Since 2000, the Sino-Japanese relations hit the lowest point since 1989 during Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s five-year leadership. With political impasse between China and Japan, one can observe the impact of history in respective foreign policies. When Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda replaced former Prime Minister Abe in 2007, who resigned after a short term in office, Fukuda made a more reconciliatory gesture towards China. Contrary to Koizumi’s approach, Fukuda advocated peaceful relations with China and its Asian neighbors and sought to repair the damaged bilateral relations through rebuilding trust and confidence.90 In return, Chinese leaders responded positively to Fukuda’s gesture by avoiding the history issue at official meeting, as maintaining a stable and harmonious relation is in the interests of both countries. Nevertheless, the issue of history remains unresolved, and the resignation of Fukuda in 2008 signaled the possible shift of direction in Japan’s foreign policy towards China. The new leader, Taro Aso, who echoed many right-wing views by extolling Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910-45, faces the challenges of reconciling with suspicious neighbors like China and Korea with regard to Japan’s war responsibility.91
90 Jiang, "New Dynamics of Sino-Japanese Relations."
91 "The Ghost of Wartimes Past."
The recent change in Japanese leadership from Fukuda to Aso has certain implications on bilateral relations. Before becoming a prime minister, Aso made several right-wing views regarding Japan’s wartime past. For example, he applauded Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, and his hawkish comments drew considerable criticisms from South Korea. In addition, Aso’s family derived fortune from the mining company that used Korean slave labor during World War II, and his family background may become a target of diplomatic skirmish if the problem related to history were to resurge in the future.92 So far, Aso has been maintaining a low key stance towards China. With his immediate decision to dismiss General Toshio Tamogami after being informed of his controversial prize-winning essay, Aso seems to understand the importance of prioritizing stable, healthy Sino-Japanese relations over the nationalist discourse. Similarly, the Chinese government has toned down its criticisms towards Japan in order to control effervescent nationalism at home and to allow more space for bilateral economic and political cooperation especially during the period of global recession. Whether this recognition about the importance of maintaining peaceful relations proves long-term or not, the well-being of bilateral relations will depend on the political will of both governments as well as the grassroots efforts to promote open dialogues between Chinese and Japanese peoples.
In addition to the need for economic integration in Asia, the Sino-Japanese relations remain critical to ensuring regional stability and security. As China gradually transforms itself into a superpower and in pursuit of balancing one another, two countries face numerous problems in areas of politics, trade, and security. Among them, the issue of history, and n
92 "Grandfather's Footsteps ", Economist 388, no. 8604 (2008).
particular, Japan’s war responsibility, shapes the complex bilateral relations. The examination of historical overview of the controversy, the ultranationalist movement, and implications of Japan’s history problem reveals that the problem is multifaceted and no single solutions exist. Despite the complexity of the textbook controversy, it is in the interest of both governments to foster mutual understanding about the past in order to ensure regional stability and peace. Thus, instead of continuing a cycle of bashing and accusations, Chinese and Japanese governments need to undertake collective efforts to eliminate existing frictions.