Analysis of the political tensions between Japan and China

Violent anti-Japanese demonstrations have taken place in various Chinese cities in April 2005, including about 10,000 people protesting in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing. There were stones and eggs thrown at the Japanese embassy, and the windows of Japanese restaurants were smashed. No Japanese citizen has been killed or seriously injured though.

What are the causes of the political tensions between Japan and China ?

Japan invaded East Asia, as far as India, during the Second World War. It occupied Korea and parts of Manchuria since 1905, and most of North-Eastern China since 1937. (see Japanese Expansionism).

During the occupation of China in particular, the Japanese Imperial Army acted in a brutal and cruel way, killing an estimated 10 million civilians and 2.5 million soldiers in China alone (the Chinese government officially claims that 30 million of its citizens were killed by the Japanese).

China claims that Japan has never apologised for its war crimes, and is particularly angry at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who paid official homage several times to class-A war criminals at the Yasukuni-jina Shrine since he was elected as PM in 2001.

The Japanese Ministry of Education has also recently approved 7 new history textbooks criticised for their nationalist content and their downplaying of Japanese atrocities committed during WWII.

Among them is the infamous Nanjing Massacre in 1937, where 50,000 to 300,000 civilians were raped and murdered by the Japanese. The fact that some high-ranking Japanese politicians, like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, have denied that the Nanjing Massacre ever happened only makes things worse.

Germany has apologised for its role in WWII, and German history textbooks insist on Germany's responsibility in the holocaust. There is also no shrine dedicated to Hitler or other Nazi leaders in Germany. As a result, Germany has now made peace with all its neighbours and is a respected and appreciated member of the European Union. Japan still has a long way to go before it can gain the same respect in Asia, especially in China.

Summary of causes for the recent tensions between China and Japan

  • No apologies from the emperor for WWII crimes.
  • Prime Minister paying public homage every year to Japanese war criminals equivalent to Hitler or Goebbels. (see article)
  • History textbooks playing down the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China.
  • Famous politicians (eg. Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo) claiming that the Nanjing Massacre never happened, with tacit public support (and he got re-elected!).
  • General sentiment of the Japanese population that they don't need to apologise for the WWII because China will presumably not accept their apologies.
  • Chinese people still frequently killed by canisters of poisonous gas buried in China by the Japanese in WWII.
  • Dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku islands, near Okinawa. (see article)
  • Dispute over the exploitation of gas in the East China Sea. (see article)

Has Japan apologised to China for its invasion and war crimes ?

If we have a look at the List of war apology statements issued by Japan, it could appear as if Japan has indeed apologised many times for its WWII atrocities. However, a better look reveals that Japan has mostly apologised to Korea and South-East Asian countries, but no proper official apology was issued to China.

It is surprising that among the 35 war-apology-related quotes, almost all of them are addressed to Korea, a few are not directed at any particular country, and very few are addressed to the People's Republic of China. In fact, I only found mentions of China in these speeches, and none of them have for main purpose to give a genuine apology, mentioning the massacres, rapes, plunder, sexual slavery and biological experiment on live humans. The emperor has never apologised to China.

  • 1972 : Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka on the Joint Communique of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China
    => This was not an apology, but just a treaty of peace and friendship to "put an end to the abnormal state of affairs between the two countries" (i.e. resume diplomatic relations and for Japan to officially recognise the PRC as a sovereign nation). China nevertheless signed that "it renounces its demand for war reparation from Japan." But the Chinese haven't asked for any recently. They just want an official apology.

  • 1982 : Statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kiichi Miyazawa on History Textbooks
    => Fair enough. Just commenting on the textbooks. He was not even the Prime Minister, so that shouldn't count as a valid official apology.

  • 1997 : Speech by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto : Seeking a New Foreign Policy Toward China
    => The purpose of the speech is Foreign Policy, not just to apologise. It briefly mentioned "China and the other nations of Asia". It is not an official apology to the PRC.

  • 1997 : Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Conference on: Visit of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to the People's Republic of China
    => That was a press conference at the Shangri-la Hotel, hardly an official apology from government to government. Whats' more, it was a personal apology, not a public one: "[I]the Prime Minister expressed his feeling of deep remorse and stated his heartfelt apology[/I]".

  • 1998 : Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on Japan-China Joint Declaration On Building a Partnership of Friendship and Cooperation for Peace and Development
    => Again, the purpose was not to sincerely apologise. It only mentions "The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for this. The Chinese side hopes that the Japanese side will learn lessons from the history and adhere to the path of peace and development. ".

    So, Japan has apologised for its war crimes, but not to the People's Republic of China, where it committed its worst atrocities. It would also be preferable that the Emperor apologises for the nation, and not the Prime Minister. The reason is that the wrong-doings were committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the Minister of the Army did not answer to the Prime Minister, but directly to the Emperor, who was the Supreme Commander. Although the Emperor's role in WWII remains controversial, it is worth noting that he was considered as a living god at the time, and that many Japanese soldiers died in the name of the Emperor. What is more, the Emperor has already apologised to Korea, so there is no reason to refuse to do the same for China.

    Japan's apologies should mention its invasion and occupation of China, the massacre of millions of people (including Nanjing), forced labour, sexual slavery ("comfort women"), mass looting and biological wafare experiments on live human beings (such as Unit 731).

