The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion >  International



70 Years of Post-War Relations between Japan, China and South Korea
—A Message to Asia and the Youth

Satoshi Amako
Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In what way should we reflect on this anniversary? This question forces us to consider the war's long history. Based on the many opinions regarding World War II, it is evident that there are still individuals in Japan who believe Japan's military campaign was not a “war of aggression.” This historical perspective has received harsh criticism from Asian countries such as China and South Korea, and from Western countries. The fact that Japan as a nation has not established a clear stance on World War II 70 years after the event is deplorable. In regards to the causes of the war, it may be possible to interpret Japan's role in World War II as fighting for the “liberation of Asia” against Western invasion. However, there is no doubt that in the end, Japan violated Asian countries and its citizens, and initiated a “war of aggression” to forcibly increase its own sphere of influence, recklessly challenging and losing to the West. Beginning with the Murayama Statement, leaders of Japan have offered their sincere apologies for this aggression. However, opposing opinions within Japan have led some to question the sincerity of these statements. Japan must reach a consensus regarding its position on the war and communicate it through Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

We also must consider how we should look back at the past 70 years and how we can create a better future. As a Japanese born immediately after the war, I want to express my sentiments to the people of China, South Korea and the world. We sought to build a new nation after the “abominable war” came to an end and a new constitution was created that dismantled Japan's militaristic regime and renounced war. We were destitute, but we understood the importance of peace. I am proud that post-war Japan has never participated in another war and has grown into a peaceful and prosperous nation. I did not experience war, but I believe that historical facts concerning the war are something I need to take responsibility for as a Japanese citizen.

Japan-China relations were normalized in 1972, the same year I entered graduate school. Thanks to leaders such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Kakuei Tanaka, and Masayoshi Ohira, Japan and China were able to overcome complex issues concerning Taiwan and war reparations and normalize diplomatic relations. I was deeply moved by the progressive Zhou Enlai when he declared China would renounce its claims for war reparations. The economic development and modernization of China which began in the Deng Xiaoping era brought with it many issues, but following Enlai's declaration, there was a strong feeling among Japanese political and financial leaders that “now is the time to repay our debts to China.” After industrialized countries imposed economic sanctions on China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, it was Japan that emphasized “we cannot isolate China internationally” and was the first country to lift sanctions, restarting yen financing. Japan was also the first country to agree with China and support its membership in the WTO.

Regarding Japan-South Korean relations, interpretations of Japan’s colonial rule have been debated on since the end of World War II. However, diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965 and Japan went on to support the modernization of South Korea by actively providing funding and technology. The Japan-South Korea joint declaration made after the Obuchi-Kim leaders’ summit in 1998 opened a new era for Japan-South Korea relations. Japan apologized to South Korea for its colonialist rule and South Korea praised Japan for its peaceful path of development after the war. The two countries vowed to build a future together as partners. The 2002 World Cup was then cohosted by Japan and South Korea. The merits of cohosting the World Cup have been debated, but to see Koreans supporting Japan in Seoul and Japanese supporting South Korea in Tokyo was deeply moving. The “Korean Wave” later seen in Japan characterized new relations between the countries. Of course, the tension and emotional conflict between the two countries over issues such as “comfort women” cannot be understated. However, perhaps we should emphasize that our countries have made a significant first step forward to mutual understanding, co-existence and prosperity.

Returning to Japan-China relations, in the 2000s, China experienced remarkable growth and Japan’s economy stagnated after the collapse of the Bubble Economy. Many arguments were made in Japan warning of China's growing power. This sentiment grew stronger during the Koizumi era and worsened discord between Japan and China. Despite this trend, many argued for the improvement and development of Japan-China relations. This call for improved relations led to the first Abe administration's “ice-breaking” trip in 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Japan in 2007, President Hu Jintao's “ice-melting” trip to Japan in 2008, and the announcement of the “Joint Statement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Comprehensive Promotion of a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests.” However, the Chinese fishing boat collision incident in seas near the Senkaku Islands in the autumn of 2010 and China’s “nationalization of the Senkaku Islands” in 2012 led to a rapid deterioration of Japan-China relations. Events planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations in the autumn of 2012 were cancelled. Feeling that something must be done, I hosted private symposiums in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Fukuoka to mark the 40th Anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. The events were a huge success.

