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  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 3:52pm

Sino-Japanese relations

The relationship between the two largest economies in Asia has been marred throughout the 20th century due to territorial and political disputes including Taiwanese sovereignty; the invasion of China by Japan in the second world war and Japan’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge the extent of its war crimes; territorial disputes surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and associated fishing rights and energy resources; and Japanese-American security co-operation.   

CommentInsight & Opinion

Polarised views on the ground straining Sino-Japanese relations

Karen Ma examines how tensions in her family mirror Sino-Japanese quarrels at the national level, reflecting the fundamental problem of a lack of understanding between the two peoples

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 4:00am

The mood at my sister's household these days is strained and becomes more so with each new bout of tension between China and Japan. She's Chinese and her husband is Japanese and, despite 15 years of marriage, they haven't been able to get beyond their different perspectives on this issue, a situation that in some way mirrors the distrust between the two Asian powers they come from.

Each new incident - from the Japanese cabinet's agreement on July 1 to lift the constitutional ban preventing Japanese troops from engaging in overseas combat, to the festering territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine - has given the couple, and the countries they hail from, a lot to argue about.

Their fights usually revolve around a crucial issue - China's persistent demand for an apology from Japan. "Why are you Chinese so persistent about Japan apologising for the war? Haven't we apologised enough? Why can't you move on?" my brother-in-law will snap at my sister, insisting that China has ruined the Sino-Japanese relationship. "Japan may have apologised, but it's never sincere. And the Japanese need to consider how the Chinese feel," she'll counter.

The arguments go nowhere because neither one really listens to the other. Lately, they've resorted more frequently to passive-aggressive silence as they stew in their respective dismay at the other's "lack of understanding".

The quarrels underscore what's going wrong between the two peoples - a huge perception gap over history, with neither side willing to give ground or consider that the other side may have a point. Sadly, that gap is widening, fuelling mutual animosity that undercuts the bilateral relationship, at a time of slower economic growth when Asia could really benefit from stability.

Many on the Japanese side have relatively little understanding of their own history. Despite all that's been written about Japan's military aggression in Asia, the topic is hardly mentioned in high school textbooks, shaping the thinking of generation after generation. Several years ago, while working at a Japanese radio station in Tokyo, a Japanese producer in his mid-30s asked me rather abruptly one afternoon why many Malaysians, citing Japan's military past, refused to meet him on a reporting trip to Kuala Lumpur. "What happened?" he asked, genuinely mystified, admitting later that he didn't know that Japan occupied much of the region during the second world war to the displeasure and resentment of its neighbours.

Many Chinese are equally uninformed. A young Chinese man I met recently in Beijing said until he visited Japan a year ago, he thought all Japanese were short, ugly and creepy, based on TV war dramas that are a mainstay of state-run networks. Japan is actually clean, polite and civilised and offers a lot that China can learn from, he added. He further noted that Japanese often see themselves more as victims of the war than aggressors, a recasting linked to the US atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Many Chinese are heavily influenced by state propaganda. In some social circles, hate for the Japanese is considered acceptable, even good. "To be patriotic is to be anti-Japanese" is a current that runs through much of the traffic on Weibo and various Chinese blogs.

Such unthinking patriotism is dangerous, as even some demonstrators realise. In a series of reports on Chinese views towards the Japanese, published on the news website of Phoenix Television media group, a would-be anti-Japanese demonstrator, Han Chongguang, said he decided against protesting after watching another protest run amok. His eyes were opened, he said, in Xian in September 2012, when several Chinese owners of Japanese cars were assaulted and saw their vehicles destroyed. One victim, Li Jianli, sustained such severe head and spinal injuries that he will never walk again. When anti-Japanese demonstrators lose their rationality and beat other Chinese, he concluded, something is seriously wrong.

Given the depth of distrust, the mutual animosity may worsen before it gets better. The Genron NPO, a private, independent think tank that conducts a joint China-Japan public opinion poll every year, notes that as bilateral diplomatic ties deteriorate, people's views on both sides become more polarised. Last year, over 90 per cent of both Chinese and Japanese recorded negative impressions of each other, an all-time high in the survey's nine-year history. A major culprit in both cases is the domestic media, because the vast majority of Japanese and Chinese never visit each other's country or gain much first-hand experience.

In considering people's impressions, the survey found that many Japanese tend to focus on the China of today, mentioning Chinese food and air pollution, while most Chinese focused on the Japan of yesterday, with a focus on the war, citing "the Nanking Massacre", and the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.

Every nation has its myths, blind spots and different perspectives on history. But if Japan and China hope to resolve the current diplomatic impasse and blunt the risk of military conflict, the two sides must narrow this perception gap by dispelling their prejudices and shedding their one-sided views of history.

