China and Japan: Reconciliation or Confrontation?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 17

Openly defiant of the mounting domestic opposition, the strong protests from Beijing and Seoul and the growing criticism of international opinion, on August 15 Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine where Class-A war criminals from World War II are honored among the fallen Japanese soldiers. Despite having made five visits in the past, for the first time, he chose to visit the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in 1945. This fulfillment of his campaign pledge from earlier was clearly an affront to the leaders of China and South Korea, and damage to Japan’s relations with its neighbors is expected. Yet, Koizumi will step down from the prime minister’s post in September and the question now is whether his successor will seek reconciliation with Japan’s neighbors and end the country’s diplomatic stalemate.

Intensifying Efforts of Reconciliation

Having given up on Koizumi, Beijing is now looking ahead and has stepped up its diplomatic activities in the past few months to ensure that Japan’s next prime minister will not repeat Koizumi’s confrontational approach to China. While maintaining that there would be no bilateral summits so long as Japan’s prime minister visits Yasukuni, top Chinese leaders have met with several visiting Japanese delegations and leaders, including the new opposition party leader, Ichiro Ozawa of the Democratic Party of Japan, who is critical of Koizumi’s China policy.

While the bilateral talks on the dispute over the exploration of oil and gas fields in the East China Sea have stalled after several rounds of negotiations, Beijing has been trying to find a new focus in its relations with Japan through cooperation in the areas of energy conservation, efficiency and environmental protection. Led by China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a multi-ministry effort has resulted in Sino-Japanese cooperation on Energy Saving and Environmental Protection in Kyoto a few months ago and was met with much greater interest and participation from both sides than expected (the author’s interview with NDRC officials; China Brief, June 7).

In the recently held Beijing-Tokyo Forum, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wang Yi, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary and the leading candidate to replace Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, and other high-profile figures from China and Japan exchanged views on possible ways to improve bilateral relations in the post-Koizumi era. Viewing these developments in a broader context, Koizumi’s latest Yasukuni visit may have a short-lived negative impact on the future of Japan’s relations with China. The focus seems to be on the most promising things that the two countries can do to advance reconciliation and there are a number of emerging policy options that are being discussed by policy makers, academics and the mass media in both China and Japan [1].

Three Possible Ways of Advancing Reconciliation

First, as a short-term solution, many agree that it would benefit Japan as well its neighbors if top Japanese leaders were to stop visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. This would certainly place Sino-Japanese relations back on track for the “second normalization” process—regular bilateral meetings at all levels, especially the summit meetings. Clearly, the Yasukuni Shrine remains the central issue of the current deadlock in Sino-Japanese relations, and no additional reconciliation measures can take place without sorting out this controversial issue between Tokyo and its neighbors. Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni have damaged Japan’s relations with China as well as with others. It has put Tokyo’s ties with Seoul at the lowest point in many years, and there is growing evidence that the Yasukuni issue and Japan’s deteriorating relations with its neighboring countries are perceived in Washington as detrimental to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Prominent U.S. Congressman Henry Hyde wrote a letter prior to Koizumi’s visit to the United States in May, demanding as a precondition for any consideration of addressing the U.S. Congress the commitment by the Japanese prime minister to cease his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

There have been promising signs of a potential breakthrough on the issue of Yasukuni. In spite of grassroots pressure to get tough with Japan, Chinese leaders have instead decided to look for a “face-saving” way for Japan to end the Yasukuni visits. There also have been growing voices in Japan that oppose visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by future Japanese prime ministers. In a recent opinion poll, 60 percent of the Japanese public indicated that they are opposed to Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits, with only 20 percent supporting them. Furthermore, an overwhelming 82 percent of those surveyed said that the next prime minister should not visit Yasukuni, while only 10 percent supported the continued homage (Asahi Shimbun, July 25). The changing tide of public opinion in Japan has also been strengthened by a memo made public by an imperial household official, which clearly indicated that the late-Emperor Hirohito was critical of putting the war criminals into Yasukuni back in the late 1970s and stopped going to the shrine ever since. The coming departure of Koizumi will provide an opportunity for Shinzo Abe and other potential successors to make a firm commitment against visiting the shrine.

