Sino-Japanese Relations: Citizens Taking Charge Despite Government Efforts

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 17

Tokyo Governor Ishihara's Surveyors Appraising the Diaoyutai

At time when leaders in China and Japan were expecting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the two states with a series of celebrations across both countries, instead leaders in both states are working to contain the latest nationalist flare-ups over “history issues” and the territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.

One of the most interesting sub-plots about the most recent deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations is how it is happening despite the strong actions of both national governments.  In this way, the recent crisis in Sino-Japanese relations is quite unlike the challenge Tokyo is facing with neighbors South Korea and Russia, and Beijing is facing with the Philippines and Vietnam. In those cases, state leaders are pursuing an intentionally provocative and nationalist agenda that is pushing relations toward a crisis. In the case of Sino-Japanese relations, policymakers in both governments are working to keep a lid on tensions, using state power to hinder the inflammatory rhetoric and actions of their citizens.

The underlying importance of positive Sino-Japanese relations for both sides explains why leaders are willing to expend political capital to calm the tension despite the popularity of nationalist rhetoric. China is Japan’s largest trading partner and an important source of corporate profit for Japanese firms. Enhanced cooperation with China in the economic sphere is central to Japanese government strategies for further economic growth, such as negotiations over stronger intellectual property protection for Japanese patents in China, partnerships on civilian nuclear power security and development of cleaner energy sources. Such initiatives are scuttled by the rise in nationalist tensions as seen in previous crisis periods in Sino-Japanese relations. More broadly, regional stability is essential for both states in order to allow them to focus on economic growth strategies at a difficult time in the world economy. Japan and China together constitute over three quarters of economic output in East Asia and 15 percent of the world economy [1].

Current versus Past Crises

In the past seven years, there have been three major crisis points in Sino-Japanese relations: spring 2005, fall 2010, and now this summer. All of them have been related to so-called “history issues”—such as perceived shortcomings in apologies by Japan for its wartime conduct, textbook portrayals of Japan’s wartime conduct and visits by Japanese politicians to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Additionally, the latest two crises have been sparked by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu island chain.

The latest crisis began with efforts by activists in Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong to sail to the disputed islands to assert Chinese sovereignty by planting a Chinese flag on the anniversary of the end of World War II. To their credit, the governments of China and Taiwan prohibited the activists from sailing, leaving only the Hong Kong activists to carry the Chinese flag. The cautious, status-quo stance of the Chinese government is illustrated by the published views of Han Xiaoqing, bureau chief for the Ri-Zhong Xinwen online paper, the People’s Daily news partner in Japan, under the headline “Hong Kong Diaoyu activists landed in the Diaoyus—Are they patriotic or harming the country?" Ironically, links to the article—republished in the Global Times—were blocked once nationalists in China protested the content (South China Morning Post, August 29).

Tokyo also worked to keep a crisis from developing over what it viewed as an illegal landing on Japanese territory. This contrasts with the policies of the newly-elected Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government led by Kan Naoto in September 2010 at the time of the last crisis. The decision by then-Prime Minister Kan to hold a Chinese fishing trawler captain sparked a series of escalations with the Chinese government. In the case of last month’s illegal landing, the pro-China activists were immediately deported with some of them allowed to sail away with their vessel. In addition, the Japanese government sought to keep a crisis from escalating by refusing permission sought by nationalist Japanese activists to plant a Japanese flag on the territory in response to the actions of the Chinese “intruders”—and to remove the Japanese activists quickly when they broke the law and swam to the islands to plant a Japanese flag (Japan Times, August 21).

In China, Japanese government efforts to purchase the islands from the private landowner who currently leases the largest islands to the central government are portrayed as an attempt to take control of the islands for nationalist purposes—a position also reflected in analysis based on Chinese sources (“Diaoyu-Senkaku Crisis Tests Resilience of Beijing’s Japan Diplomacy,” China Brief, September 7). Rather, Japanese central government efforts to purchase the islands—a plan realized this week—should be seen as yet another example of Tokyo’s efforts to maintain the status quo,  which is to refuse most Japanese citizens permission to visit the islands for fear of escalating tension with China (Mainichi Japan, September 5). By contrast, nationalist activists aligned with Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro had been working to assemble a counter-bid to purchase the islands, so that they can establish a permanent presence on the islands. This past week, a “survey party” organized by this group circumnavigated the islands in an effort to “appraise” the value of the islands for such a private bid. The Japanese government refused the party permission to land on the islands for this activity. Beijing also sought to downplay the actions of this survey party, especially since it did not cross a red line of actually landing on the island (Daily Yomiuri, September 2).

