China vs. Japan — Will They Ever Be Able to Rehabilitate Their Relations?

The relationship between China and Japan has been going on for about 2000 years. Relations between the two civilizations have known ups and downs over the years, but one thing has always remained stable. China is a superior civilization. Japan is an inferior civilization.

It was a Japanese who learned from China, which China influenced and sent delegations to visit China. This went on for almost the entire period until the nineteenth century.

When the Chinese Empire began a process of brutal decay that was also expressed within China itself, against the Western superpowers, and finally against Japan, which was inferior to it, for so long and suddenly became the senior.

China vs. Japan — Nanking Massacre

The Japanese advantage was exploited for a great deal of violence against its neighbors in East Asia, especially China. Japan was very scornful in China and saw its potential development potential in its vast territory and treated it accordingly and with great cruelty.

The events of the twentieth century left very bad precipitation within China towards Japan. As long as China waded during the reign of Mao Dze Dong and Japan built itself from World War II ruins, the confrontation was postponed.

Since the 1980s, when China began to grow again and took its place in the international arena, the tension between the two countries rose again.

Since then, it’s China vs. Japan; it’s an ongoing confrontation in various configurations. This article reviews the potential for restoration of relations between the two ancient civilizations, China and Japan.

China vs. Japan -Historical Perspective

China vs. Japan — Nanking Massacre

The Japanese never took responsibility for their actions and never formally recognized the terrible crime they were responsible for.

Still, the relationship between China and Japan can’t only be understood in the context of World War II.

To understand this relationship, we have to go back almost 2000 years, to the beginning of the relationship that has been going on since then, with varying intensities.

Jinmu Tenno — Ginko Adachi (active 1874–1897) — Marcelino — Japanese Prints — Archive 29th May 2009

There are several significant milestones in the long relationship between the two civilizations. To give a broad enough perspective to understand why the restoration of China-Japan relations is not only through one concession or another, it should be remembered that this is only a small sample of a very long relationship.

The article does not pretend to present the entire scope of the Sino-Japanese relationship throughout history.

China-Japan Relations — The Begining

On the other hand, documented Chinese history dates back more than 1500 years to Japan. At the same time (during the Wei Dynasty), the Chinese visited Japan, China was hundreds of years after the unification made by Emperor Qin in 221 BC.

Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor

While an organized and structured agricultural society developed in China, the Japanese lived as hunter-gatherers. By the time China had a developed writing system, the Japanese were still unable to write. By the time China was already united, the various Japanese tribes had fought in Japan's islands.

Thus, a great advantage of Chinese civilization was built over the Japanese.

An advantage expressed in government, cultural aspects, philosophy, religious and intellectual works, social structure, and economics.

The Chinese visitors who documented Japan for the first time described a country ruled by tribal families, and even before they became a united people, they brought offerings to China.

The Chinese visitors called the Japanese “Wa,” which means “dwarf.” The Chinese described the Japanese as long-lived people who like to drink alcohol, clap their hands when praying in their temples, descriptions that are true to these days.

In the third century CE, the Japanese tribes were united by the Yamato tribe, and from then on, there was a central rule in Japan.

Yamato territory, China and Japan relations

In the fifth century, the central Japanese government accepted the Chinese emperor's supremacy, and from that moment on, even in periods when Chinese influence was less or actually zero, the Chinese emperor was considered superior to Japanese rule.

Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya, 443 CE

Moreover, Chinese culture's adoption gave the Japanese emperor prestige since Chinese culture was considered an elite culture. Throughout history, China has perceived itself as a central-main empire concerning all its neighbors and the world at large.

The Chinese name of China is Zhong Guo, which means: Middle-earth. That is China in the center and all the countries around it.

China’s relations with the countries around it were also maintained. The rulers of the neighboring countries sent delegations and offerings to the Chinese Empire.

Zhong Guo — The middle country (middle of the earth)

In many cases, the delegations that arrived in China from around Asia included many people who came to learn what China has to offer and give them the Chinese Emperor.

In exchange, the Chinese Emperor gave gifts to the delegations that arrived and allowed them to stay and learn from China what China had to offer.

The Great Wall, North China

For most of its existence, China's main risk came from the north due to invasions of tribes that lived in the steppes north of China.

This is also why China built the wall in northern China; a wall built first time during the reign of the Qin Emperor (and later disintegrated and rebuilt).

It was not until the nineteenth century that a naval threat came from the Western powers, especially Britain, and in the twentieth century, a significant land threat appears from Japan.

Most of the Chinese Empire’s history went through relative security outward, and the main threats were internal, usually in the dwindling stages of each dynasty.

