Tokyo Notes

Japan and China’s Masochists

Japanese and Chinese nationalists want their countries to look like victims. It’s a poor way to make policy.

Following is a guest entry by Shogo Suzuki, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, England.

The recent spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has brought into even sharper focus the antipathy that exists between Japan and China—and acted as a reminder about the dangers of both nations’ persistent determination to be seen as the victim.

Japan’s arrest and detention in September of Zhan Qixiong, the captain of a Chinese fishing boat, resulted in familiar and furious nationalistic outbursts in China. The Japan Coast Guard claimed the trawler had intentionally rammed two of its vessels, but after initially saying that the case would be dealt with by public prosecutors, Japan appeared to capitulate to Chinese demands to free Zhan.

As Andy noted at the time, critics of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan-led government were quick to attack Prime Minister Naoto Kan for what they say was his failure to stand up properly to China.  But such dissatisfaction with Kan is perhaps a little surprising given that it was China that incurred the greater diplomatic losses following its apparently hysterical response to the issue.

If Tokyo did indeed interfere with the Naha prosecutors’ decision-making process and pressed for Zhan’s release (although there’s no concrete evidence yet that this was the case), the government should undoubtedly be chastised for undermining the rule of law, one of the fundamental tenets of any liberal democracy.

But taking a long-term view, Japan’s response seems to have been much more rational than China’s. The fact is that Japan didn’t move to escalate the issue, and instead simply allowed Beijing to score a diplomatic own goal by damaging its carefully cultivated image as a benevolent, peacefully rising power. Worse still from Beijing’s point of view is that its response resulted in an explicit commitment from the United States to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands—surely another setback for China’s long-held goal of regaining control over its ‘lost territories’.

So why all the anger aimed at the DPJ government? In part it stems from a deep-rooted ‘masochism’ among many Japanese conservative nationalists. It’s ironic really, because many of these same nationalist critics have long been deeply critical of what they see as the masochism of the Japanese left, who they accuse of constantly interpreting Japan’s past in a negative light and of perpetuating a feeble, subservient position vis-à-vis its Asian neighbours.

The thing is that conservative nationalists seem unaware of their own masochism. In order to strengthen their claims that Japan needs to be resurrected as a strong and militarily independent state, nationalists need to perpetuate the notion of Japan as an ‘oppressed’ and ‘weak’ state. Indeed, it’s not dissimilar to the approach followed by Chinese nationalists—China’s ‘patriotic’ education emphasises the Communist regime’s role in saving China from the ‘hundred years of humiliation’, a narrative that rests on the notion of China as being weak and bullied.

Of course China and Japan aren’t alone in this—Korean nationalism, often based on memories of Japanese imperialism, is no different. But the problem is that this curious strain of nationalism in East Asia, which relies on each country having its own narrative of humiliation and suffering, makes coexistence with one another extremely difficult.

For policymakers in Sino-Japanese relations, the idea that each side is determined to bully the other inevitably complicates any efforts to strike diplomatic compromises. But it also goes deeper than just the immediate policymaking level. The victimhood narrative also breeds an irrational, almost doctrinal hatred of the other country, making nationalism a point of political principle.

If China and Japan are to have any chance of improving relations, they will both have to abandon the short-sighted nationalism that sees a sense of victimhood as a cornerstone of foreign policymaking.