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e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

The Future of Japan-China Relations from an Historical Perspective Tsugio Ide Director, Asian Communication Juku, JCMS [Date of Issue: 31/July/2018 No.0281-0282-1083]

Date of Issue: 31/July/2018

The Future of Japan-China Relations from an Historical Perspective

Tsugio Ide
Director, Asian Communication Juku, JCMS


With this year marking the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China and our economic relationship continuing to advance, here I review the long history of exchange between Japan and China while also arguing that Oriental thought holds the key to resolving global environmental issues, growing social disparities, and other issues confronting the 21st century market economy system.


40th anniversary of Japan-China Peace Treaty and the advancing bilateral economic relationship

This year marks the 46th anniversary of the restoration of relations between Japan and China and the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. Trade relations between the two countries have made great strides over that time. In 1990, Japan's trade with China accounted for only 3.5 percent of our total trade, 7.4 percent in 2000 (compared to the 27.4 percent and 25 percent figures for Japan's trade with the United States in the same years), but by 2017 this had reached 21.6 percent (compared to 15.1 percent with the United States). Along with the progress that China has made toward market economy through its reform and opening-up policy and its development into the world's second largest economic power, Japan-China economic relations too have deepened markedly.

However, recent public opinion surveys put those Japanese citizens feeling friendly toward China at less than 10 percent, 21 percent in the case of those Chinese feeling friendly toward Japan, the lowest levels in the last decade. Factors behind that negativity include issues in relation to territory and territorial waters, economic friction, and differing perceptions of history, while the lack of effort by both leaders to develop a dialogue has also had a significant effect. At the same time, with more people moving between the two countries and trade and economic interdependence increasing, bilateral relations can only continue to deepen. Politicians too are at last beginning to recognize this reality and wake up to their own responsibility.

History of Japan-China exchange

Here I would like to take a slightly broader perspective and trace the history of Japan-China exchange—looking backward to look forwards, as it were.

Japan first appears in China's official history back in the third century in references to the situation in “the country of Wa” (as Japan was called in ancient China) and the existence of Himiko, Queen of the Kingdom of Yamatai, found in the “Account of the Wa” section of The History of the Wei Dynasty. In 712, the Kojiki (“Records of Ancient Matters,” Japan's oldest historical record) recorded that the scholar Wani who visited Japan from Baekje in southwestern Korea during the reign of the 15th Ōjin Emperor (conventionally considered to have run from the end of the fourth century into the early 5th century, although no firm historical dates can be assigned) presented the Emperor with the Analects and the Thousand Character Classic as tributes.

Chinese characters came to Japan in the form of manyōgana (an early Japanese syllabary composed of Chinese characters used phonetically) which evolved into hiragana, spreading out into Japanese culture. Traffic between Japan and China in ancient times took place over three centuries in the form of Japanese envoys dispatched to the Sui court in 603 and to the Tang court between 630 and 894. As Japanese culture evolved and developed from the Heian period onward, exchange between the two countries continued, including the transmission of tea, Zen priests going backwards and forwards, the use of Southern Sung coins as currency, and trade between Japan and Ming China through Ningbo.

Tonami Mamoru, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University and a scholar of Oriental history, noted in What is China to Japan various turning points in the Japanese view of China: (1) Tributes and respect—the Yamatai Kingdom and the country of Wa; (2) An aspiration and a model—Asuka and Heian; (3) Advanced and esteemed—from Kamakura to Edo; (4) Equal and disdained—from Meiji to early Showa; and (5) Mixture of esteem and aversion—from mid-Showa onward.

Exchange during the Asuka and Heian eras began with Ono no Imiko delivering to the Sui court a famous letter from Japan's Prince Shōtoku which began “The Son of Heaven where the sun rises [Japan], to the Son of Heaven where the sun sets [China], may good health be with you” in 607 and staying on as an envoy. Abe no Nakamaro went to study in Tang China, remaining for many years and even becoming a governor there before finally deciding to return to Japan out of homesickness (expressed in the poem, “As I look out into the vast expanse, can this be the same moon that I saw rise in Kasuga behind Mount Mikasa?”). Unfortunately, his ship was lost at sea, and his friend Li Bai, believing that Abe no Nakamaro had drowned, wrote a eulogy for him entitled “Weeping for Chao Heng” (as Abe no Nakamaro was known in China). Their friendship reminds us of the warm relationship that existed between the two countries at the time.