In the latest effort to contain the crisis, Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko reportedly sent a personal letter to President Hu Jintao, delivered by Parliamentary Senior Foreign Vice Minister Yamaguchi Tsuyoshi to State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Reportedly, Noda stressed in the letter both sides should deepen their strategic and mutually beneficial relations: ”To develop relations further, it is important to have close communications between high-level government officials” (Daily Yomiuri, September 2).

By contrast, in addition to the actions of those seeking to visit the disputed territory, the media of both countries have fanned nationalist flames that have exacerbated the current crisis ( “Diaoyu-Senkaku Crisis Tests Resilience of Beijing’s Japan Diplomacy,” China Brief, September 7).  In both countries, activists who visited the islands were celebrated as “heroes,” and politicians derided for not protecting their nation’s sovereignty. In China, moreover, citizen-activists took to the streets to demonstrate the Japanese Coast Guard’s apprehension and deportation of pro-China activists who landed on the disputed islands. Demonstrators overturned a Japanese-brand police car in Shenzhen; days later, several Chinese protestors in Beijing intercepted the car carrying the Japanese ambassador to China, Niwa Uichiro, blocking the car and pulling the Japanese flags off of the vehicle (Kyodo News, August 31). The irony is that the ambassador had just been recalled due to his perceived pro-China views at home (Japan Times, August 21).

Many Japanese are skeptical that China’s single-party dictatorship could be as driven by public opinion as Japan’s democratic government. In particular, Japanese media and scholarship frequently mention China’s state-controlled education campaign that Japanese argue has contributed to a ratcheting up of tension between the two states (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 2).

Analysis of Chinese policy also frequently questions how Beijing is able to control public dissent so effectively, especially street rioting, in a range of other controversial issues but not in the case of anti-Japan sentiment. It is possible that a complicated two-level game is being played by China’s central government to act simultaneously to contain the situation while at the same fanning the flames to a degree—perhaps to provide a safe outlet for Chinese citizens to vent their frustrations. Even if there is such a two-level game taking place, however, the Chinese government—just like the Japanese government—is  trying visibly to contain the situation. The actions of both governments this past month thus contrast sharply with those of the 2005 and 2010 crisis points. In those periods, both governments participated in an overt escalation of tensions, but ultimately both worked to diffuse the tension after it had escalated beyond expectations.

Japanese Negative Views of China Have Diverse Roots

Japanese public views of China dropped sharply after the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, but the trend line for the past several years has been especially negative with 71.4 percent expressing that they do not have a positive feeling toward China in the latest Cabinet Office poll in 2011 [2]. Mass media linkage of Chinese activism over the Diaoyu islands with Korean activism over Takeshima/Dokdo and China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea with its growing military spending have fueled suspicions of Beijing. Similarly, food safety issues and domestic crime committed by Chinese residents of Japan have exacerbated these suspicions.

In the area of national security, the Defense White Papers issued annually by the Ministry of Defense have placed increased emphasis the threat posed by China’s increased military spending in the past several years [3]. Two years ago, the Japanese Ministry of Defense-affiliated National Institute of Defense Studies began to issue an annual China Security Report that has further developed the theme of a China threat [4]. Informed by these documents, Japan’s latest national security strategy document issued in December 2010, the so-called National Defense Program Guidelines (Boei Taiko), also makes prominent mention of China-related security challenges and sets out a re-deployment of Japan’s Self Defense Forces southward and westward  as well as planning for new military equipment to seek to address the growing sense of threat [5]. Japanese press has further emphasized a need for increased capabilities in light of the latest incursion, such as the Yomiuri Shimbun’s embrace of the controversial U.S. deployment of the MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa (Yomiuri Shimbun, August 18).

