China Policy Institute: Analysis


china-japan relations

Japan and China court Africa

Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen and Obert Hodzi.

Africa is currently being courted by both China and Japan. Rich in natural resources and a growing market, Africa is important to both East Asian economic giants. They have provided Africa with generous financial and economic development deals totalling over US$90 billion between December, 2015 and August 2016. The most recent move was from Japan. At the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Kenya recently (the first time in Africa), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a US$30 billion public-private partnership to develop quality infrastructure, health systems and others in Africa.

Continue reading “Japan and China court Africa”

Asia’s rivalry heats up as Japan and China play host at separate global summits

Written by Hugo Dobson.

Despite occasional reasons to be optimistic, relations between China and Japan have been consistently poor over recent years. This is in part fuelled by China’s rise to the position of second largest economy in the world – overtaking Japan in the process – as well as Japan’s lurch to the right under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Chinese-Japanese rivalry has manifested itself across a range of issues, including disputed territory in the East China Sea, interpretations of wartime history and jockeying to assume the role of regional economic leadership. A new low was reached at the beginning of 2014 when ambassadors of both countries traded public insults likening each other to Harry Potter’s archenemy Lord Voldemort.

Now, this rivalry looks likely to be transplanted into the global arena with Japan hosting the forthcoming 42nd summit of the leaders of the G7, and China hosting its first G20 summit in September. Both countries have diametrically opposed interests in each summit, which will be amplified by their role of host in each respective summit.

At the first meeting of the G7 in November 1975 Japan’s status as a fellow contemporary great power and the sole representative of Asia was recognised. Since then, the membership of the G7 has varied – Canada, the EU and Russia became members, although the latter’s membership was suspended in 2014.

The nature of its agenda has also expanded to include political and security issues, but Japan’s position within this annual gathering of predominantly North American and European leaders has remained secure.

Japan has returned the compliment by seeking to ensure the success of the G7, and argued for its continued and central role in global summitry especially with the rise of the G20 as the more representative and effective centre of global governance.

Poor relation?

Today, the G7 accounts for just over 10% of the world’s population and a third of global GDP. Whereas the G20 includes two-thirds of the world’s population and over 80% of its global GDP. This led former Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, to claim that the G7 had lost its authority.

China has shown little interest in the G7. Instead, it has traditionally placed emphasis on the United Nations as the legitimate centre of global governance – where it occupies a permanent security council seat.

Since 2008 and the first meeting of the G20 leaders in response to the global economic and financial crisis, China has increasingly stressed this grouping over the G7 as the “premier” and more “representative” forum for international economic cooperation.

Japan in contrast has regarded the G20 with ambivalence. An expanded membership is seen by Japan to compromise the group’s effectiveness, but more importantly it dilutes Japan’s great power status, with the newer Asian members (including China, Korea and Indonesia) robbing Japan of its exclusive regional leadership role.

Already China is showing more and more interest in the position Japan promotes among its G7 partners. At last year’s German hosted summit, in a thinly veiled reference to China, the G7 leaders’ statement expressed concern over tensions in the East and South China seas. The reaction in China was predictably critical and already this year Beijing has warned the G7 and Japan from repeating similar statements.

Ties that divide

But things didn’t have to be this way – 2016 could have been a significant year of opportunity for the international community and East Asia in particular. And for a while it did look like things were on the mend between these two great Asian powerhouses – from awkward handshakes at international summits to more constructive discussions earlier this year. Sadly under the new normal of deteriorating Sino-Japanese relations, none of this is likely to materialise this year or any time soon.

This lack of collaboration is a missed opportunity because sound Sino-Japanese relations are central to a lasting regional peace and global stability. A greater synergy between the agendas of the G7 and G20 could have been promoted by Japan and China as hosts, and in turn “G” summitry could have provided a welcome opportunity for China and Japan to cooperate.

By embracing China, the G7 leaders could have discussed the challenges that face the Chinese economy – and by default the global economy – in a more meaningful way, and allowing for a more coherent Asian “group” to be fostered within the G20. Instead, lines have been already been drawn for a potential and wholly unnecessary turf war between these global summits.

