The announcement by the Japanese government to buy the three privately owned islands belonging to the grouping referred to as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China has aroused great opposition in China, which is a claimant to the group of islands (together with Taiwan). Besides territorial disputes, several unresolved historical issues (Nanjing massacre, comfort women, school text books) frequently strain relations in East Asia. Why have these issues not been resolved and why are they still powerful enough to lead to outbreaks of nationalism and tensions? Will these tensions ease in the near future?
Why reconciliation has not taken place
Chinese media often portray Japan’s lack of a genuine acknowledgement and apology for the war crimes as the sole reason for the absence of reconciliation. However, after the ending of Second World War Japanese foreign policy was heavily dependent on the US. After the Korean War and until the rapprochement between China and the US, Japan served as a bulwark against communism and as a US military base and ally in the region. Therefore, reconciliation as it happened in Europe, was not a priority and as such not pushed for by the US. Also, China’s main concern was its domestic situation, namely the consolidation of the state and industrialization. Seeking an apology from Japan was not a high priority.
In Japan, changing conservative governments did not push for further reconciliation. Many exhibited nationalism and refused to fully acknowledge the crimes committed. The interdependence between the Northeast Asian nations, which was less pronounced than in Europe, as well as the geographical situation allowed for relations to be resumed without coming to terms with the past. China became the largest recipient of Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the post-Cold War period which it had received since 1979. This fitted into the Japanese foreign policy strategy characterized by financial compensation for the crimes committed during and before the Second World War.
After the 1995 nuclear test in China and the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis tensions rose and historical issues together with suspicion re-emerged. Visits of the Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and other members of the government to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial dedicated to Japanese soldiers who died in war, led to the suspension of bilateral meetings by Beijing and Seoul. The increasing economic and military power of China on one side, along with the economic stagnation of Japan on the other continues to deepen mutual suspicion and the perception of threat.
Even though the relations between Japan and South Korea have developed differently to Sino-Japanese ties, the historical issues are similar. Both China and South Korea still criticize the lack of compensation and acknowledgement regarding the ‘comfort women’, who were abducted by Japan before and during Second World War from China, South Korea and other occupied states and forced into sexual slavery. The unresolved territorial dispute with Japan over the islets called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan is somewhat comparable to that between China and Japan, creating a gap between Japan on the one side and South Korea and China on the other.
History and identity
Three main issues help us understand the intensity of the disputes until now. First, the disputes remain highly emotional and tend to neglect differences between the events before and during Second World War and the current disputes. Second, the unresolved historical issues have assumed an important role for the construction of national identity. In China, these issues fit into the discourse of victimization and the ‘century of humiliation’ which is followed by its current re-emergence. In Japan, its recent history has led to the emphasis on a pacific identity and has shaped its foreign policy focused on economic cooperation and aid with little involvement in security matters.
The third issue is that Japan and China both see each other as the ‘other’, a negation of their respective identity, as academics have argued before. Japan perceives China as a growing super power which is increasingly assertive and trying to dispute Japan’s position as the regional leader. The growing Chinese military expenditure and the modernization and expansion especially of the navy only add to this perception. China, on the other hand, consistently feels reminded of Japan’s imperialist past and considers Japan’s plans to buy three of the disputed islands a clear affront. South Korea shares this perception of Japan as the ‘other’. Due to the importance of history for each state’s self-conception and identity it is a topic no state wants to compromise on.
Prospects of reconciliation
The above issues indicate that history is a crucial part of national identity in the East Asian region. This significance of history for identity is further underlined by the recent protests of Hong Kong citizens against a ‘patriotic education’ plan by the Chinese government in Hong Kong. Nationalism founded on history has been growing together with assertiveness and has increased tensions between China and Japan. It is because of this role of history that the conflict cannot be resolved easily. Meetings of historians from both states aiming at resolving the historical disputes were unsuccessful and subsequently suspended. Whilst an agreement on a common version of (pre-) Second World War history could be a first step toward improving mutual ties, full reconciliation is unlikely to happen due to the melange of nationalism and historical memory. The only way forward would appear to be measures to increase trust and confidence. But this would require political will at the top levels in all East Asian countries.
This article by Julia Ewert first appeared on the website of EU-Asia Centre.