THE FIRST reliable records of an official mission from Japan to China date back to 238DISPLAYwhen Himiko, a Japanese queen, sent a delegation to the Chinese kingdom of Wei and offered ten slaves and two 6-meter-long textiles as a tribute. In the 7th century the Yamato, a clan that ruled much of Japan at the time, regularly sent envoys with tributes to the courts of Sui and Tang. Japan adopted the Chinese writing system; Japanese monks and scholars adopted China’s religions.
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Japan has remained a close, if cautious, observer of its larger neighbor over the centuries. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Japan helped China modernize China, in part motivated by guilt over wartime atrocities. Japanese companies were among the first to enter its growing market. Japanese leaders also raised the alarm early on over Chinese expansionism, particularly after the two collided around some uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea between 2010 and 2012, which Japan calls Senkaku Islands and China Diaoyu. “We warned them US: This is not a small, delimited issue between Japan and China, but a sign of growing power in the region, ”says Sasae Kenichiro, a former Japanese ambassador to America.
Such views fell on deaf ears in America and Europe, where leaders focused on the benefits of China’s integration into the global economy. But in recent years, Chinese aggression in Hong Kong, repression in Xinjiang, and saber rattling in Taiwan have also made many Western governments more suspicious. With the entry into an era of competition with China, Japan’s perspective is being sought again. Some prominent American and British officials have started talking of adding Japan (and others in the region, including South Korea) to the Five Eyes, an English-language information-sharing network, in hopes of improving their understanding of China. “Fifteen years ago, when I was with … [Western colleagues] about the negative aspects of China, I was treated as a right-wing, China-hating Japanese scholar, ”says Matsuda Yasuhiro, China specialist at the University of Tokyo. “Now people are listening to us.”
Japanese observers of China are now speaking of three worrying trends. The first is the overconfidence of the Chinese. “They really believe the West is in decline,” says Kanehara Nobukatsu, a former Japanese deputy national security advisor. Japanese scholars believe that Chinese leaders do not pose when they claim their political system is superior to America’s chaotic democracy. Some note worrying parallels with Japan’s own position in the run-up to World War II. “We always remind them of our mistakes in the past before the war,” says a former senior Japanese diplomat. “They say, ‘Are you kidding, we’re totally different.’ But in our eyes there are more and more similarities. “
The second is a shift from collective to individual leadership under Xi Jinping, the Chinese President. Japanese officials fear that China is becoming more and more like North Korea in its dependence on one man’s decisions. In fact, from this point of view, Mr. Xi could be even more isolated than the Swiss-trained Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. “Xi doesn’t know the free world at all – Kim certainly knows our world better,” says Kanehara.
Finally, there is the state of the Chinese economy. Mr. Xi’s recent crackdown on large private companies amid the pursuit of “shared prosperity” has worried many in Tokyo about the future of Chinese growth. “The Chinese come to us and encourage us to invest more, they say don’t miss the boat,” says an advisor at a major Japanese bank. “But when the Chinese say that, it means they have a problem.” China’s support for infrastructure projects abroad through its signed Belt and Road Initiative has declined dramatically in recent years – a sign that the Chinese economy is facing “serious problems” at home, argues Maeda Tadashi, governor of the Japanese bank for international cooperation, the state-owned foreign development finance facility.
A slowdown in China would have a drastic impact on Japan’s own economy: China absorbs 22% of its exports, more than any other country. Japanese observers on China fear that this could also lead Mr. Xi to divert attention from a sluggish economy by fueling nationalist passions with a thirst for adventure around Taiwan or the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Still, many Japanese scholars are more skeptical than those in America that a war for Taiwan is imminent, says Aoyama Rumi of Waseda University in Tokyo. Japanese experts believe that Mr. Xi will not endanger his own power by launching a risky, full-scale invasion of the main island of Taiwan in the foreseeable future.
As elsewhere, the military and security guards are more concerned than political analysts about Mr. Xi’s possible willingness to use force to take Taiwan. Yet even they tend to be more ambiguous than their American counterparts. “The timeframe could vary significantly,” said General Yoshida Yoshihide, chief of staff of the Japanese ground forces. “It is difficult to say something specific like ‘within six years'”, as an American admiral suggested to Congress in 2021 that the Chinese coast guard invasions into Taiwan’s waters or invades Taiwan’s offshore islands.
These concerns have fueled a shift in Japan’s own China policy. Before the pandemic, Japan and China had enjoyed a period of relative bonomy. Abe Shinzo, the Japanese Prime Minister at the time, tried to stabilize relations after the clashes between Senkaku and Diaoyu and invited Mr. Xi on a state visit in April 2020. Covid-19 stopped these plans. Japan’s new Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has tried to proceed cautiously but has taken some Hawkish first steps nonetheless. His cabinet includes a new “Economic Security” minister, partially charged with reducing reliance on China for critical supplies. He also appointed Nakatani Gen, a former defense minister known as the China Hawk, as human rights tsar to take a tougher stance on Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. A stimulus package passed in November included an unusual 774 billion yen ($ 6.8 billion) in additional defense spending to expedite purchases of new missiles and aircraft.
In 2022, Japan and China will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of post-war relations. The appetite for partying is low. In 2021, 71% of Japanese said China was a “threat” up from 63% in 2020. Similarly, 66% of Chinese had negative views about Japan, up from 53%.
The two militaries agreed this week to improve their communication channels – a welcome move but also a sign of how worrying the tensions have become. Mr. Kishida objected to Mr. Xi’s visit, but did not officially withdraw the invitation. He also ruled that Japan would not send cabinet ministers to the Beijing Olympics in February, only a handful of sports officials. Japan will not refer to the move as a “diplomatic boycott” as America and other allies have. But no one in China will confuse the stripped-down delegation with the tributary missions of yore. The next phase in the long history of Japan and China is likely to be turbulent. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the heading “The View from Tokyo”