Hugo Dobson is a Head of Department at the National Institute of Japanese Studies and School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. This article was first published in The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Minister-president Rutte/Flickr.

Hong Kong during World War II: A Transnational Battlefield

Written by Chi Man Kwong.

On 30 August, 1945, a combined fleet of British, Australian, and Canadian vessels entered Victoria Harbour of Hong Kong, led by Cecil Harcourt, a British admiral. Expecting the fleet ashore at the Naval Dockyard (modern-day Admiralty) was a cheerful crowd of Hong Kong Chinese and a number of emotionless Japanese soldiers.

British, Indian, Canadian, and Dutch POWs and internees scattered across the ex-British colony were rescued by British and Commonwealth troops, some of them led by a Canadian Chinese officer William K. L. Lore. The above event was known as the “Liberation of Hong Kong” (重光), and 30 August was a public holiday until 1997.

The transfer of Hong Kong’ sovereignty to China changed the focus of war commemoration in Hong Kong: it shifted from the suffering and deliverance of the people of all ethnicity to the local resistance against the Japanese, especially the actions of the communist-led patriotic movements before the war and the underground resistance campaign of the East River Column. Many of the narratives of the war experience of Hong Kong tend to focus on local issues and often risk detaching Hong Kong from the larger scheme of things, namely the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Allies’ war against Japan. The transnational feature of Hong Kong society before and during the war is sometimes left out as well. The seventieth anniversary of the liberation is perhaps a good opportunity for us to review some aspects of the war experience of Hong Kong and rethink the transnational nature of the city.

International Strategic Importance of Hong Kong

As Hans van de Ven, Rana Mitter, and many other academics who work on the Second World War in Asia have convincingly argued, the China-Burma-India Theatre was much more than a sideshow in the war against Japan. Hong Kong, sandwiched between the CBI Theatre and the Pacific theatres of war, had a special role in the eyes of the Japanese decision makers. After the fall of the China coast to Japan in 1937-1938, Hong Kong was the only major port along the China coast that allowed strategic supplies to be sent into mainland China. Equipped with excellent port and repairing facilities, Japan could also use Hong Kong to establish firm control over the South China Sea, Japan’s gateway to Southeast Asia.

Countering the Japanese attempt to turn Hong Kong into a strategic springboard was an Allied air and naval campaign fought by both Chinese and American flyers and US Navy submariners. In Hong Kong and the nearby Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, there was a multinational underground resistance campaign participated by the British Army Aid Group, the Nationalist regulars and guerrillas, and the Communist East River Column. Although these forces were not always cooperating effectively, the combined Allied resistance prevented Japan from fully exploiting Hong Kong’s strategic potential.

This failure, in turn, hindered Japan’s effort to tap the resources of Southeast Asia, and partly explained the Japanese Army’s decision to launch the Operation Ichigo in 1944, a large-scale offensive that almost destroyed the Nationalist regime and helped shape the political history of China for decades. The Ichigo Offensive also swept the Nationalist forces and guerrillas away from Guangdong, unwittingly prevented a Nationalist takeover of Hong Kong when Japan surrendered. The strategic importance of Hong Kong as the only major seaport in South China did not end with the surrender of Japan; when Harry Truman, the US President, decided to allow the British to retake Hong Kong in August 1945, he was expecting the Nationalist troops could use Hong Kong as a springboard to reach North China and Manchuria. Thus, although international military operations are often left out in narratives of Hong Kong history, they were actually instrumental to the changing fate of this city.

At the local level, the “British” garrison of Hong Kong that resisted the Japanese invasion in December 1941 consisted of servicemen from the United Kingdom, the British Raj, Canada, Australia, Portugal (Macau), Philippines, and even France. Many of the members of the local Volunteer Defence Force were Eurasians. More than a thousand local Chinese served in the British forces as seamen, gunners, sappers, and infantry. Some of them escaped captivity and later fought in Burma as a unit. These “Anglo-Chinese” soldiers were highly diversified; students of the University of Hong Kong and London-born Chinese with a Cockney accent were put in the same unit with Hakka sappers from the New Territories. If one only focuses on the local Chinese resistance or suffering one may lose sight of these international dimensions of the conflict.

