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Heginbotham: Sino-Japanese Dispute 'Very Tough' to Resolve

Interviewee: Eric Heginbotham
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 19, 2005

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Eric Heginbotham, a Council expert on Chinese, Japanese, and Korean affairs, says the wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China is only the latest manifestation of rising nationalism and outraged public opinion in both Japan and China. That volatile mix, he says, will make it increasingly difficult for the leadership on either side to compromise.

There have been three consecutive weekends of street protests in China against Japan’s approval of a new school history book that glosses over Japan’s occupation of China. Efforts to negotiate a reduction in tensions have so far failed. “I think it’s going to be tough to resolve them,” Heginbotham says. “It’s going to be tough for either leader to back down now. They’ve basically staked mutually incompatible positions and neither one really has the political maneuvering room to back down.”

Heginbotham, a Council senior fellow in Asian studies, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 18, 2005.


How did Chinese-Japanese relations get to this point?

The problems have roots that go back at least as far as World War II. More recently, what we’ve seen over the last week and a half is the culmination of a downward spiral that one could date to 2001 and has been, in many ways, growing progressively worse over the last several years. In 2001, [Japanese] Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi began his annual visits to [the] Yasukuni [Shrine].

That’s the memorial to Japan’s war dead?

It is the shrine to Japan’s war dead, most of them from World War II, but also the war with China that began in 1931.

What irritates the Chinese is that the shrine also memorializes war criminals?

There are a couple of things. First of all, yes, it memorializes war criminals. And I think here it is important to remember, just to highlight the fact that this history is still relevant to political issues today, that these so-called Class-A war criminals were enshrined there not in 1945 or ’46, but in 1978 in a secret midnight ceremony.

There’s one other issue with Yasukuni, and that is that there are all kinds of depictions of history there. They have extensive web-postings. According to their interpretations of events, the Pacific War was largely launched to rid Asia of Western colonialism. The [1937-38] Nanjing Massacre [in which an estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed by Japanese troops] is completely omitted. In fact, it says that after the decisive rout of Chinese forces, people of the city were safe to live their lives normally. There’s all kinds of historical material in Yasukuni that anyone, not just the Chinese or the Koreans, would find appalling.

China and Japan normalized relations in 1972. But things began to sour in 2001?

I would say one could date the current downward spiral perhaps to Koizumi’s 2001 visit to the shrine. It was also in 2001 that this new middle-school history textbook first appeared that whitewashed much of Japan’s history. It glossed over the worst aspects of the Pacific War and the invasion of China.

Some people have made the point that the textbook is just one of many. There’s no one official history book, is there?

That’s correct. And in fact, there’s been reform of the whole handling of historical textbooks to include a greater variety of views, so, in a sense, the appearance of more conservative textbooks was the outcome of an effort that was intended not so much to liberalize the system but to introduce a greater variety of views. And certainly, at least technically or theoretically, that could have opened the door to a more complete or empathetic understanding of these wartime issues.

That textbook in question- I believe it was adopted by only one middle school- was approved by the Education Ministry. It’s available in bookstores around Japan, and it has sold many, many copies.

Why are the protests occurring now, if the book was approved in 2001?

We had the first round of textbook approvals in 2001, which included this new history. In 2005, just in the last month, there was a second round. The organization that wrote this book came back with a new version that’s even more cryptic about Japan’s past misdeeds. And, according to most accounts, the general trend in the other textbooks is also toward glossing over a lot of these wartime details. All mention in all textbooks of the “comfort women” [Chinese and Korean women forced to engage in sex with Japanese troops] was taken out. Apparently, the book no longer even gives estimates of the number of Chinese killed at Nanjing and, in general, they just give shorter shrift to the war and, in particular, Japan’s war guilt.

Having said that, I have to confess that I haven’t been able to find these texts yet, even in Japanese. I’ve seen the 2001 history; I’ve read portions of it. It is quite bad. I haven’t seen the new ones, but from reports from people who have, they’re apparently worse than the 2001 set. And there’s some speculation, including by the folks who wrote the new revisionist history, that it will be adopted by more schools this time around.

What set off the demonstrations in China?

We have these historical issues. They have gotten worse over time. They resulted in the suspension of summit talks between the leaders of both states. I believe the leaders haven’t met in a formal way since at least 2001. The Chinese basically embargoed those summit meetings as a result of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni.

So, all of this was getting hotter, even over the last year. The historical issues were heating up, and they were also beginning to mix with a variety of other, some may say more tangible, conflicts between the two countries. Those included disputes over oil fields in the East China Sea, basically the dividing lines between the two countries. There are continuing disputes over the islands called the Senkaku Islands in Japanese and Diaoyu Islands in Chinese. That dispute has been going on a long time, but it remains quite hot.

Do you think the Chinese leaders organized the protests? They don’t usually like demonstrations.

They certainly don’t like to have demonstrations. Demonstrations have always, at least over the last decade, been a double-edged sword for the Chinese government. On the one hand, of course, they do like nationalism and, at a certain level, they certainly try to cultivate national sentiment. On the other hand, there’s no question they don’t like people in the streets, especially when they’re not organizing it and quite tightly controlling it.