This is probably best done through non-governmental channels and exchanges, including more tourism, so the two peoples can foster more open, objective perspectives of each another and their shared history.

Karen Ma is the author of Excess Baggage, a semi-autobiographical novel based on her family's experience living in Japan as Chinese immigrants during the 1990s


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This article missed the fundamental problem, namely, a hostile leadership and a segment of Japanese society that are bent on antagonizing and containing China. Japan has serious issues confronting her historical past and unwillingness to accept China's recent rise after leading Asia for almost a century. Does it surprise you that Japan is also having the same problem with S Korea as the latter is rising rapidly and usurping her technological leadership? This toxic combination of deep insecurity, superiority complex and wounded pride is preventing progress. Deep seated prejudices between the peoples are simply allowed to fester because the Abe government and other politicians (e.g. Ishihara Shintaro) are instigators and perpetrators of this conflict. Japan had a brief period of good relationship with China during the Yukio Hatoyama's leadership. He is still greatly respected by the Chinese government for his peace making efforts. The Chinese government is pragmatic enough to compromise as long there is a genuine desire to 'put aside' these issues (not even 'solving' the problems as the Germans had done). The recent problems started after Ishihara unilaterally nationalized the disputed islands and at a crucial time when China eclipsed Japan as the 2nd largest world economy. Unfortunately, in the long term, this conflict is detrimental to both nations, probably more so for the latter economically. Peace requires a leadership that is sincere. I don't see this in Abe.
The Chinese government plays a dangerous game by constantly stoking an obsession with victimhood. That's what led the Germans into trouble. This is the 21st century, not the 19th or 20th.
P Blair
While Japan have a slave-master relationship with the US, Japan wants to be master of others. A rabid dog that will one day bite it's master trying to act like it's master.
Daniel Lee
When the Japanese PM and his cabinet along with members of the LDP and those representing fascism in Japan goes to the Yasukuni War Shrine to pray to war-criminals in order to glorify war and Japanese aggression, it speaks a lot louder and clearer than all the insincere half-hearted "apologies" made by the recalcitrant aggressive lying Japanese. If Japanese were like Germans the problems would have been solved a long time ago. As a rabid race, they were subjugated by the Americans with two atomic bombs which made them very pliable to the Americans. So when the Americans wants Japan to revert to the old way of their war-mongering insidious dishonourable uncivilised ancestors they were only too happy to oblige to join the American war machine in order to satisfy their aggressiveness and bloodlust. The Japanese should remember and realise, the last time there were only two mushroom clouds. Next the it will be in the hundreds. An extinction event.
This article is rather unhelpful in reducing the dispute to he said, she said, as if both have valid points. Japan maybe a victim of her own militarism, at the hands of U.S. and two atomic bombs, but China has not been victimizer of Japan, but as a victim of Japanese aggressions since the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895, or even before that as victims of Japanese pirates since 16th century. The younger generation of Japan maybe ignorant of past history, but China remember her history even if some depictions in movies maybe stereotyped.
You should go to the museum near the Yasukuni shrine and read how Japanese managed to use flowery language to camouflage the history.
Many Chinese are heavily influenced by state propaganda, and it's equally true that many
Westerners are influenced by western propaganda. The only difference is that the western media is doing it more skillfully. A Westerner friend told me not to read too much on media as it more oftern to tell you the bad news and the truth is oftern sacrificed by politic motivations.
SO what's the difference between what Chinese and Western governement wants to tell their people respectively !!!!
An error here. Ishihara instigated political prolems causing the Japanese government then to nationalize the disputed islands.
Well, your sister obviously must still be wearing racist blinders of us vs them otherwise living in Japan, she would have noticed that the Japanese are very unsympathetic to unlawful and criminal behavior - WHEN IT HAPPENS TO JAPANESE - and convict readily in their own criminal courts.
So "uh duh" to the author. Too bad SCMP didn't scrutinize this article before publishing it and offer a more mature assessment to make this a more interesting and less simplistic article.
The key to thawing the strained relations between China and Japan is only through sincere talks. However, what the reality is these two nations are blindly at odds with each other over whatever problems arise, ranging from history to territorial sovereignty.
As writer mentioned, encouraging the nationals of the two countries to visit each other's place is one of the way-outs. But be blunt, there are too many ongoing uncontrollable situations that might compromise the possible fruitful outcomes of writer's suggestion, namely the sovereignty over Diaoyu island and other diplomatic crises which might get more powers entangled in. Worse still, it might be too reckless and shallow to only rely on tourism as a vehicle to radically change the deep-rooted stereotype on two countries among which irreconcilable conflicts have long been existing. Its merely wishful thinking.



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