Complexity of Identity and Collaboration

By 1945, close to half a million Chinese fought on the Japanese side; hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese and Koreans served in the Japanese military; these remain thorny issues nowadays. The problem of collaboration and allegiance in Hong Kong is no less complex. The experience of Gan Zhiyan in Hong Kong is illustrative. Gan, an Anhui native, was a Nationalist officer who was caught in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. He avoided certain death only because he was a classmate of a Japanese naval intelligence officer. Gan gained a fortune by working under the Japanese, and eventually commanded a “Coastal Defence Force” that helped the Japanese to control the islands between Macau and Hong Kong such as Lajiweidao. However, he also maintained peace and fed the inhabitants of those islands. When the Japanese surrendered he turned to Zhang Fakui, the Nationalist general who took over Guangdong, and kept his base and his little amphibious force until 1949. Gan then left for the United States and died in 1998.

The issue was particularly problematic to the Eurasians, who were by no means fully accepted by the Chinese and British communities before the war. A number of them turned to the Japanese and even rose in ranks as members of the notorious kempeitai (憲兵隊 or Military Police Corps); others joined the Allied resistance effort. The case of Sir Robert Kotewall, the Eurasian member of the Legislative Council, is worth mentioning. Urged by British officials to help taking care of the population when the British surrendered, Kotewall became a member of the “Chinese Representative Council” formed by the Japanese. Kotewall was accused of being a “Quisling” but was acquitted and silently withdrawn from public life.

Even the identity of the dominant local Chinese population was by no means clear-cut. There were westernised urban dwellers, villagers of the New Territories who claimed their ancestral root to the Song Dynasty or further back, migrants from other provinces, overseas Chinese, and refugees who fled from different parts of China. Contrary to the common view that Hong Kong was a migrant society, a sense of Hong Kong identity also prevailed among at least some of the locals. A Japanese official who was responsible for the forced migration of residents from Hong Kong to China noted that some of the Hong Kong Chinese had little or no connection with mainland China and saw Hong Kong their ancestral home. In short, one risks over-generalisation if one overlooks the transnational nature of the Hong Kong society when assuming all Chinese in Hong Kong shared the same identity and allegiance.

Restoration of a Transnational City

The years between 1937 and 1945 left a considerable mark on the transnational character of Hong Kong. Because of the influx of refugees from different parts of China after 1937, the industry of Hong Kong witnessed a considerable boom before the Japanese invasion. Population pressure also forced the colonial government to pay more attention to hygiene, education, housing, and labour issues. The fall of Hong Kong led to another large-scale movement of the Hong Kong population as residents were forced by the Japanese Occupation Government to leave for mainland China; an unknown number of them died along the way. The end of the war, however, brought another influx of population as the original residents returned and people from different parts of China moved in, partly as the result of the unstable situation in China. The Portuguese, Indian, and Eurasian communities all survived the war. These developments left a permanent mark on the diversity of the population in Hong Kong.

The experience of defeat and captivity also left some long-term impact on the colonial governance. Racial barrier, if not entirely demolished, was loosened after the war. Local Chinese, especially those who had participated in the resistance with the British such as Paul Tsui, entered public service and eventually rose to high ranks. More Chinese representatives were appointed in the legislative and executive councils. The colonial government tried to invite the Chinese population to participate in governance through increasing franchise, although comprehensive political reform in the form of the Young Plan was shelved in 1949. The general attitude changed from one of almost complete segregation to “Co-prosperity of Chinese and British,” as the slogan on the commemorative stamp of the liberation of Hong Kong in 1946 wrote.

Often overlooked, the quick restoration of the international economic importance of the city within months after the end of the war laid the foundation of rapid development for decades. The abrupt end of the war against Japan on 15 August led to a period of chaos and uncertainty in Asia. Compared to the Nationalist reoccupation of mainland China and Taiwan that led to numerous tragedies such as the 228 Incident, Hong Kong was fortunate enough to experience a much less turbulent process. When Japan surrendered, the city was on the verge of starvation and its infrastructure mostly destroyed. Harcourt’s fleet was followed by convoys that brought technicians who restored the infrastructures in days and food that sustained the population and prevented outbreak of unrests. As the head of the British Military Administration admitted, however, the resilience of the residents played perhaps an even more important role in the quick recovery of Hong Kong.