And right now there are lots of demonstrations in China against the government’s economic policies, right?

Right. That’s been true for years, actually. Every year, there are probably hundreds of small-scale demonstrations. There have not been wide-scale demonstrations like we saw in Tiananmen [Square] since 1989, but there are protests by local Chinese groups. There were demonstrations last week by retired military officers protesting for better retirement benefits and pensions in Beijing.

Where do you think this rift is headed? Is it in either government’s interest to push this to a breaking point?

In the long term, both countries certainly have an interest in putting the relationship back on a business-like footing. And, actually, prior to this latest eruption, both governments had already expressed that interest. The timing on this was sort of unfortunate and, I believe, in a lot of ways accidental, following the announcement of the textbook revisions. The relationship had been poor, but both countries had expressed an interest in getting the relationship back on track, partly because both states have such an enormous economic interest in smooth relations.

Describe their economic interests.

They’re enormous trading partners. Japan’s largest export market is China. One in five investment dollars flowing into China is Japanese. At least in the short term, this is a relationship of interdependence. Pretty much all of Japan’s growth, to the extent that it has had any over the last couple of years, is accounted for by the increase in exports to China. The Japanese understand this. Not only do their immediate economic interests argue for a stable political relationship, but they also understand that, in order to accomplish other regional goals, such as East Asian economic integration, and other, larger free-trade agreements, it’s necessary for the two big players to be on speaking terms.

Are you surprised this spat has gone on this long?

I am. The relationship has, of course, had rocky, turbulent times in the past over any number of practical, historical, or emotional issues, but they’ve always been able to get the relationship on track, and in many ways improve the quality of the relationship. Prior to 2001, they had been moving gradually toward institutionalizing the relationship [via] summit meetings, other get-togethers, through the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] plus-three formula, [an arrangement under which] China, South Korea, and Japan had instituted their own trilateral foreign and economic ministers meetings. And they’ve done a lot to improve the relationship; trade ties had been deepening.

I think what distinguishes this downward spiral from previous ones- and now I’m talking not about the last ten days, but about the last several years- and this is why I have to temper my optimism quite a bit on the longer-term prognosis, is that you’ve seen a gradual rise of nationalism in both countries and also, maybe even more importantly, an increased role of public opinion in decision-making. It’s gotten harder for both governments to ignore public opinion. In China, obviously, there are now many more outlets for news, so when nationalists- even at the grassroots level- observe some kind of behavior on Japan’s part that they disagree with, they can publicize it much more easily and put a lot of pressure on Beijing to at least make statements, if not do more. That has been on display over the last several years.

In Japan’s case, even though it’s been a functioning democracy for many decades, structural political reform and also changes in the political culture have made it a much less bureaucratically dominated society, and politics have become much more popular. So the prime minister in Japan is no longer chosen behind closed doors between faction heads. And he can influence outcomes within the party, and within the parliamentary system, by appealing directly to his own public base; we’ve seen Koizumi doing this in the past.

Both of these elements are having an effect, and the leaders in both countries, unfortunately, have staked very tough positions on some of these historical issues. They’re really playing, perhaps, to the nationalists in both cases. I think, in a way, Koizumi has played to the nationalists more than the Chinese have.

The strains could continue for some time?

I think it’s going to be tough to resolve them. It’s going to be tough for either leader to back down now. They’ve basically staked mutually incompatible positions, and neither one really has the political maneuvering room to back down. A new prime minister or especially a new party in Japan might have a lot more flexibility, and one could imagine change in China that may have the same result, but I think this is going to be a pretty tough issue in the mid to long term. I don’t see these riots continuing for the coming weeks and months. I think they’ll put a lid on this and contain the damage this time around, but the question is whether the two countries can reach a more fundamental agreement on some of these fundamental issues.

I just want to add one other thing to make sure that this isn’t all in the Chinese-Japanese context. Something that’s been neglected in the coverage is that the Koreans, in the last several years, have probably been at least as or, arguably, more, worked up than the Chinese about some of these historical issues with Japan. Some of their protests have been more dramatic, with people cutting off their fingers, for instance. Even in the last week, the South Korean government dispatched a delegation of lawmakers to Tokyo to protest the treatment of history and get some explanation from the Japanese.

What is the issue here?

The Japanese occupied Korea after the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. The Japanese were a different type of colonizer. Interestingly enough, they treated [the Koreans] in some ways very much like citizens- too much like citizens. They forced them to change all their names and take on Japanese names. It was a very different sort of philosophy of colonization, but it was quite harsh and included brutal tactics. And that history is also glossed over in these [history] texts.

There are also some ongoing territorial issues left over basically from World War II. The dispute that recently got some coverage in the United States was over an island, Tukto in Korean or Takeshima in Japanese. At least one of the new textbooks stated categorically that it was Japanese territory. The Koreans de facto own it; it’s still contested by the Japanese, but the Koreans live on it.

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