COMMENTARY/ Tomoyoshi Isogawa: Inability to understand each other a serious issue for Japan and China

September 24, 2012


Fallout from current tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands is evident in the latest Asahi Shimbun public opinion poll on sentiment toward each country.

At the same time, a shift has emerged in the way the people of both countries view each other.

In China, anti-Japan feelings based on Japanese wartime activities remain strong. Meanwhile, Japanese people's feelings toward China have worsened since the Chinese government's brutal 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The Cold War between the East and the West, and the conflict between China and the Soviet Union, both of which propelled the decision to normalize Japan-China ties in 1972, ended at roughly the same time.

What has triggered the structural change in the Japanese people's attitudes since then is China's military buildup and growing naval presence in the Pacific Ocean on the back of its rising economic power.

The change is clearly reflected in the survey results. The Japanese people clearly feel threatened by China's growing military might and place importance on dialogue, especially in the field of security.

Japanese people are even voicing fears that Japan's effective control of the Senkaku Islands could be lost. Given this situation, a strong sense of caution is likely to constitute the core of the Japanese people's feeling toward China for the time being.

The only way to maintain stability in bilateral relations is to promote mutual understanding and heighten a sense of trust toward one another. However, the survey results show that this will be extremely difficult to do.

For example, nearly all Chinese respondents say the Second Sino-Japanese War that raged from 1937 to 1945 was the result of Japan's invasion of China. But in Japan, only about half of the respondents gave that reply.

The gap in perception is a potential factor for friction that has the possibility to inflame passions anew.

In addition, a considerable number of Chinese respondents regard Japan as an authoritarian country. That sentiment is strong even among young people, who get much of their information on world affairs from the Internet. This is surprising.

The distorted impression of Japan seems to be directly related to the patriotic style of education that took hold of China in the 1990s.

The survey shows that there is a serious lack of understanding between the peoples of Japan and China. It also highlights the necessity of the two countries to heighten their crisis management abilities.

Clearly, there is a need to return to the ideas that prevailed in 1972, as moves were under way to normalize diplomatic relations between Japan and China, when both sides tried to deepen their understanding of each other while seeking common interests.

(Tomoyoshi Isogawa is a senior staff writer and former bureau chief of The Asahi Shimbun's Chinese General Bureau.)

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Tomoyoshi Isogawa (The Asahi Shimbun)

Tomoyoshi Isogawa (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Tomoyoshi Isogawa (The Asahi Shimbun)

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