Beyond military security, Japanese feel threatened by China in terms of their domestic arrangements as well with concerns ranging from the safety of imported food to fears of crime from Chinese immigrants and of having their jobs out-sourced to China [6]. These concerns can be manipulated by populist politicians seek political advantage in Japan’s fractured domestic politics.

A Rocky Path Forward for Sino-Japanese Relations

From the Japanese side, it is impossible to imagine a strong central government leadership emerging that can chart a new course for Sino-Japanese relations in the near future. Elections later this calendar year look virtually certain as does the power of a new, untested, and not-yet-created national political party born from the regionally-based Osaka Isshin no Kai (Osaka Restoration Group or One Osaka) led by Osaka’s firebrand mayor, Hashimoto Toru. With the ruling DPJ suffering from approval ratings as low as a 12 percent, and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also suffering from low popularity around 22 percent, it is almost certain that the next election will once again require post-election coalition building and will once again result in different coalitions controlling the two houses of parliament. Crafting a new consensus on China in this context is almost unimaginable.

China also is in the midst of a leadership transition that most China specialists say encourages status quo policies so as not to risk destabilizing an already uncertain process(“Foreign Affairs a Secondary Priority but Salient Challenges Ahead,” China Brief, January 20). Thus, a new approach to Japan also seems unthinkable.

Where strong voices are present in Sino-Japanese relations are outside the circle of central government leaders seeking to maintain power. This dynamic also probably will not change in the coming year. In Japan, even if the now-opposition LDP once again takes the reins in a new coalition government, it will not be able to silence nationalist voices within the party and among party supporters. Even in the LDP’s hey-day, the party leadership repeatedly was forced to deal with protests from China regarding actions of rogue LDP Diet members and their supporters over such issues as Yasukuni Shrine visits and opposition to official statements related to Japan’s war-time conduct. The right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun stirred this pot yet again last month in an editorial calling into the question the official apology related to the “comfort women” offered by LDP Foreign Minister Kono Yohei in 1993 (Yomiuri Shimbun, August 15).

What is especially unfortunate about the latest flare-up in Sino-Japanese relations is that it comes at a time when the two countries could greatly benefit from enhanced state- and private-sector cooperation to manage growing challenges. As reported this past week by the quasi-governmental Japan External Trade Organization, Japan is on track this year to experience its largest-ever trade deficit with. On a yen-basis, two-way trade between the two states declined by roughly two percent in the first half of 2012 (Business Times [Singapore], August 29). China’s economic slowdown and Japan’s evolving policy responses to economic rebuilding in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 tsunami and nuclear accident pose great challenges to economic cooperation for both states, challenges best addressed through coordinated government- and private-sector discussions. Increased suspicions of each other generated in the public sphere through the actions of narrow groups of activists threaten to derail a better future for both states and to pull other states in the region (as well as the United States) into a sub-optimal future of conflict management.


  1. Claude Meyer, China or Japan: Which Will Lead Asia?, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 35.
  2. For a historical overview of Japanese attitudes toward China, see Rumi Aoyama, “Changing Japanese Perceptions and China-Japan Relations,” in Gerald Curtis, Ryosei Kokubun, and Wang Jisi, eds., Getting the Triangle Straight: Managing China-Japan-U.S. Relations, Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2010. Gaiko ni kansuru seron chosa [Public Opinion Survey on Foreign Policy], Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, 2011, available online at
  3. Japan’s annual defense white papers, Defense of Japan, back to 2005 are available online at
  4. NIDS China Security Report, Tokyo: National Institute of Defense Studies, 2010 and 2011, available online at
  5. “National Defense Program Guidelines for FY 2011 and Beyond,” Ministry of Defense (Japan), 2011. For analysis of the guideline’s implications for regional security, see Yamaguchi Noboru, “Deciphering the New National Defense Program Guidelines of Japan,” Tokyo Foundation, March 24, 2011, available online at
  6. Aoyama, “Changing Japanese Perceptions,” discusses the different aspects of Japanese concern regarding China based in surveys conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and major newspapers. It also includes a chart tracking views on six areas of concern: historical perceptions, maritime disputes, economic/trade issues, Chinese military power, crime by Chinese immigrants and Taiwan.