Beijing’s relationship with Tokyo is often defined as that of “cold politics, hot economics.” What makes matters “cold” are political controversies over issues such as Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, history textbooks, the sovereignty row over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, biological weapons, comfort women and others, which make history the dominant factor in China’s present relations with Japan. Concomitantly, the increasing anti-Japanese sentiment in the Chinese public over Japan’s wartime aggression further contributes to the fragility in the relationship.
Given the historical discord, Beijing’s Japan policy strongly stresses on “taking history as a mirror and looking forward to the future.” Adhering to this sentimental rhetoric, China’s principal policy towards Japan is edged on the condition that Japan should adopt a correct view of its history of the invasion and take tangible actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community. What explains China’s attitude towards Japan?
Conventional wisdom suggests that time can heal all wounds and that economic interdependence can mitigate grievances. However, for China, this is a paradox as time, rather than healing the wounds of past wars, has become a bitter recollection of history that has bedeviled both official and popular relations. China and Japan’s annual bilateral trade of over USD 300 billion has significantly failed to mitigate their grievances, thus proving the neo-liberal logic false. For China, historical memories act as a serious constraint in altering its outlook towards Japan, which is strongly informed by the sense of its national humiliation in the hands of the Japanese.
What makes the “historical memories” so important in China’s relations with Japan? It is because the memories are derived from the sense of national humiliation. In China, national humiliation exists in the rubric of a huge psychological gap between its central status as the glorious Empire of East Asia during its 5,000-year civilization and a peripheral nation-state that was invaded by foreign imperialists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than glorifying the Chinese people’s achievements, these historical narratives have mainly centered on the defeats, injustices, and humiliations that China has suffered. The discourse on China’s past humiliations revolve around the central theme of “the Century of Humiliation and the quest to restore China’s lost dignity and power.” For China, “victim” over “victor” has been imbibed in the historical consciousness.
In this regard, narratives about the “Century of Humiliation” form the framework of the very idea of being “Chinese.” The Chinese today are painfully aware of the trauma that China underwent at the hands of foreign aggressors, and this has shaped their sense of self. What lies at the core of China’s humiliation and victimhood narrative are Japan’s war crimes against the Chinese people, most notably the Nanjing Massacre and the activities of Japan’s Unit 731. Therefore, the “Century of Humiliation” is deeply imprinted in Chinese memory, which has rooted a strong sense of “injustice” in the national psyche of China. This argument stands validated as China’s economic success has failed to heal the wounds of the past, and with time China has become more assertive in claiming the wounds it has suffered.
The psychological gap driven by these historical memories contributes to the perceptual gap, which adds towards Chinese distrust and suspicion of Japan.
These historical narratives form the pathological frames of historical memory in the Chinese psyche. This contributes to China’s identity formation, wherein Japan acts as the significant “other.” In the process of identity formation, China did not adjust its image of Japan by recategorizing Japan as a waiguoren (foreigner) state; rather it perceived itself as an “un-Japanese” state. This self-identity serves as the common link of collective postwar identity among the Chinese, that distinguishes them from the Japanese “Other.” The Chinese “self” versus the Japanese “other” has become a crucial frame of new China’s self-perception, and thus has a strong impact on the way China perceives Japan. This asymmetry of the Chinese “self” versus Japanese “other” augments tensions in the present relations.
Historical memories hence act as a psychological obstacle, limiting the confidence-building process between China and Japan. China’s attitude towards Japan is mainly driven by the logic of historical consciousness than the rational choice of national interest. Historical memories have left a deep-seated divide in the Chinese psyche that perceives Japan as the “other,” and China’s self-identity as a “victim” vis-a-vis Japan as the “aggressor” regulates China’s present relations with Japan. Therefore, it is these historical memories that have activated China’s insecurity towards Japan, thereby, impeding the resolution process.
Historical memories have played a key role in shaping China’s attitude towards Japan. The victimhood mentality shaped by Japanese wartime aggression makes the matter of history a relevant fact of the present. The psychological gap driven by these historical memories contributes to the perceptual gap, which adds towards Chinese distrust and suspicion of Japan. In this context, it stands validated that for China, historical memory is one of the biggest driving forces that shapes and constrains its foreign policy towards Japan. For China’s new nationalism, its national identity is rooted in the context of its historical memory, which is in turn tied to China’s national experiences and historical consciousness. Deep-seated mistrust therefore weighs down heavily on China’s new thinking on Japan, and thus, will significantly impede the process of reconciliation.