Long-running regional hostilities threaten the stability of east Asia

After being obliged by Tokyo to provide a seemingly endless series of documents, the cheerful official at the Japanese embassy in London eventually informed me that the person who helps to look after my little boy – and who happens to be Filipino – would be granted a visa to join us in Nagoya for four months. Alas, when she arrived at the airport, immigration officials interrogated her for over two hours, told her at one point that she would not be allowed in, and then finally agreed to admit her.

Japan does not like immigration. That is self-evident from even the most cursory observation of a street in any large Japanese city. It is difficult to see anyone who is not Japanese. That said, it seems highly unlikely that this kind of indignity would have been inflicted on a white person. It is directed especially at Japan’s near neighbours, particularly those from south-east Asia. As if to ram home the point, all visitors from that part of the world are required to go through a special health check before being allowed into the country.

The story is a metaphor for Japan’s attitude towards its east Asian hinterland. After centuries of isolation, Japan’s rapid industrialisation after 1867 catapulted the country into the ranks of the advanced world and left its neighbours trailing in its wake. This disparity served to further distance Japan from Asia and fuelled the kind of supremacist attitudes which saw Japan colonise Korea and Taiwan, north-east China and then briefly, during the second world war, most of south-east Asia, often with considerable barbarity.

After Japan’s defeat in the war, it grudgingly admitted partial responsibility for its actions but it never went through anything like the kind of cathartic process that was to transform Germany. Guilt was confined to an ambiguous and cryptic form of words, plus an economic largesse towards its Asian neighbours, China included. For Japan, money was easier and less costly than coming to terms with its past. The United States, which governed Japan for a brief period after the war and which has remained its protector and ally ever since, made little or no attempt to persuade Japan to do more; its interests lay in resisting communism in China, Korea and Vietnam, in which it saw Japan as a valuable ally.

Not surprisingly, Japan’s reluctant expressions of remorse, repeated again yesterday by prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, have never measured up to the profound sense of grievance felt by its neighbours, especially China and South Korea. As a consequence, the issue has festered and the wounds remain; unlike in Europe, there has been no closure. It is one of the reasons why Japan has never been able to exercise the kind of regional influence that its status as an economic giant would imply.

Indeed, Japan has remained peculiarly aloof from its own continent. In many respects, it likes to consider itself part of the west. But as east Asia has been economically transformed over the past 30 years, that mindset has become increasingly unsustainable. East Asia is no longer its impoverished backyard, but a vibrant and increasingly powerful region that demands respect. Japan’s ostrich-like attitude towards its own past has left it with feet of clay. It seems uncomprehending towards the huge resentments that animate not only the Chinese, but also the Koreans, Filipinos and many others. Indeed, it appears almost nonplussed by the latest protests, a sentiment reflected in Koizumi’s statement yesterday, which merely represented a repetition of previous utterances. It would not be difficult – in theory at least – for Japan to disarm its critics by a sincere display of remorse, by a willingness to engage in open bilateral investigations of the past, in a heartfelt rather than grudging mea culpa. If anything, though, it is moving in the opposite direction, becoming more inflexible and less willing to demonstrate contrition.

This is summed up in the person of Koizumi. Despite widespread protests both within Japan and from its neighbours, he has insisted on making an annual visit to the Yasakuni shrine in Tokyo, where Japan’s war dead are symbolically buried, including 14 class-A war criminals executed in 1948 after the Tokyo war-crimes trials. Earlier this week he dismissed the idea that these visits were provocative towards the Chinese. Meanwhile, he is gently steering Japan in the direction of a more high-profile regional role, as illustrated by the joint US-Japanese state ment on Taiwan, the move towards revising article 9 of the constitution concerning Japan’s military role, and the pursuit of a permanent seat on the UN security council.

It would be wrong to believe that the feelings displayed on the streets of numerous Chinese cities over the last three weeks do not accurately reflect the feelings of ordinary Chinese people. They resent Japan’s failure to atone for its past, not least the Nanking massacre in which, according to the author Iris Chang, 300,000 were slaughtered. The recently revised junior high school textbook – which glosses over such events and which was one of the causes of the recent demonstrations – serves only to add insult to injury. None of this, of course, is new; what has changed is the context. A more self-confident and nationalistic China, expressed most obviously in the young who took to the streets, now feels that it is time for the Japanese to make amends.

It is difficult to feel optimistic about the prospects for relations between the two countries. True, there are growing economic ties, with China now Japan’s biggest trading partner, while China is widely credited with having finally pulled Japan out of its long-running recession. Their economies, moreover, are remarkably complementary. But the sources of friction are deep and intractable.
East Asia is frozen in time. Unlike in Europe which, since the war, has been through a profound transformation, relatively little has changed in east Asia – ironic perhaps, given the extraordinary economic growth. Old conflicts remain as relevant as they were half a century ago – Taiwan, the division of Korea, and Japan’s colonisation of its neighbours. Given this backdrop, the rise of China is likely to result in a growing contest with Japan for regional hegemony. The wider implications should not be underestimated; these are the second and third largest economies in the world, and east Asia will soon be the second most powerful economic region in the world.

The attitude of the US is likely to reinforce this outcome. As the major military power in the region, it sees its relationship with Japan as the main means by which to resist growing Chinese ambitions. The Americans will surely encourage the Japanese to play an increasingly active military and diplomatic role in the region; indeed, there are strong signs that they are already doing this. Japan will, in part, be a surrogate for the US in its own growing rivalry with China.

Japan, meanwhile, has few allies in the region. In the present Sino-Japanese spat, it is difficult to think of a single country – with the possible ambiguous exception of Taiwan – which sides with Japan. South Korea’s sentiments, for obvious reasons, lie overwhelmingly with China. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have all expressed sympathy with Chinese sentiments. Japan has only itself to blame: it is the author of its own estrangement and it shows no sign of being willing to do anything about it.