China affected all countries around it and Japan as part of the Chinese sphere of influence, and when the Japanese applied their teachings from China, they always took it and adapted to their local culture.

The adoption of the Chinese writing system

And so it has been with Chinese influences over the years. The first wave of Chinese influence included the Chinese writing system and its art of Chinese calligraphy.

In addition to the writing, there were other influences in diplomacy, trade, and manufacturing methods of silk and ceramics.

Tang Dynasty copy of 新婦地黃湯帖 by Wang Xianzhi, currently in the Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum (台東区立書道博物館)

Above all, since the fifth century AD, Japan recognized Chinese superiority, which was the basis of a relationship that continued until the end of the 19th century.

The arrival of Buddhism to Japan

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue of Amitabha Buddha, made of bronze, is 11.40 m high and weighs 93 t.

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue of Amitabha Buddha, made of bronze, is 11.40 m high and weighs 93 t.on

Buddhism was the only great doctrine that China received outside its borders until the modern era.

At the end of the 4th century, Buddhism came to Korea as part of the Chinese influence there and Korea; it made its way to Japan, where the Japanese Emperor adopted it.

Until the arrival of Buddhism, Shinto was the local religion. Most of the population worshiped ancient gods who represented the various forces of nature.

Shinto in Japan

In a process that took several hundred years, Buddhism permeated the emperor and the powerful families into the common masses.

Confucianism arrived in Japan Kung Fu Dze, better known by its Latin name, Confucius, a name given to him by Jesuit monks (about 2000 years after his time), founded his system centuries ago.

Confucius, one of the main influences of China on Japan

The main points of the Confucianism are a harmonious and hierarchical conception of existence. Harmony is the goal to be achieved, and hierarchy is the way to achieve it.

As there is harmony in nature, there must be harmony in the social order. Social harmony should be the aspiration of human society and the government.

Every person needs to know his place and his role in society, which is the key to social harmony.

The hierarchy is based on five basic relationships in which one is defined as the more senior in the hierarchy. For example, the ruler is superior to the subject, and therefore the subject must obey him. The father is more senior than his son, so his son must obey him.

As with Buddhism, after the Chinese Confucian doctrine was adopted, it was transformed and accepted by the Japanese mainly as a social and political doctrine, which gave moral sanction to the rulers and demanded obedience from the people in gratitude, which strengthened the hierarchical structure of Japanese hierarchical society.

Samurai — Felice Beato — Bennett, Terry. ‘Early Japanese Images’ Hundreds of years later, with the rise of the Samurai, Japanese society's hierarchical structure intensified.

Beyond the influences of the Chinese writing system, Buddhism and Confucianism, there were other influences of governance, architecture, and more.

Most of the effect usually came in conjunction with the flowering period in China. In more difficult times, the Chinese influence faded until they were almost nonexistent.

The opium wars and the Japanese lesson
In the mid-nineteenth century, during the decay of the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty that ruled China, China experienced two opium wars.

British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The opium wars were against the British Empire's drug trade, which raised opium in India (in the Bengal region), marketed it to China’s coastal cities, and brought millions of drug addicts to the market.

The Chinese tried to stop this, fell into two wars with Britain. Because of Britain's military supremacy, they lost both wars and were forced to sign humiliating contracts with Britain and other Western countries, including Russia.

But the disaster did not end; the deterioration in China was reflected in a substantial rebellion in southern China (the Tai Ping Rebellion), spread north and threatened to overthrow the Qing dynasty, a rebellion that cost twenty million dead.

The Japanese saw and got the message. If this is what happens to the huge Chinese empire, the Japanese understood that this could happen if they confront the Western empires.

Restoration of Meiji in Japan

Commodore Perry’s visit in 1854

The opening of Japan and the need to sign agreements with Western countries opened a series of internal events that ultimately led to abolishing the Shogun rule and the emperor's return of power in the so-called “Meiji Restoration.”

As part of the restoration, Japan underwent a series of profound social changes that led to its reorganization from a governmental, military, and economic perspective.

Emperor Meiji of Japan (1852–1912)

Instead of choosing a path of confrontation with the more powerful Western countries, the Japanese chose to follow a different path that made them extraordinarily powerful.

The failed Chinese model was for the Japanese a huge warning sign of what would happen to them if they dared to confront Western countries' superior military power.

The Japanese wanted to escape Chinese fate. They wanted to become the Asian model of the Western imperialist powers instead of being exploited to exploit the country.

And so began the upheaval that led to a dramatic change in East Asia's balance of power.

The First Sino-Japanese War

The Japanese, who since the Meiji Restoration tried to resemble the West, saw imperialism as a worthy field, and the first object of imperialism was neighboring Korea.

