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.
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
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