Seventy years after the end of the war, the complexity of the war and its long term impact on Hong Kong are now more clearly understood. Hong Kong was an important international battlefield and its fate was closely related to the Second Sino-Japanese War, the general war in Asia-Pacific, and to a lesser extent the war in Europe. The diverse war experience of the people of different ethnicity and class in Hong Kong is also a strong reminder of the transnational character of this city.

Chi Man KWONG is a Research Assistant Professor at the History Department, Hong Kong Baptist University. One of this latest publications is Eastern Fortress: A Military History of Hong Kong, 1840-1970 (co-authored with Tsoi Yiu-lun) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014). Image Credit: CC by BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives /Flickr.

On our side: remembering the national and international in China’s war

Written by Andres Rodriguez.

When did the Second World War start? For most people in the West this doesn’t sound like a difficult question. The answer varies, however, depending on who you ask. Back in 1944 US soldiers deployed to the Asian front were already made aware that no simple answer existed. The US Army issued a short booklet for its soldiers which reminded them:

Ask the average GI when World War II started, and he is likely to reply: December 7, 1941. Ask the same question of any British Tommy, and the answer is almost certain to be: September 3, 1939. But if this question is put to one of our Chinese allies, his date of the start of the war will be either: September 18, 1931, or July 7, 1937.

Seventy years after Japan’s official surrender, I find myself in the same position reminding my students every semester that the second world war was truly about the world and that China was one of the Allies fighting on the same side as Western nations.

It is probably not a coincidence that as we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war a growing literature is in effect setting the record straight and, in Rana Mitter’s words, recasting the role played by the war’s “forgotten ally”.

Fighting a common enemy, both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek saw the war as a global struggle against fascism. It was a struggle that would not only define the survival of China but also lay the basis of China’s future in a new international order.

This was a global war and as such it had a profound impact on the internationalisation of China. For example, Eastern European doctors who fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) against Franco arrived in China through the auspices of the International Red Cross. The same call of duty also inspired intellectuals such as the young British art historian Michael Sullivan.

Along with driving supplies in Guiyang, Sullivan later made modern Chinese art known in the West through his friendship with Chinese artists such as Wu Zuoren and cartoonist Ding Cong. More senior figures such as Joseph Needham headed the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office assisting Chinese scholars working under the hardship of wartime conditions in China’s south-west.

A growing say in world affairs

It would be wrong to see this as a story of the powerful West coming to the rescue of a hapless Chinese nation. It is rather one of Chinese intellectuals who saw themselves as a part of a global community of scientists and humanists fighting against the evils of fascism. They were eager to use the tools of their trade to shape postwar society in frank debates with their Western counterparts.

The contributions of Chinese scholars such as the philosopher Luo Zhongshu in the establishment of UNESCO and to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us of the important internationalist legacy of the war from a Chinese perspective. In many ways the empowerment of Chinese scholars in these debates heralded the growing tide of decolonisation and the rise of what we now regard as the Global South.

China’s internationalisation during the war wasn’t just confined to intellectuals. Two of China’s main cities in the south-west at the time, Chongqing (the wartime capital) and Kunming, were bustling with foreign diplomats and soldiers who interacted with Chinese society at all levels.

Governments in exile such as the Korean Provisional Government were based in Chongqing, mirroring the eventual showdown occurring later in Europe after the war was over between the London and Lublin Poles.

The international can also emerge in unexpected ways. Back in 1993, as a young backpacker enjoying noodles in Kunming, I was approached by an old man asking me in perfect English whether I had any foreign coins he could add to his collection. I obliged and before hurrying away he quickly explained that he had picked up English as a boy chatting with US pilots based at the local airfield. Stories of the international in these casual encounters are yet to be revisited by historians.

On September 3, the day after Japan officially surrendered to China, a number of official events will commemorate the end of the war at the local, provincial and national level. Against the backdrop of a military parade attended by China’s top leaders (and only a few foreign ones), these will no doubt honour China’s wartime role, claiming to foster international peace while bolstering nationalism for its young amid an uneasy relationship with Japan.

