Future of Asia, Global Pairings

China’s Japan-bashing

Is there any hope that China and Japan could bury the hatchet and have friendly relations?

Credit: Vmaster Shutterstock.com


  • Is there any hope that China and Japan could bury the hatchet and have friendly relations?
  • China’s modern anti-­Japanese sentiment is only a recent phenomenon.
  • China’s military spending of $216 billion in 2014 was almost five times that of Japan's $46 billion.
  • In 1978, Japan even helped the Chinese economy through financial assistance and technology transfer.
  • With China’s shaky economy and political fragility, we are likely to see more Chinese nationalism.

China is at it again, bashing Japan, its favorite whipping boy. But as China regularly whips itself up into frenzy over Japan, it is perhaps easy to forget that China’s modern anti­-Japanese sentiment is only a recent phenomenon.

China’s bashing this time round is because of new laws that will allow Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in “collective self-defense.”

The laws, pushed through the Japanese parliament by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, allow the SDF to help allies like the United States who may be at war, help keep sea lanes open, participate in peacekeeping activities around the world and attempt hostage rescues by armed means.

This new collective self defense initiative, strongly supported by the United States government, amounts to a reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution which prohibits it from using force to resolve conflicts except in cases of self­-defense.

While the majority of Japanese citizens are reportedly against collective self-defense, this initiative represents a very modest expansion of the role of the SDF in the direction of Japan becoming a “normal country.”

China perturbed

Nevertheless, the Chinese government reacted with predictable hostility. The country’s defense ministry said the laws “run counter to the trend of the times that upholds peace, development and cooperation.”

And China’s foreign ministry urged Japan to “take seriously the security concerns of its Asian neighbors,” and “act with discretion on military and security issues.”

The Chinese official news agency Xinhua said “Japan’s military stance has potentially become more dangerous.”

This is the same Chinese government that increased its military spending by 167% between 2005 and 2014. Its military spending of $216 billion in 2014 was almost five times that of Japan’s $46 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

It is also the same Chinese government that held a giant military parade on Tiananmen Square on September 3, 2015, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

China’s strong anti-Japanese sentiment

The point of the event was to show off to the world its new military equipment, including the DF­21D, the so-called “carrier killer” anti­-ship ballistic missile.

The Chinese government also made clear that it was not happy with the Japanese Prime Minister’s speech in mid­-August on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

In short, China has a very big case of anti-­Japanese sentiment. This is in sharp contrast to the reconciliation that Japan has managed to achieve with other wartime enemies like the United States, Australia, the Philippines and Singapore.

U.S. President, Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently said, “the relationship between our two countries over the last 70 years stands as a model of the power of reconciliation.”

How did it all start?

Without seeking to minimize the atrocities that the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted on China, nor the legalistic and sometimes ambiguous nature of Japanese apologies, it is important to understand the history of anti­-Japanese sentiment in China, drawing on the work of historians like Ezra Vogel.

During the 1970s and 1980s, China and Japan actually had good relations. In 1972, Mao Zedong accepted Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression, and expressed gratitude for Japan’s help in defeating Chiang Kai­shek’s Kuomintang.

And following Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to Japan in 1978, relations between the two countries improved greatly. Japan played a key role in the take­off of the backward Chinese economy by offering financial assistance, corporate investments and technology transfer.

But things changed quickly after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, even though Japan was the first country to restore high-level relations with China following the diplomatic rupture with advanced countries.

One lesson that the Chinese leadership drew from the Tiananmen Square incident was that the Communist Party needed to make greater efforts to promote nationalism to improve support for the Party.

So under China’s next leader, Jiang Zemin, China embarked on a massive campaign of patriotic education. Students and citizens were taught how the Communist Party was leading China’s recovery from its “century of humiliation” (from the opium wars to the end of the civil war in 1949).

At the heart of this patriotic education was anti­-Japanese propaganda, since Japan was the country that inflicted the most suffering on China.

But other factors weakened China’s burgeoning friendship with Japan. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, China and Japan lost a common enemy that had helped unite them.

Friends turn to foes

With its rapid development, China increasingly believed that it had less need for Japanese aid, investment and technology. More recently, with President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership, relations have flared up over the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese).

The official anti-­Japanese campaign has left deep scars, as academic Minxin Pei has argued: “Chinese state media and history textbooks have fed the younger generation such a diet of distorted, jingoistic facts, outright lies and nationalistic myths that it is easy to provoke anti-­Western or anti­-Japanese sentiments.”

Is there any hope that China and Japan could bury the hatchet and have friendly relations?

It is very difficult to see a positive way out in the immediate future, even though it is ultimately in the interest of both countries to have good relations.

The Chinese government has invested so much political energy in its anti­-Japan propaganda that it would be difficult for it to back down.

Situation unlikely to change

With China’s shaky economy and obvious political fragility, we are likely to see more, not less, Chinese nationalism.

And China’s anti­-Japan propaganda has also emboldened Japan’s right wing, which seeks to minimize Japanese wartime atrocities. It is also fostering “apology fatigue,” especially among Japanese citizens born after the war.