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), the porcelain symbolized by the town of Jingdezhen was transmitted to Japan, and those ceramicists who could create works that most closely imitated those from China were regarded as Japan's masters in this field. “Along the River during the Qingming Festival” depicts the streets of Kaifeng, capital of the Northern Song dynasty, showing haulers, money changers and eating houses. Japanese scholars of Chinese history see the modern era as having arrived in China during the Song dynasty. The Song dynasty's influence on faraway Japan is depicted in many works from the Muromachi through to the Edo period in paintings and drawings of views in and around the city of Kyoto.

Neo-Confucianism, an academic system derived from Confucianism, was introduced into Japan as a discipline officially recognized by the Tokugawa government (1603-1867), but Japanese Confucian philosopher Ogyū Sōrai (1666-1728) stressed the need to return to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius as the foundation of Confucianism, while Ōshio Heihachirō (1793-1837), who studied the doctrines of Wang Yangming, put into practice the unity of knowledge and action advocated in Wang's masterwork by leading the peasantry to rise up against oppression.

During the period from Meiji through to early Showa, the modernization of Japan wrought by the Meiji Restoration brought many Chinese to Japan to learn how they might modernize their own country, but after the Russo-Japan War, Japan failed to understand the meaning of the warning in Yale University Professor Asakawa Kanichi's Crisis for Japan (1909) and slipped from the trajectory of world history. Following the 21 Demands of 1915, Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen left Japan, noting that “now the question remains whether Japan will be the hawk of the Western imperialism of the rule of Might, or the tower of morality of the Orient. This is the choice which lies before the people of Japan.” Unfortunately, Japan chose the route of the Manchurian incident and the Sino-Japan War.

In his work The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) paid his respects to famous Chinese places in noting that “Matsushima is indeed the most beautiful place in all Japan! It can easily hold its own with Lake Tung-ting and Lake Xi.” The 1901 song Hakone Hachiri, on the other hand, noted that “Hakone is a world-famous impassably steep mountain, incomparably steeper than Hangu Pass … incomparably narrower than the Shushan Road,” indicative of the arrogance of the Meiji period.

Many Japanese have added a touch of light to the history of modern Japan-China exchange, nevertheless, including Professor Fujino Genkurō, who instructed Lu Xun in his days at the Sendai Medical School (which later became Tohoku University), Uchiyama Kanzō, owner of the Uchiyama Bookstore which assisted the publication of works by Lu Xun, and Tōten Miyazaki, Umeya Shōkichi and Inukai Tsuyoshi, who supported Sun Yat-sen's independence movement.

Oriental thought and long-lasting companies

A group of Chinese business trainees who were recently in Japan asked me why there are thousands of Japanese companies with a 200 or 300 year history. I pointed them to The Analects and the Abacus by Shibusawa Eichi, the father of Japanese industry, in which he explains the role of these two elements in business and the 300 years of peace during the Edo period, suggesting that the answer lies in the importance that Oriental thought places on balancing ethics and profit.

The secret to long-lasting companies lies in Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought. The advance of economic globalization has faced us with the need to find solutions to global environmental issues and growing social disparities and to work out how to sustain the 21st century market economy system. I believe that many clues can be found in the Confucian and Buddhist elements of Oriental thought, including Confucius, Mencius and Hung Ying-Ming.

The international roles and responsibilities of Japan and China

With China continuing to advance as the world's second-largest economic power, the Xi Jinping administration has looked back at the struggles of modern Chinese history since the Opium Wars and called for the rebuilding of the Chinese people, working to make China a moderately prosperous society, dealing with the three agricultural issues (rural areas, farmers, agriculture), building advanced modern industries, solving environmental issues, and pursuing the “One Belt, One Road” development strategy. The administration's success will be judged by the extent to which it can make headway on these issues.

As China pursues its modernization process, Japan must (1) recall the long history of exchange between our countries, (2) evaluate and learn from the successes and failures of Japan's own modernization history, (3) exchange views on using our shared Oriental thought to overcome the flaws of today's market economy, and (4) cast forward to a bright future for the bilateral relationship. Not only will this lead to coexistence and co-prosperity, but it will also help both countries to fulfill their responsibilities and roles in world history.


About the Author
Tsugio Ide
Director, Asian Communication Juku, JCMS

Entered the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI; now METI) in 1967. Served as First Secretary and Councilor in the Delegation of Japan to the OECD, and Director General of the Small Business Department in MITI's SME Agency. He also served at the Economic Planning Agency (EPA; now the Cabinet Office) as the EPA representative on the Bank of Japan Policy Board, Director General of the Social Policy Bureau, and Vice-Minister for International Economic Affairs. He subsequently switched to academia, becoming a professor at Keio University and professor and dean at Nihon University Business School (NBS). In the international relations arena, he was the chair of China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) Working Group, and Honorary Secretary of the ISBC (International Small Business Congress) Steering Committee.


(For the Japanese version of this article)


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