While this process of commemoration is already taking place at sites such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, it might well be the moment to look beyond official accounts and find other ways to remember the international in what was probably the most nationalist of wars in China’s modern history.

Andres Rodriguez is a Lecturer of Modern Chinese History, China Studies Centre and Department of History at the University of Sydney. Image credit: CC by Marion Doss/Flickr

The 70th Anniversary of Japan’s surrender

Written by Hans Van de Ven.

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced in his first ever radio broadcast that he had instructed his cabinet ‘to communicate to the governments of the USA, UK, China, and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration’.

This was the Potsdam Declaration in which the Allies insisted that Japan surrender unconditionally. Emperor Hirohito added that all Japanese now must shoulder ‘the solemn obligation’ to ‘strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations’. In Chongqing, President Chiang Kaishek, then China’s leader, responded to Emperor Hirohito’s announcement in his own radio address on the same day, insisting that China should be guided by the Christian imperative ‘do unto others as one would like them do unto you’. He declared that China should ‘treat Japan with generosity and magnanimity’, a policy popularized with the slogan ‘repay evil with kindness’ (以德报怨). Seventy years on, what can we say about how far Japan and China have been able to live by these two solemn expressions of hope?

The first thing to note is that there has been no new war between China and Japan, to the great benefit of both countries. Japan has not been involved in any war at all, having adopted a self-denying constitution. China fought one large war, with the USA and South Korea in the 1950s, as well as smaller ones, with India in the 1960s and Vietnam in the 1970s, but not with Japan. Peace gave Japan the time to rebuild its economy with American assistance immediately after the war, making it one of the world’s most prosperous countries by the 1980s. China followed after Deng Xiaoping initiated his program of reform and opening up in 1978.

This long East Asian peace came about in part because the USA assumed the responsibility to police it, having learned during the Korean War that the price for destroying Communist China, as some initially preferred, would be too high. China and Japan too have worked at maintaining this peace, signing treaties, joining international organizations, developing business links, and promoting scholarly and cultural cooperation. The result is that over the last seven decades the expectation has sunk deep roots that peace rather than war is the normal state of affairs, even if tensions between China and Japan have grown stronger in recent years.

Secondly, both countries have found it difficult to make the present safe from the ghosts of the past. This is true for Japan, where right wingers prefer a new assessment of Japan’s role in WWII and a few deny even the Nanjing Massacre. But it was also very late in the day, only last year, that the PRC adopted 3 September as a national day of commemoration for China’s victory over Japan. This needs explaining.

China could have chosen another date. 9 September was the day when Japan surrendered its forces in China in 1945 in a carefully crafted ceremony that began at 9am. The hope of China’s leaders then surely was to turn the ‘ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month’, 9-9-9, in as solemn a moment in the nation’s calendar as ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’, the date in 1918 upon which the armistice that ended WWI began. When last year China’s leadership opted for 3 September rather than 9 September, it did so, first, because 9 September would have drawn too much attention to the Nationalists, their former enemies. It was to them, not the Communists, to whom the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Second, 3 September is when Victory over Japan Day is celebrated internationally. On that date in 1945, Japan’s highest political and military leaders surrendered to their Allied counterparts in Tokyo. The choice for 3 September is also meant to underscore that China was as important in defeating Japan as its Allies, and to suggest that, like them, it had stood on the side of the good.

China this year is going all out in commemorating the end of WWII because Beijing wants to use WWII to construct a new historical narrative, one in which joint resistance to Japanese aggression stands central, rather than the fight against domestic enemies as it did for so long. The positive side of this turn of events is that it gives a far more dignified space in Chinese society to all those who fought for China as members of the Nationalist government and its armed forces during the War of Resistance. The huge military parade conducted today also is meant to illustrate that China now has the military wherewithal of a great power and so can protect its population properly, important because for the last two centuries China suffered defeat after defeat and invasion after invasion.