Over the past year, there has been some softening of the rhetoric between the two countries. They realize the economic costs of the “war of words,” especially as Japanese investment in China has fallen dramatically over the past two years.

Both leaders have met at international events. And there is now even talk of Shinzo Abe making an official visit to China.

But it will likely require generational change in both countries and democracy and freedom of the press in China for real reconciliation to ever take place between the two countries.

As this will take a very long time, Asian neighbors and indeed the whole world must stay prepared for Northeast Asia remaining one of the world’s political hot spots.

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About John West

John West is executive director of the Asian Century Institute [Japan] and author of "Asian Century… on a Knife-Edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development."

Responses to “China’s Japan-bashing”

Archived Comments.

  1. On September 23, 2015 at 3:11 am Thin Lo responded with... #

    Alot of Non sense by a white man.

  2. On September 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm Bec responded with... #

    Great article! Very informative, with many details that most have no idea about!

  3. On September 24, 2015 at 3:42 am hauwtl responded with... #

    The Chinese cannot forget the suffering and humiliation inflicted on them by the Imperial Japanese over the past 110years. First came the 1894 Sino-Japanese War which forced China to relinquish Taiwan and Ryukyu. then the 1931 – 1945 invasion of China, which caused 35 million Chinese casualties, plus $383 billion in China’s property losses and forced sex slave of thousands of Chinese women. There is so far neither monetary compensation, nor official apology to the Chinese people from the Japanese government. Japan’s recent nationalization of Diaoyu Islands (claimed by China as theirs) had just added salt to the wound.

  4. On September 24, 2015 at 4:40 pm JEng responded with... #

    It’s only about present danger not past remorselessness. My mother is still sabotaged by Chinese people decades after her husband’s murder and the triad murderers remain in control of an apartment in the building. That’s not slander but the facts.

  5. On September 25, 2015 at 4:37 am Bec responded with... #

    So good at remember history! Good boy! Forgot many others crimes by none Japanese as well! Go suck on the thumb of your best friend Russia who still has outer Manchuria and lost Mongolia too! Maybe Britain can kick you around again, twice! To keep you the sick man of Asia! Addicted to that sweet opium you love so much!

  6. On September 25, 2015 at 11:05 am Bec responded with... #

    So good at remembering history! Good boy! You forgot to mention other crimes committed by non Japanese! Your best friend Russia still has Outer Manchuria, and you lost Mongolia too! Maybe Britain can kick you around again! Twice!! Keep you the sick man of Asia! Addicted to that sweet opium you love so much!
    It’s nice to pick and choose what parts we want to remember! What we consider acceptable and what’s not! Who can be a best friend and Ally despite historical issues, and who’s an enemy who has to apologize and pay reparations!

  7. On October 14, 2015 at 10:35 am Liew_Francis51 responded with... #

    There is no such a thing as Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. There is only Inner Mongolia and Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is a Chinese province while outer Mongolia is an independent country. Britain is now a puny country with a GDP of 2.3 trillion whereas China has a GDP of 11 trillion USD. In any contest between Britain and China, Britain can only lose. However you can continue with your hallucinations of days gone by. The sun has set on the British Empire and it will never rise again. Suck on it dumb dumb.

  8. On October 14, 2015 at 11:46 am Bec responded with... #

    I think the dumb one is you! Russia still has large parts of Chinese land today! Mongolia used to belong to China until recently!! Learn some history before talking!! Britain had Hong Kong!! Not Mongolia or Outer Manchuria!! Dumb dumb

  9. On October 15, 2015 at 9:04 am Liew_Francis51 responded with... #

    Cannot even understand simple comment. Where did you read that I said Britain had Mongolia? Are you congenitally stupid?

  10. On October 15, 2015 at 9:47 am Bec responded with... #

    You’re the idiot who believes Mongolia is an independent country who has nothing to do with China!! Read your own comments buddy!! You ignore Russia completely which shows how little you really know!! They stole land from China every chance they had throughout history!! More than any other country in the world!! That’s a fact!! Not your CCP fed stories!!

  11. On October 15, 2015 at 11:43 pm Liew_Francis51 responded with... #

    If I’m an idiot, then you must be a MORON. Go to the UN and see whether there is a member call Mongolia. If there is, then you must be ILLITERATE not to understand the meaning of “independent country”.
    Russia stole land from China? How about the Manchus conquering China and overthrew a native Chinese dynasty? Are you incurably dumb or congenitally dumb?

  12. On October 16, 2015 at 2:32 am Bec responded with... #

    Again completely ignoring Russia and how much land they stole from China! That big part of Mongolia that you lost, used to belong to China!! Go to bed dumbass!! You are pointless!!

  13. On October 16, 2015 at 8:45 am Liew_Francis51 responded with... #

    Only [moderated] like you want to go to war over past territories which were not even Chinese. The Manchus is a foreign race and it conquered China from a native Chinese dynasty called the Ming. [Moderated] like you don’t even know your own history but want to talk big. Mongolia was a Manchu possession, just like China. To claim that Mongolia belongs to China just because it was nominally ruled by the Manchus is the heights of absurdity. [Moderated]