Looking back on post-war Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations, it seems like there have always been issues. However, the wisdom of certain individuals and the bonds between people has enabled us to overcome or minimize these issues. The phrase “minor differences of opinion must be ironed out for the common good” was used when diplomatic relations were normalized between Japan and China. This phrase represents the wisdom of individuals who helped normalize relations. From the overall perspective of Japan-China relations and Japan-South Korea relations, my opinion is that the Senkaku and Takeshima disputes are “minor differences.” At some point, these became “major differences.” For several years, there has been increased discord between the people of Japan and China and Japan and South Korea. What should be done about this? First, we need to recognize fighting among our countries does not bring any benefits and cooperation brings many. We need to remember that a peaceful international environment (specifically peaceful and cooperative relations between Japan and China and Japan and South Korea) was indispensable for the remarkable development of China and South Korea. The cooperation and support of Japan will be extremely important in addressing problems faced by China and South Korea today, including slow economic growth, pollution in big cities, waste treatment, energy efficiency, and a falling birthrate and ageing population.

Second, we need to make sure military tensions do not escalate. It is true that the Abe Administration has slightly increased the self-defense budget. However, the aim of this policy is to strengthen Japan’s counteroffensive capabilities in the event of an attack by other countries, and it does not mean that Japan intends to attack other countries. Faced with China's remarkable military capabilities, the vast majority of Japanese people do not believe Japan can oppose China militarily, nor should it attempt to do so. There is absolutely no need for China to worry about an attack from Japan. However, if China continues to increase its military capabilities, anti-China sentiment in Japan will grow stronger and arguments regarding the threat China poses to Japan will gain traction. This anti-China sentiment will no doubt be used to accelerate Japan’s enhancement of its defensive capabilities and eventually increase the possibility of Japan’s pacifist constitution being revised. There are no serious security issues in regards to Japan-South Korea relations, but the security conflict between Japan and China is a serious problem for South Korea. The most serious challenge from a national security standpoint is the construction of a framework for dialog on Northeast Asian security between Japan, China and South Korea (including the United States). Japan will certainly respond positively if China's position on Japan softens. Under this framework, anti-China and anti-South Korea sentiments will weaken, leading to more positive relations.

Third, I want to discuss issues concerning historical awareness. After the war, the vast majority of Japanese people regarded the “abominable war” as a “war of aggression,” and vowed to never enter such a war again. In recent years, Prime Minister Abe has at the very least tried to avoid making comments romanticizing the war. What’s more, Japan is no longer a society that blindly follows one leader or organization and not a single approved textbook (including the “revised history textbooks”) romanticizes the war. There are claims in China and South Korea that Japanese history textbooks “deny that Japan's military campaigns in World War II was a war of aggression,” but this is a huge misunderstanding. The pre-screening “candidate textbooks” contain a wide array of content, but the approved textbooks do not make this claim. There are many opinions in Japan, but the country recognizes the war as a mistake and has pursued a path of peaceful development. Since the normalization of diplomatic relations, Japan and South Korea and Japan and China have made various efforts to improve relations and promote peace. Civil exchange, in particular, has reached unprecedented levels. We need to use this as a platform to strengthen mutual understanding, recover trust, and develop positive Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relations.

Satoshi Amako
Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University

[Current position]
Professor on the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University. Director of Waseda Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, Waseda University (Representative of NIHU Contemporary China Area Studies). Program Leader for the MEXT Global COE Program (Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration). He was born in Okayama Prefecture in 1947. His fields of specialization are Contemporary China and Asian International Relations.

Professor Amako graduated from the School of Education, Waseda University. He earned his PhD in International Relations from the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University. He became Professor at Waseda University in April 2002 after serving as Assistant Professor at University of the Ryukyus; as Professor in the Faculty of International Culture, Kyoritsu Women’s University; and in the School of International Politics, Economics and Communication, Aoyama Gakuin University. He served as Dean of the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University from 2006 to 2008. He was a visiting professor to American University in 1999, the University of British Columbia in 2009, and the Australian National University in 2010. From 1986 to 1988 he worked as a specialist researcher at the Embassy of Japan in China, and from 1999 to 2001 he served as President of the Japan Association for Asian Studies.

[Major publications]
Asian Regional Integration Series [Ajiachiiki Togokoza], 12 volumes (Chief editor, Keiso Shobo, 2012, Results of the MEXT Global COE Program (Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration)); On the Lookout for a Transition in the History of Japan-China Relations [Nicchu Rekishino “Kawarime” o Tembo suru] (Editor, Keiso Shobo, 2013); Conflict between Japan and China—Interpreting the China of Xi Jinping [Nicchu Tairitsu—Shu Kimpei no Chugoku o Yomu] (Chikumashobo, 2013, translated into Korean); History of the People’s Republic of China [Chuka Jinmin Kyowakoku-shi] (Iwanami Shoten, 2013).