First Sino-Japanese War 1894/95: Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army are firing their Murata Type 22 rifles

At that time, the Chinese were in the last years of the Qing dynasty, and the government system was completely rotten. The army, divided into four smaller armies, was divided and not ready for war.

The Japanese led to the deterioration of things in Korea to create an opportunity to react and intervene in what was happening there, which led to the first Sino-Japanese war.

Dingyuan, the flagship of the Beiyang Fleet (Chinese)

Only one-quarter of the Chinese army took part in the war, and still, it was three times the size of the Japanese army, but it did not help.

The Japanese stunned the world, which was still used to see China as a giant and a small dwarf challenging a giant in Japan.

China-Japan conflict -the first Sino-Japanese war

An illustration of Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese as a warning to others by Utagawa Kokunimasa
The international expectation was that the Chinese would crush the Japanese, but the opposite happened in practice. For the first time in East Asia's history, Chinese hegemony was transferred to the Japanese after Japan’s military humiliation in Japan.

Meiji’s restoration results proved that The Japanese internalized the lesson from China’s boastful attitude toward the Western superpowers.

In one generation only, Japan had become a superpower equivalent to the Western superpowers, and China had suffered further humiliation since the Opium Wars. Still, this time it was Japan, her protege, who challenged China.

The Second Sino-Japanese War 1931–1945

The relevant option was in Manchuria, which was rich in territory and resources but a small problem … It belonged to China.

Thus, the Second World War, which began in 1939 for most of the world, began for China in 1931 in Manchuria, first with small steps, and in 1937, it became a war and the peak reached in the Nanjing massacre.

In the Western superpowers' resistance, Japan invaded Manchuria, established an artificial state called Manchukuo, with puppet rule.

Japanese propaganda of Manchukuo

Propaganda poster promoting harmony between Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu. The caption says (Right to the left): “With the cooperation of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace.”
In 1931, China was caught up in internal struggles, and the economic and technological backwardness between it and the West did not allow it to resist Japan effectively.

The Japanese appetite was not satisfied with Manchuria only, and in 1937 they invaded China from the east and sank into stagnation, which took a heavy toll on them.

Sino — Japanese second war

Japanese occupation (red) of eastern China near the end of the war, and Communist guerrilla bases (striped)

China's size and the size of the population did not allow them to move deeper into China.

China, on the other hand, was engulfed in a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Dze Dong, who invested most of their forces and energies in a war against each other and a relatively small part of their power,

Of course, the end of the war came with dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the American occupation, and the creation of the new constitution that bothered Japanese militarism.

Thus, the small and weak protege that had sent delegations to China's mainland for thousands of years to learn everything the Chinese civilization had to offer had humiliated China again and again from 1894 to 1945.

The Nanjing Massacre was not one random event but a record event in decades of warlike bullying, invasions of Chinese influence, and China.

China vs. Japan — Post Second World War

The more China grew economically, the more it expanded its economic and military influence beyond China's borders.

The economic impact is evident throughout the globe, in countless projects in South America, Africa, and Asia, and especially in two mega-projects designed to position China as a power equivalent to the US:

1. AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), the Chinese version of the world bank
2. The BRI (The Belt and Road Initiative), which is the New Silk Road Project.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road

The military impact is evident mainly in the South China Sea, in the dozens of bases that China has built on fighter jets flying near Japan, with submarines in the Indian Ocean.

The dispute in the South China sea South-east facing aerial view of PRC-settled Woody Island. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the island.
The Chinese (and this is my personal opinion) are not interested in any war despite their military expansion.

I believe that the Chinese way is a combination of two parameters: China’s vision of itself as Zhong Guo, a central state, and a Confucian concept that espouses hierarchy and harmony.

The hierarchy is to see themselves as the top country in Asia and perhaps in the whole world, and harmony will come when other countries recognize this.

It is clear that the Chinese are not planning to return the delegation system that brings offerings to China, but it is clear that they do not see themselves as equal to other countries in the region.

Chinese feelings toward Japan are beyond the Nanjing massacre. China mainly wants a new order in East Asia. An order that will highlight China’s more senior position over other countries, including Japan.

In my opinion, even if Japan acknowledge their responsibility for the Nanjing massacre and the events of World War II, apologize and pay compensation to the survivors of the massacre and/or their family, China will not bring its relations with Japan to normal.

I believe that the Chinese are looking to re-establish the whole relationship between them and Japan and the rest of Asia.
The real reconciliation will come if Japan ostensibly acknowledges China’s prestige over Japan and would choose to be China’s protege instead of being the US protege.

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Originally published at on December 8, 2018.

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