This new stress on the significance of WWII, and on China’s place in it, elides significant ways in which WWII in China was different from elsewhere. The concept of the WWII is an American one. In the USA, President Franklin Roosevelt exploited it to mobilize a reluctant US public to support the war and to suggest that it would serve the creation of a post-war world order in line with US values and interests. During WWII, the British talked about ‘The Great War’ or just ‘The War’ and the Soviets about ‘The Great Patriotic War’, while the Chinese called it, as they still do, ‘The War of Resistance against Japan.’ The term WWII became current outside the USA only after the end of the fighting. As one British historian put it, ‘only in 1948 did the British government decide that it had just been fighting the “second world war”’.

There is no doubt of China’s importance in defeating Japanese aggression. It is true that the USA and the USSR delivered the decisive blows in 1945, with the US navy driving the Japanese back across the Pacific and the Soviets crushing Japan’s Kuantung Army in China’s Northeast. But before that China fought Japan virtually alone for many years, in fact paying a heavy price for assisting the UK and the USA in the recovery of Burma. Had China given up, WWII could well have ended very differently. The value of China in the WWII is beyond doubt.

China was different in part because it was internally divided: the Nationalists in Chongqing and the Communists in Yan’an, while bound together in a United Front, competed with each other, increasingly violently so. Local strongmen ruled Yunnan, Guangdong, Hunan, and Shanxi (山西) virtually autonomously. Various other regimes sought to develop a modus vivendi with Japanese overlordship.

China’s WWII, too, was never about the defeat of Japan alone, but also about creating a new China, visions for which were radically different. Serious discussion about what this new China might look like took place among historians, writers, journalists, philosophers, artists, political leaders, and the general public. These differences by 1945 had narrowed down to a choice between the Communists and the Nationalists, the two major forces that remained. In the end, all had to choose between the one or the other.

This explains why, when Japan fell and the USA and the UK declared the war over, the fighting continued in China. The Chinese Communists used WWII to mobilize rural society. Mao Zedong began WWII with around 30,000 troops. By 1945 he directed a force of one million men. The Communists by then controlled much of north China, ruling over some 100 million people. This outcome was the result of Mao’s policy of only waging small-scale guerrilla warfare against the Japanese while letting the Nationalists suffer the brunt of their attacks. There is no doubt that without WWII, the Communists would never have gained power. Mao acknowledged as much when in 1972 he told the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to stop apologizing for Japan’s invasion because without it the Communists would still be in the hills.

The Communists were the lucky inheritors of a victory to which they had not contributed a great deal. That is not to say that Beijing is wrong in finally giving WWII proper recognition. The new emphasis on internal reconciliation is far more preferable then what went before. However, the truth of the Communists’ role in WWII and the fact that under its rule so many suffered for so long – the Communists killed far more people than the Japanese – also calls for an attitude of sober humility and historical honesty, qualities that are lacking today.

Hans Van de Ven is Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. Image credit: CC by paukrus/Flickr.

Abe’s Subtle Apology: Can It Help Japan Become ‘Normal’?

Written by Niv Horesh.

Visitors to Japan can feel this is a country undergoing an identity crisis. After more than two decades of economic stagnation, falling birth rates and unstable governments, the Japanese have slowly become accustomed to the notion that the heady 1980s are long gone.

Back then, amid a real estate and stock exchange boom, there was widespread consternation in the West at the strength of Japanese industry and the cohesion of its society. Manga creativity and the Samurai codex were popularly celebrated far and wide along with the marvels of shinkansen (bullet trains). Lifelong employment, seniority pay and kaizen (continuous improvement) manufacturing slogans were widely cited as distinctly Japanese formulae for success; some economist analysts may have even persuaded the Japanese people that their country was indeed Namba Wan, the loanword for globally winning.

But China’s rise in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Japanese economy slumped into a prolonged recession, has forced the Japanese to reconsider the vitality of their post-war economic miracle. China today is by far a larger economy and holder of foreign currency reserves.  To be sure, most Chinese are infinitely poorer that the average Japanese. Japan’s highly urbanised landscape and wonderfully urbane social fabric still give off the feel of a mighty industrial powerhouse with little visible poverty and exemplary cleanliness extending even to the remotest of chikatetsu public toilets.