Second, in the medium-term, many advocate that China and Japan should establish a number of mechanisms to manage the bilateral relationship of the new century: institutionalized official dialogues that address bilateral differences, private sector associations that deal with bilateral business ties and regular track-II style meetings that bring government officials, business, academics and public opinion leaders together. While historical issues may dominate the headlines, China-Japan relations are multi-dimensional and require extensive care at several levels. The existing institutions, largely built in the 1970s after the two countries established diplomatic relations, are either outdated or ineffective. Many old “Japan hands” in China and old “China hands” in Japan, who bridged both sides for most of the postwar decades, have passed away. “Friendship” organizations on both sides have had difficulties coping with the new changes and the growing negative attitudes of peoples in both countries toward one another. In addition, the crucial institutions that can effectively address bilateral differences are very few in number. Meaningful and effective working institutions, as many have realized, will improve communications, benefit mutual understanding and lead to reconciliation between Japan and China.

Such institution-building projects may produce tangible results in the near future because there is a certain consensus in both countries that the communication channels established in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer suitable for the 21st century. At the same time, the attempt to cope with pressing issues such as the East China Sea energy dispute and the North Korean nuclear crisis has resulted in existing management mechanisms (although not institutionalized) between Tokyo and Beijing. The challenge for both countries will be the task of making them more permanent and effective. The task may also be made easier now that both countries have much younger and more professional diplomats, a much more internationalized business community and an academic workforce with significantly more international exposure. These developments will no doubt facilitate the task of reconciliation between Japan and China.

Finally, in the long-term, there have been calls for Japan to undergo a thorough national reflection on its war past. Simultaneously, there have also been voices advocating that China should be more self-reflective and forgiving in order to establish a future-oriented, healthy bilateral relationship. The momentum for such long-term solutions is partly due to the recognition that true reconciliation must be based on soul-searching and nationwide reflections of the past. There are also concerns that the growing negative feelings of the two peoples only fuel narrow-minded nationalism. It is necessary for the leaders of both countries to resist the temptations of using nationalism for political gains. Both peoples need to come to terms with each other at the emotional level and learn to treat each other as equals. With the realization that external forces, international institutions and world opinions can affect the behaviors of Japan and China—both powerful states—substantial international initiatives around the world are gradually becoming a part of the China-Japan reconciliation process.

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the long-term reconciliation between China and Japan. An unintended consequence of Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a purely political move to benefit his leadership ambitions, has been the nationwide debate in Japan on its attitude toward its past aggressions. In China, internal and open debates about Beijing’s Japan policy have also been going on for sometime, with ideas such as the “new thinking” on Japan being proposed (China Brief, February 1, 2005). Meanwhile, world opinion, assisted by the rapidly evolving communication technologies, will have a continual impact on the leadership and the public in both Japan and China.

It was not so long ago when Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso described his resentment of Chinese criticism of the Japanese leadership’s Yasukuni visits in such a way: “The more China voices [opposition], the more one feels like going there. It’s just like when you’re told ‘Don’t smoke cigarettes,’ it actually makes you want to smoke” (Xinhua, January 30). In an about face, Aso now openly calls for the reform of the Yasukuni Shrine, even proposing that the Yasukuni Shrine lose its religious status and hinting at the possibility of separating the Class-A war criminals from the other soldiers (Mainichi Shimbun, August 8) . Beijing’s latest outrage over Koizumi’s Yasukuni visit aside, the good news may well be that the Japanese have finally come to realize it is not in their own national interest to continue to inhale Koizumi’s second-hand smoke.


1. This is the central theme of an international workshop organized by Professor Peter Van Ness at the Australian National University from August 17-18, with participants coming from Japan, China, Australia and other parts of the world, including this author.