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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

China-Japan: their inability to communicate and its causes

François Godement

Texte intégral

1January 2005

  • 1 He pays homage to Ozu with Café Lumière.

2To understand the relationship between China and Japan, one only has to go see the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Edward Yang, two of Taiwan’s greatest filmmakers. The former was born in Guangdong and the other in Shanghai. The City of Pain by Hou Hsiao-hsien presents a non-conformist view of the Japanese presence in Taiwan through the relationship between a hospital doctor and a nurse, while Yiyi, by Yang, pays homage to the wisdom of an old Japanese master called to the rescue of a small Taiwanese company. Both filmmakers have excelled in painting upsetting portraits of ancestral family connections being destroyed by the problems of modern society, like their master, Yasujirô Ozu had invented, almost single-handedly, the abstract geometric photography of trains and railway tracks, symbolising knives stabbing the traditional society to death like in Trip to Tokyo, an example of migration and the loss of emotional anchors, which inspired the work of Hou Hsiaohsien1 and Edward Yang. There is hardly any need to highlight the historical movements of the Japanese culture returning to its Chinese origins for new inspiration, counterbalancing the solipsism of Japanese identity and the myth of imperial auto-engendering. Travelling to Dunhuang, the important artistic site on the Silk Road during the summer of 2001, our companions were very elderly, highly distinguished, undoubtedly rich members of the Japanese company protecting the site and who were warmly welcomed at the airport. Sino-Japanese relations seemed very different and much more subtle than those presented by propaganda. There is a movement that has seen both Japanese and Korean cultures make a comeback on the Chinese continent, which is almost like the growing back of branches that were once broken off by history.

3Why reminisce on cultural truths that are so obvious? Because they are frequently considered taboo according to a modern Chinese political saying. Like in Taiwan, the Kuomintang regime is increasing the number of patriotic films commemorating the Sino-Japanese war, which are generally hidden to protect the numerous ties maintained and recreated with Japan after the war. In the People’s Republic of China, the regime’s legitimacy is based as much on the anti-Japanese war of resistance as on the social revolution, and since the end of Maoism and the wave of global capitalism, this has become the regime’s most important and solid pillar. It is not only the older generation’s vivid memory of the atrocities of the Japanese occupation and war, but also its omnipresence in history books, museums and comic strips that form the Chinese youth. In comparison, the reminder of unfair treaties, foreign concessions and semi-colonisation seem almost abstract and less emotional. Of course, it could be said that once the moment of truth had passed, leaving behind Chinese “scars of literature” after 1978, and the outbreak of criticism in the media, propaganda and history books do not tell the truth in any way about the collective crimes of the Maoist era. A society that officially censures its historical truth thus remains faithful to the tradition of its dictatorship, which cannot, at the same time, initiate dialogue with its historical enemy. It is often said, particularly in today’s China, that Japan would find it impossible to confront its past during the imperial military era. It is true that the revisionist wave is big and intimidating, even though, for example, history books that are often quoted as proof of the revisionist crime represent only less than 10% of the textbooks that can be found in schools.

4The Chinese concept of paralysis and conformism before history is less often mentioned. Yet the regime uses and abuses the legitimate issue of historical wrongdoings and the guilt of the Japanese military. After all it is a recipe that European Communist regimes have adopted since 1945, obstructing their own historical development in the name of memory until 1989. The difference between the USSR and eastern Europe is that what was a culture victimised by history is today a celebration of a country (China) that is soaring high above its Asian neighbours. Commemorating and repeating wrong-doings have become the key to nurturing nationalism that is still young and aggressive, which is one of the possible directions in which the Chinese political system is heading.

5If a referee annoys the crowd during a football match between China and Japan, if a group of Japanese students appear on stage in what is considered indecent attire, if Chinese workers die whilst working on a joint Sino-Japanese project with the official help of Tokyo to dig up chemical bomb shells that have been buried there since the Pacific War, if Japan dares to offer more attractive trade propositions to Russia with the intention of building a pipeline to Nakhodka on the Siberian coast, if the former Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui (who has close ties to Japan and its political right-wing), obtains a visa to go to the archipelago, the propaganda trumpets start to blare. The infamous Chinese public opinion, in a civil society whose regime censures most polls and strictly limits access to the internet, is entirely free to air its grudges and patriotic exaggerations in forums where democratic opinions are nonetheless forbidden. If they are honest, official representatives and Chinese lobbyists in Western societies will explain that the Chinese government is confronted with a public opinion that is far more radically opposed to Japan than the government itself; the same government has in reality single-handedly done everything possible to encourage this upsurge in a political system that is still tightly controlled.

6Today’ China’s “peaceful ascent” is emerging as Asias’s second economic centre, but more dynamic than the Japanese economy, and Japan’s “return to normality” whose difficulties over the last decade have softened the feeling of historical guilt, are becoming two currents that feed each other. It has to be said that the geopolitical and geoeconomic consequences of their parting is not always bad news for other actors. America can reinforce its new economic and monetary symbiosis with China, while at the same time strengthening the Japanese-American alliance; European companies can hope to compete with Japanese firms, although they are much closer to China by capitalising on the anti-Japanese trend; South-East Asia is benefiting greatly from the Sino-Japanese competition through economic assistance, liberal trade conditions and regional diplomacy.

7From a Chinese point of view, the regional rivalry can effectively extend historical criticism into the future. In Asia, Japan is the houtai, Taiwan’s hidden ally, regardless of what official Japanese diplomacy says. It is, and will be for a long time, the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the Japanese-American alliance, which young Yasuhiro Nakasone wished for after the war. It is also, a fact that Europe, preoccupied with its commercial interests in Asia, tends to forget, the first Asian democracy: and yet from North-East to South-East Asia, the democratic model and institutions are rapidly growing, which is as striking as the economic rise of authoritarian China. There is thus on both sides, a battle of will power and stubbornness. An excellent example of this is the Yasukuni shrine controversy, in which the brutal tactician and Prime Minister Koizumi claims that the Japanese version of the saying “right or wrong, my country”, is not applicable to the political instrumentalism of historical criticism.

  • 2 For the last two years, Nouvelles de Chine (available at has followed the Chin (...)

8The worst is far from certain. From the very centre of the new Chinese cultural strategy, much more sophisticated thought concerning Sino-Japanese complementarity have surfaced and there has been a certain distancing from the populist dimension and anti-Japanese propaganda trends2. The economic ties – for which Japan was the first to take advantage of China opening its doors in the 1980s, before backtracking – are a powerful cement. It would be an illusion and quite simplistic to believe that the issue of Sino-Japanese relations can be solved by the mere economic interests shared by the two countries.


1 He pays homage to Ozu with Café Lumière.

2 For the last two years, Nouvelles de Chine (available at has followed the Chinese debate between advocates of a “new pathway” (xin shiwei) vis-à-vis Japan and those who hold to the thesis of an inextricable rivalry. Unlike in Japan, the debate is not carried out openly within the political class whose opinions on such burning subjects are obviously collective and controlled.


Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales

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