Much to be done to bridge differences

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am

As much as Premier Wen Jiabao's three-day visit to Japan, starting tomorrow, represents a thaw in relations, it must be remembered that there are many complications to resolving Sino-Japanese differences. While diplomatic and strategic issues will be key topics at talks, the matter ultimately at the core of making ties as they should be is how Chinese and Japanese perceive one another.

If the results of elections for Japanese prefectural governors on Sunday are any indication, much work has to be done. Candidates backed by nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won eight of the 13 races.

The highest-profile winner was Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken critic of China who ran as an independent, but was supported by the LDP and its coalition partner in the government, New Komeito. He won 51.1 per cent of the vote, 20 per cent more than his nearest rival.

Mr Ishihara has made derogatory comments about Chinese immigrants to Japan, said aid should not be given to China because it will be used to make hydrogen bombs and favours relations with Taipei over those with Beijing. Most controversially, he has downplayed the massacre by the Japanese military in Nanjing in 1937, alleging that the figures of those killed are considerably lower than those claimed by mainland authorities. Such views are not unusual in Japan: other nationalists also hold them, including senior LDP members. They are the reason for Mr Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, making visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead, including executed criminals, are honoured, and for school text books whitewashing Japan's war record.

Mr Abe is under the same pressure, but has so far put the importance of relations with China ahead of his nationalist roots. He has to continue to do this at all costs and his welcoming of Mr Wen will provide a sound foundation. While the visit will raise awareness of the issues of difference, it will also prove that efforts are being made to deal with them. Most of all, it will help engender the public trust that is clearly lacking.