China’s Relations with Japan Goes Down Memory Lane

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, rekindled Chinese people's memories of past atrocities. The Chinese leadership strongly condemned the visit, calling it absolutely intolerable.  A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, denounced Abe's action, saying: The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule.”  The statement went on to say that Abe brutally trampled on the feelings of the Chinese people and those of other victimized Asian countries.”  Such strong sentimental rhetoric, at least on the surface, runs against a realist understanding of international relations. It is often argued that nation-states' actions proceed from their interests, but China's actions surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine are driven by historical memory.

Since its normalization in 1972, China's relations with Japan have been guided by the philosophy of taking history as the mirror and looking forward to the future.  China's attitude towards Japan has been greatly shaped by its historical memories. This focus on past grievances makes old wounds slow to heal. Burgeoning economic engagement has not succeeded in mitigating these historical grievances. For China, the memories have been deeply internalized, leading to a philosophy of never forgetting national humiliation. 

In this context, it isn't wrong to state that China's relations with Japan go beyond the fixed contours of national interest and draw upon national memory and identity. Any Japanese act that is perceived as hostile reactivates Chinese memory of the wars and invasions that China suffered many years ago. Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are one example of acts that serve as reminders of a tragic past. For Japan, the Shrine marks an emblem of pride where the souls of Japanese soldiers have been enshrined. For China, the shrine is seen to be an enduring symbol of Japanese imperialist aggression. Thus, for the Chinese, the problem lies in the enshrinement of the souls of Japanese war criminals.

Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine triggered a new low in the present China-Japan relations. The 2002 visit of Junichiro Koizumi introduced a sudden chill into the preceding thirty years of normalization. Jiang Zemin, at a meeting in Mexico in October 2002, stressed that Koizumi should bear in mind that his visit to the shrine hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people.  He especially underscored the necessity to take history as a mirror and look toward the future.  This time around, China declared Abe as a person who is not welcome, and never will be  to Chinese soil.

One might expect economic integration and growing bilateral contact to mitigate these grievances. However, despite deepened economic integration and cultural exchanges between the two countries, there is still a strong anti-Japanese political culture in China. What seems to be true is that for China, the brutality of the World War II period produced many sensitive historical symbols. When these are triggered, whether deliberately or unintentionally, China's attitude towards Japan sours further. These historical issues and negative references to past suffering pose a major barrier for China to reconcile with Japan and for enduring peace in the Asia-Pacific.

Start typing and press Enter to search