Yet, China is nowadays exercising the Japanese mind in ways that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and as a result some observers have noted greater eagerness on the part of Japanese elites to look culturally closer through Western eyes. That means the obsession of the 1980s with Japanese exceptional identity is passé. To the contrary, Shinzo Abe’s government has set its sights on turning Japan into a ‘normal’ country, and one aspect of that effort is the argument that Japan’s conduct in the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific War was not much different to the West’s colonial outlook in the early 20th century. Another more concrete aspect of this is the move towards rescinding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which enshrines pacifism, and turning the Japanese Self-Defence Forces into a fully-fledged army with long-range deployment capabilities.

Abe’s apology for Japan’s wartime conduct delivered this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War should be seen in that context. It was at times semantically bold in its expression of regret, and in other places phrased in a somewhat passive voice when describing the causes of wartime suffering. Remarkably, in stark contrast to what has become post-war creed in Germany for example, Abe simultaneously gave vent to right-wing apology fatigue: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise”.

As noted by eminent Japan specialist Tessa Morris-Suzuki, this was an apology carefully scripted for Western ears, and couched in a hidden grand narrative of historical revisionism, much more than it was a sincere outstretched arm to Japan’s neighbours. Nevertheless, considering that a few months before Abe’s speech it was still not entirely clear whether Abe would offer an apology at all, his speech is a step in the right direction for Japan.

Moreover, Abe’s second-term, foreign policy legacy may ultimately hinge on that apology. This is because Abe’s current moves to rescind Article 9 have touched off a popular furore and are stalled in the Diet. It is not just opposed by Japanese communists, but also by a large swathe of mainstream voters.

Similarly, Abe’s aim to resume nuclear power generation in the face of lingering safety concerns and the haunting memory of the Fukushima disaster is otherwise unnerving voters, as evidenced in popular protests surrounding the reopening of the Sendai Power Plant last week. Abe’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honoured, have far from exonerated the venue, and Emperor Akihito has religiously shunned it since acceding to the throne. Most alarmingly, Abe’s approval rates are falling because, despite the Governor of the Bank of Japan’s insistence on the viability of economic recovery, there is no clear sign yet that Abe’s famous ‘three-arrow’ approach has succeeded in pulling Japan out of its prolonged recession.

Apart from economic woes, underlying Japanese insecurity are festering maritime disputes as well as inconvenient longer historical memory not just of the two major Sino-Japanese wars that broke out in 1894 and 1931. After all, in pre-modern times, Japan had for the most part looked up to China culturally. In the context of Asian history, one might therefore contend that Japan as Namba Wan was a mere flash in the pan.

Since the property bubble burst in the late 1980s, the Japanese establishments have lurched between emphatic apologia, a brazen national-revival agenda and a passive-aggressive stance towards China and Korea over wartime remembrance. It is no accident that the first Japanese prime minister to officially apologise was Tomiichi Murayama of the Social Democratic Party (in office 1994-1996). His tenure was unusual in that almost invariably politicians from the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), or former members of that Party, have governed the country.

Historically, the LDP is a transmutation of the same ‘developmental-state’ elites that acquiesced in Japan’s invasion of China in 1936. However hard it may try to seek emotional affinity with the West nowadays, this LDP near-monopoly on power makes Japan look more akin to its East Asian neighbours than it might like to believe. In fact, one might even argue there is more laudable substance to Taiwan and South Korea’s younger democracies in that in these two, power transitions from right to left have been more sweeping.

Japan has every right of achieving ‘normalcy’ through, amongst other means, embracing that affinity with its East Asian neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea. It is also prudent in hedging against the possibility of China turning aggressive over the next decade. But Japan’s LDP elites have to accept that their country will never be popularly recognised as ‘normal’ by Westerners so long as its leaders’ narrative of the Asia Pacific War is laced with apology fatigue, worst still revisionism. In that sense, Japan will always be compared to how the other defeated powers of that war have come to face their past: Germany and Italy. For these reasons, Abe ought to be congratulated. In his official capacity, he maintained his predecessors’ apology in place, thereby adding to Japanese credibility overall, even if his own personal preferences might be different.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of the Modern History of China, the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by S Kaiser/Flickr.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: