Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How to Misunderstand Your Neighbor

Monday, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a talk entitled "How to Misunderstand Your Neighbor" in its beautiful Wohlstetter Conference Center in Northwest Washington (it was advertised under the title "Troubled Ties"). The presenter was Akira Chiba, assistant press secretary for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has recently authored a book by the same name on Sino-Japanese relations.* Mr. Chiba served six years in Japan's embassy in Beijing in various posts and is fluent in Chinese (in addition to English, Russian, French, Spanish, German, and obviously Japanese).

AEI invited Bojiang Yang (Brookings) and Randall Schriver (Armitage International, CSIS) as discussants for the Chinese and American perspective respectively. Dan Blumenthal of AEI served as the moderator.

Chiba's presentation was quite similar to a series of letters between he and Lanxin Xiang (Professor, Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva) on Sino-Japanese relations published in the journal Survival (Summer, 2005). That fifteen page exchange does a far better job summing up the issue than I could hope to do here, so if you have access to Survival, give that a read.

Akira Chiba
Chiba's PowerPoint presentation began with a discussion of the history and strength of the relationship between China and Japan. Japan and China currently have the largest bilateral trade of any two countries in the region. Japan is the largest source of official development aid (ODA) to China. The numbers of foreign direct investment, exchange students, and sister city relationships are also impressive and expanding.

Second, he addressed Japan's role in World War II and its contrition in the years since. Japan paid for its aggression with lives (those executed or imprisoned for life as a result of the war crimes trials) and with its checkbook (Japan paid close to 20 billion USD in reparations). Japan, as a country, has apologized numerous times, most importantly the 15 August 1995 statement of then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. Mr. Chiba also spoke of Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi's 2001 visit to the Marco Polo Bridge Anti-War Museum (I'm not sure of the museum's exact name), where he bowed deeply.

Third, Chiba spoke to Chinese perception of Japan. He cited a recent survey showing that roughly 75% of Chinese people admitted to a negative perception of Japan. He pointed out that 71% of the same didn't know Japan provided ODA to China and many didn't even know that Japan is a democracy.

To clarify this point he spoke to what he calls "one-way mirrors," the reasons that China and Japan have a hard time understanding one another and often speak past each other. Most important of those "one-way mirrors" is the Chinese tendency to think in terms of dialectics, while Japanese tend to thing in idealistic terms. Additionally, China maintains "politics in command" (a rally cry from the Cultural Revolution), while Japanese, on the other hand, are "order freaks" who never run red lights. Additionally, Chinese tend to be atheists while Japanese tend to be pantheists (Shinto) and the Chinese prefer a linear outlook of history while the Japanese history books favor a cyclical outlook.

Fourth, he spoke about historical discrepancies (like the number of Japanese soldiers killed in the World War II battle of Taierzhuang), differences in how Japanese and Chinese people treat historical figures viewed as traitors, and different notions of the meaning of some Hanzi/Kanji characters and the resulting disagreements on translations (relevant because of disagreements over words like "apology" and "soothing the souls," which is the rationale for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine).

Perhaps most controversially, he pointed out that foreign protest over visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine only began in 1985, even though the burial of Class A war criminals there had been revealed in 1979 and the Prime Minister visited numerous times in the interim. He found no correlation between visits by the leadership to the shrine and militarism (which he measured by Japanese defense expenditures) over the years.

In conclusion, he said that small gestures (like a well dedication that he attended in China because it was funded with Japanese ODA) are a good starting point to build a better relationship between China and Japan.

Bojiang Yang
Mr. Yang agreed with Chiba on the importance of the relationship between their two countries and that the nations were often divided by their common written language (he offered an example of a word which is read as "writing a letter" in one language and "toilet paper" in the other).

He opined that it has taken thirty years for normalization to occur between the two countries and it will take thirty more years for normalization to occur between the two societies.

Yang rebutted Chiba's attempts to explain the Yasukuni Shrine controversy as a misunderstanding of Shintoism. He pointed out that the shrine was used before World War II to mobilize the people for war.

Due to differing international situations, he said comparisons between the visits of Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine were inappropriate. This seems to support the notion that the shrine visits (and the resulting protests) are a symptom or symbol of the problem, not the cause itself--an assertion Yang himself made later in the discussion.

He then concluded with three key points:
  • Sino-Japanese relations must be viewed in the strategic context of a growing China. Just over a decade ago China's economy was one-tenth the size of Japans. Today it is closer to one-third. Due to China's relative growth and the expanding interests of both countries, friction is inevitable.

  • Domestic political agents must be considered when hoping for a breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Yang said he was especially hopeful after September of this year. While he did not explain his rationale for increased hope after September, there is little doubt that he was referring to Koizumi's planned retirement that month.

  • The United States has a role in Sino-Japanese relations. The size of the Japanese economy, importation of foreign rice, and American policies have played a role in each of the three waves of Japanese nationalism (early 1960s, early 1980s, and current).

Randall Schriver
Mr. Schriver began by thanking the moderator for arranging for him to speak last because this is an issue for Japan and China to work out, not America's problem. Having said that, he admitted that America always meddles and therefore offered his thoughts as to what role America should play.

First, Schriver countered the arguments one sometimes hears that Sino-Japanese tension is good for America. It keeps China occupied and Japan on its toes, the argument goes. Schriver said for for that "logic train" to work, one had to believe that the American foreign policy apparatus is deft enough to maintain just the right amount of tension (as war is in no one's interest) and he wasn't sure that was the case.

Second, America should not try to maintain neutrality in the issue or treat both sides equally. There is no reason for America to be apologetic about the close nature of its relationship with Japan. America should work to strengthen that alliance and to convey the message:
We have full faith and confidence in our friends in Japan.
Third, America should try to disaggregate the problems. On one hand, America should stay away from historical issues because of their sensitive and emotional nature. America wouldn't appreciate other countries meddling in the writing of its own history, after all. On the other hand, America has a clear role to play in working with Japan to improve crisis management and thus reducing the risk of unnecessary escalation.

Audience Q&A
Two particularly interesting questions were asked. The first came from the moderator, who asked about the common perception in Japan that Japan is a Chinese scapegoat. No matter what Japan does, the harassment from China will not cease, the logic goes, because China will continue to need an outlet for the people's frustration. Chiba, who had addressed the issue in a previous article, said that the view is common but that he does not necessarily share that belief himself. Yang countered that the argument implies that the legitimacy of the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in doubt. In fact, he argued, the CCP has significantly widened its constituent base and thus is stable enough that it would have no need for a whipping boy.

The second question came from Chris Nelson, whose affiliation I did not catch. He spoke to a recent discussion between the editors of the the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun. They concluded that the government should construct a depoliticized war site that the Prime Minister and others could visit without raising the ire of the victims of past Japanese militarism. Mr. Nelson asked the speakers their thoughts on the proposal. Chiba replied that it was unworkable because the government cannot tell the shrine what to do. Government interference in religious affairs had created trouble in the past and should thus be avoided. Schriver stated his belief that Japan could best work through its history and have a thoughtful debate (such as the one that occured between the editors) on the subject without outside interference.

Related News from China Confidential:*Mr. Chiba's book is available in Japanese or Chinese, but not in English.