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Japanese Perspectives on the War and East Asia

Japanese Perspectives on the War and East Asia
Date/Time: Sep 30, 2005 / 5.00pm
Venue: The SIIA House, 2 Nassim Road S258370

At the recent UN Summit, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged Northeast Asian countries to set aside historic rivalries to build a stable regional bloc like the European Union. This has proved to be difficult with deteriorating relationships between the two economic giants of Asia – China and Japan . The Chinese believed that as long as Japan continues to ‘white-wash’ its deeds in the Second World War, it is deemed unsuitable for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Japan on the other hand believes that China is playing its history cards again and that Japan has made sufficient contribution to the peace and prosperity of the world. To date, it is the second largest contributor to the UN budget and has continued to support the development of the region. Japan has helped many Asian countries during the 1997 financial crisis and has recently committed to chip in on the ASEAN development fund. On the international front, Japan has spoken against the EU over its row with Myanmar.


The ambassador began his talk by noting that the Sino-Japanese relation was in a much worse state than in 1972. Although there had been more recent wars e.g. Vietnam war (between US and Vietnam), Korean war (between North and South Korea) or the Sino-Vietnamese war, relations between China and Japan had been the slowest to recover. In the case of the other wars, there had already been some moves towards reconciliation but not the Sino-Japanese relations.

The ambassador then presented an overview of the modern history of East Asia. Japan modernised after the Chinese defeat at the Opium War. Its success at modernisation could be seen in its unexpected victory in the Russo-Japanese war, after which Japan joined the other imperial powers. For instance, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, sanctions were imposed on Japan . In order to ensure access to various resources, Japan invaded Southeast Asia.

The dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan led to its unconditional surrender. He pointed out that Japan had made peace with the Allied powers in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty. Towards China , Japan was aware of its responsibility. In the 1972 joint communiqué with China , agreed to renounce the need for reparations. Relations began to improve slowly after China and Japan signed the 1978 Treaty of peace and cooperation.

Japan had helped China in its internationalisation. Japan had given about ODA of US$29 billion, accounting for 2/3 of the overall bilateral ODA received by China . Despite the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Japan maintained strong links with China .

He opined that the existence of tensions after 60 years was a combination of textbook revision, Koizumi’s visit to the war shrine. The Chinese Communist Party has also tended to focus on past history, on their fight against Japan and Guomingdang (KMT). The normalisation of relations with Japan was due to the Chinese fears of the Soviet Union. However, that fear is no longer present. China still bears a strong sense of victimisation from the opium war and Japan , being the last imperial power to invade China , has borne the brunt of Chinese nationalism. The Chinese textbooks on Japan have also been somewhat unfair to Japan . All these have led to the paradoxical situation where surveys have shown that contrary to expectations, it was those Chinese in the 20s who tended to be more nationalistic than the older ones who have been more directly affected by the war in one way or other.


A member of the audience noted that the Japanese government had been good at making apology but as a country, the average Japanese did not know very much about World War II. The ambassador agreed that the Japanese students were not studying enough about its own history. Unlike China where the students spent about 8 hours per week studying history, most of the Japanese students were not as interested in history. He agreed that there should be some promotion of history especially since the Japanese were the aggressor.

Another member of the audience asked for the ambassador’s opinion of how Japan has done compared to the Germans. He also commented that the issue with the Yasukuni shrine was perhaps not so much the shrine itself, but that the version of history presented in the Yasukuni Museum. The ambassador responded that it was not fair to compare Germany and Japan . Whereas Germany split into 2, Japan remained united. Hence Japan was able to reconcile with the allies and negotiate reparations with the other governments. In the case of Germany, they were not in the position to make government-to-government commitments. Hence they had to make reparations to individuals.

Moreover, in a way, it was easier for the Germans to be rehabilitated. The Nazis and not Germany were held responsible for World War II whereas in the case of Japan , the responsibility was not on a particular regime but on Japan itself.

In the case of the Yasukuni shrine, the shrine is private and not controlled by the government. This freedom of speech is protected by the Japanese constitution.

Another question revolved around the possible actions Japan could do to regain moral credibility. The concern is that Japan currently does not have the moral clout to challenge the rise of China . This moral credibility could not be gained by merely providing Overseas Development Aid (ODA). Instead Japan had to do something symbolic.

The ambassador pointed out that Japan had been trying. Since 1977, the Japanese had resumed relations with China , South Korea and ASEAN. Relations with Singapore were good despite the fact that Singapore was the most severely damaged in World War II. This is evident in the clear support Japan received from Singapore for the Japan bid for a UN permanent seat. This was probably due to Singapore ’s future orientation. The ambassador agreed that Japan could play a bigger role towards East Asian regionalism.

The ambassador agreed that there was little use of ODA in Southeast Asia especially since most countries except Indonesia had graduated from receiving ODA. However, in terms of private capital flow, there was still more FDI from Japan than from China .

Another member of the audience suggested the patrolling of the Straits of Malacca as an example of an area where both Japan and China could work together. The ambassador pointed out that China had shown little interest on the Malacca Straits but this might change. In the case of the Malacca Straits, the issue was not so much Japan and China but about Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore . In particular, both Malaysiaand Indonesiaare wary of their sovereignty being violated if China and Japan were to be involved in the patrolling of the Straits.

Another question raised was about the effect of China ’s use of history for its own advantage. The ambassador replied that the Chinese were also affected by the adverse international reaction to the anti-Japanese demonstrations in April. The Chinese government therefore try to ensure that such demonstrations do not go out of control. There was, however, little impact on the amount of FDI from Japan to China .

In the 1990s, there was a perceptible shift of Japanese investment from ASEAN to China . However, the Japanese are now more aware of the need for diversification and are investing in both ASEAN and China . Furthermore, the labour costs of the Chinese are rising, and the cost in the coastal region are now similar to that of Bangkok. In contrast, Vietnam’s labour costs are half of that of China . Japanese firms therefore are now striking a balance in the geographical spread of their investments. The ambassador reaffirmed the importance of Singapore especially since many Japanese firms (e.g. Hitachi, Toshiba) have chosen to locate their regional headquarters here.

Another question was on the comparison of the anti-Japanese feeling in China in the 1980s compared to now. If this anti-Japanese feeling was cultivated due to nationalistic fervour, there was nothing Japan could do. The ambassador suggested that as Japan and China become more inter-dependent, both sides will realise the complementarity of their economies. He also noted the Chinese efforts to diffuse the anti-Japanese sentiments.

One member of the audience asked if more exchanges between young persons would help promote understanding in the region just as they did for France and Germany. The ambassador agreed that exchanges should be continued. He recalled the large number of exchanges between the two country while he was in Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, he cautioned that China ’s population was huge and even if the number of exchanges were to be increased, only a relatively small portion of the Chinese population would actually have the chance to participate in them.

On the question of whether Singapore could do anything to help in the Sino-Japanese relation, the ambassador pointed out that Singapore had been very constructive and helpful. For instance, the late Deng Xiaoping relied on Singapore as a third country to play the role of a “go-between” on some foreign relations issues. PM Lee and Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo have continued to play these roles.


HE Takaaki Kojima has been with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan since 1970 and had extensive posting in various part of the world including China, United Kingdom, Brazil and the United States

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