Japan’s contempt for its own continent has become a liability

Six years ago, when I was last in Japan, the issue of China barely ever featured during conversations. But China now looms large in the Japanese mind. It evokes a complex of emotions, from surprise and confusion to fear and defensiveness. While there is a recognition that China represents a huge economic opportunity – China has suddenly become Japan’s largest trading partner and played a key role in hauling Japan out of its long-running economic malaise – that is far from the dominant emotion. Rather, April’s anti-Japanese demonstrations in China have helped give expression to an intangible but growing sense of concern.

The demonstrations articulated and crystallised longer-run trends and problems. As a consequence of its staggering growth over the last few decades, east Asia is now the biggest economic region in the world. Where once east Asia was overwhelmingly preoccupied with that economic growth, its countries are now acquiring new concerns and ambitions. If east Asia is indelibly associated in the public mind with growth, it is likely in future to become increasingly characterised by growing national tensions. At the heart of this process is inevitably the rise of China, which is rapidly emerging as the region’s economic centre.

Much of the British commentary on the anti-Japanese demonstrations focused on China, but this is to wilfully ignore the Japanese dimension. Over the last few years Japan has gradually moved in a more nationalistic direction, symbolised by the annual visits of the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni shrine – which served as a spiritual pillar for Japanese nationalism during the 1930s and 40s and now honours 14 class-A war criminals along with the war dead.

There are other small signs of a shift: the reintroduction of the national anthem in schools and the revision of history books, for example. Not surprisingly, Japan’s relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea, have worsened in the past few years. In a recent opinion poll 83% of respondents in China said they did not have a favourable opinion of Japan, up from 67% in a 2002 survey; in South Korea the figure was 75%, up from 69% three years ago.

Japan faces a profound dilemma, one that it has barely begun to think about. Ever since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan has been at pains to identify with the west and to distance itself from Asia, which it regarded as hopelessly backward. This contempt for its own continent shaped Japanese attitudes towards its wars of conquest and colonial behaviour. After Japan’s defeat in the second world war, its security alliance with the US helped to reinforce and further accentuate this western tilt. I vividly recall a discussion in Tokyo in 1999 at which, in response to a question, a distinguished panel gave serious consideration as to whether or not Japan should apply to join the European Union.

For well over a century, Japan was hugely more advanced than its Asian neighbours. That situation only began to change in the 1970s with the rapid economic growth of the first Asian tigers. Since then the picture has been entirely transformed. Japan now faces an Asian hinterland that is dynamic, expansive and brimming with confidence. The post-Meiji Japanese attitude towards its neighbours has been overtaken by history. Worse, it has become a liability, preventing Japan from coming to terms with its own history and thereby also poisoning its relations with its neighbours.

Japan has, of course, been mindful of Asia’s transformation. Indeed it has played an important role in the process, both as a catalyst and a model. It has also been a generous donor of aid. What it has not done, however, is to rethink its own historical relationship with, and behaviour towards, its neighbours. No country in the world ever finds it easy to apologise to others for its past conduct – because of the loss of pride involved and the internal divisions that are inevitably entailed – and Japan, until now at least, has never really been required to, except in the most formalistic of terms. Those peoples it abused – especially the Chinese and the Koreans – were simply too weak to force a change of attitude, and the US, its postwar ally and sponsor, was too busy worrying about China to attach any importance to displays of Japanese contrition. As a consequence, Japan now finds itself staring at the past as it looks into the future. This problem will not go away – on the contrary, it is destined to loom ever larger.

Many Japanese are vaguely aware of this. A majority are now opposed to Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni. But this does not mean that Japan will confront its past in a manner that would enable a new kind of reconciliation with its neighbours. This would be a huge step, in effect the beginnings of a new post-Meiji era. There is no sign of such a movement within Japanese society. Moreover, the US has little interest in such a move. On the contrary, it is busy encouraging Japan to assume a wider military role as its global partner and as a closer ally in east Asia, not least in respect of Taiwan. Far from wishing to see a rapprochement between China and Japan, the US sees Japan as its crucial ally in seeking to contain a rising China.

The line of least resistance for Japan is to move along this path and deepen its alliance with the US. It remains the most likely scenario. But it will leave Japan in an increasingly uncomfortable and marginalised position within east Asia. China is rapidly becoming the centre of the east Asian economy and region. By turning its back on east Asia, Japan is instead looking to the Asia Pacific region, the central axis of which would be the US and Japan. But in any such scenario Japan would find itself increasingly estranged from its Asian neighbours.

In Europe all this might sound rather distant and esoteric. But think of it like this. Since 1800, arguably earlier, Europe has been the centre of the world. Even after its decline following 1945, Europe continued to play this role because the cold war bisected it. The end of the cold war has finally drawn the curtains on Europe’s primacy. East Asia is in the process of replacing it as the new global centre. Not only is it already the biggest economic region in the world; China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies in terms of GDP measured by purchasing power parity. Meanwhile the US cannot afford to cede its position as the key military and security presence in the most powerful region in the world. East Asia, far from being a distant region, is the cockpit of future global trends and conflicts.