    Who is to blame for the current state of affairs ?

    Both sides have their part of responsibility. Chinese textbooks are not more impartial than Japanese ones, and the Chinese government can also be blamed for setting its people against Japan. However, most of the blame incurs to Japan, especially the top politicians who approved the new textbooks, visited the Yasukuni Shrine, and downplayed or negated Japan's war-time atrocities. The fact the the Chinese Communist Party was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own people means that China is no better than Japan, but is irrelevant in the current relationship problem between the two countries.

    It is true that China has been trying to divert its own people's frustrations toward the outside so as to avoid protest against its the Communist Party, and Japan has done the same under its military regime in the 1930's by invading Asia. However, Japan is still quick to blame other countries for its problems, be it China, the US or others. The Japanese always want to make themselves appear like victims. Even now, Japan asked for an apology from China for the demonstrations (see article). That's pretty far-fetched considering that Chinese people are demonstrating to obtain an apology from Japan.

    Almost all the Japanese with whom I discussed this issue say that they do not understand why the Chinese are attacking the Japanese embassy/consulates, Japanese restaurants, people, etc. They always look at it as if Japan was innocent in the first place and the Chinese had no reason to complain. Although they do know about their Prime Minister's visit to the Yasukuni-jinja, the history textbooks and other issues, their reaction is usually in the lines of "Japan has nothing to apologise for", "Japan is a victim of the indoctrination of the Chinese education system", "the Chinese hate us and will always hate us", etc.

    Most of the Japanese people I talked to were convinced that the Chinese were protesting because they were brainwashed since the childhood to hate Japan and Japanese people. Many Japanese think that the Chinese hate today's Japanese. But if it were true there would be much more problems and violent attacks, considering that thousands of Japanese companies are established in China, and about one million Chinese visit or go to work or study to Japan each year. Many of today's Chinese people actually like or even admire Japan for its technology or pop-culture. They want peace and friendship with Japan. Out of 1.3 billion Chinese, only a few tens of thousands people felt strongly enough about these issues to participate in the anti-Japan demonstrations, and they are just asking for a proper apology, not monetary reparartions or anything else.

    The BBC's special issue Chinese views on Japan can shed some light on what the average Chinese people think of Japan. Most people interviewed say they like Japanese people, but that it would be better for the Japanese government to apologise for WWII. No vicious hatred or irrational brainwashing there.

    How could Japan and China improve their relationship ?

    It seems obvious that the behaviour of ordinary people is not going to change until the two governments change their attitude first. In my opinion, Japan should make the first step, because it invaded China in the first place.

    What Japan should do is :

    1. Apologise formally to China for its war crimes, and not as a part of another speech. Ideally the Emperor should be the one to apologise.
    2. Change history books used in schools and explain clearly and neutrally what happened during WWII, including the Nanjing massacre.
    3. Prohibit politicians from making racist comments or negate actual facts (about WWII).
    4. Prohibit politicians from going to Yasukuni-jinja, or move war criminals somewhere else.
    5. Avoid sanctioning or over-taxing Chinese products
    6. Make it easier for Chinese people born in Japan to be naturalized, (and possibly also for Chinese tourists to visit Japan).
  • What China should do :

    1. Stop indoctrinating its people against Japan (i.e. change education system and the way history is taught).
    2. Make it easier for Japanese tourists to visit China (e.g. extending the length of the visa exemption for tourists)

    What could be the consequences for Japan if it does not apologise ?

    It is certainly not the right decision for Japan to postpone its apologies. China is keeping anti-Japanese resentment high through the education and media. But at the same time the Chinese government keeps control over anti-Japanese demonstrations so that they do not attack Japanese companies or factories in China, because it doesn't want to lose Japanese investment by scaring Japanese corporations away. The PRC government is well aware that they need the tax money imposed on Japanese companies in China, and that Japanese investments help the Chinese economy to grow. But once China will have become strong enough economically and militarily (in anywhere between 10 and 50 years' time), China could nationalise the Japanese companies on its territory, the invade Japan, and finally get its long-awaited revenge on its hereditary enemy, on a country that 60 years after the end of WWII still refuses to apologise properly, and let top politicians honouring war criminals and publicly deny Japanese war crimes.

    It seems obvious that China is swallowing its feelings for the time being, because it knows very well it cannot get a satisfying revenge until it grows more powerful the Japan and has a stable economy. It will be too late for the Japanese to apologise. Who wants apologies given under the influence of fear ? That cannot possibly be sincere. So if Japan persists in its denial and refusal to bring the emperor to apologise, and solve all or most of the afore-mentioned problems, China will have good reasons to attack Japan when it will be able to do so. Only the US could possibly stop them from doing that, if they want to go to war with China... but that's the last thing they want!

    Another reason for Japan to apologise is to avoid criticism from the international community and comparison to Germany that would make Japan look immature, stubborn and reprehensible. Japan also doesn't want to be compared to China in the way it indoctrinates its people through history textbooks. So far, Japan has been acting very much like the Chinese Communist Party, something that can only deteriorate Japan's political image around the world.

    If Japan and China cannot agree on the terms of the apology to be made, and the content of their respective history textbooks, it would be better for them to ask the United Nations to act as a mediator. That is also why the UN is there. It is just sad that two countries that are mature enough to solve their own problem should have a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.

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