Ezra Vogel says disputes over wartime history are key factor behind Northeast Asia friction

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Ezra Vogel Headline
Ezra Vogel, well-known scholar of East Asia, delivered the final lecture in the seminar series on the Sino-Japanese rivalry at Shorenstein APARC.
Photo credit: 
Debbie Warren

Relations between China and Japan continue to fray and have no immediate chance of improving, according to one of the nation’s leading East Asian scholars.

“I think we all know that Sino-Japanese relations are about as bad as they have ever been,” said Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, who spoke to a filled room at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in the Freeman Spogli Institute on Thursday.

“I tend to be optimistic,” he said. “But I honestly don’t see any short-term solutions, I think we’re in for a period now where the issues are going to be very tough and the relations are going to be very tough.

“For any long-term solution, there is going to have to be some resolution of the history issue,” he added, referring to the disputes over the wartime past in Northeast Asia.

Vogel delivered the final lecture in a seminar series focused on the Sino-Japanese rivalry. The series brought various experts to Shorenstein APARC this spring to consider the historical contention between China and Japan, and its impact on that contemporary relationship. Professors Peter Duus of Stanford and Jessica Chen Weiss of Yale University were among the scholars who presented earlier this year, along with the Brookings Institution’s Richard Bush.

Professor Vogel is a renowned scholar of both China and Japan, the author of many books that have become classics in the study of both countries. A sociologist by training, he is the Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Harvard University. Vogel described himself as a historian in practice, joking that he had become a historian “simply by living a long time.”

A shifting terrain of relations

In his April 3 lecture, Vogel traced the history of relations between Japan and China, particularly in the post-war era, and discussed how they have been impacted by disputes over history.

In the current atmosphere, under the influence of the media and political leaders highly responsive to public opinion, the image of Sino-Japanese relations is dominated by a sense of deep friction. But, Vogel said relations between the two great Asian powers were not always bad. 

After the early decades of the Cold War, when there were no formal ties between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, there was a relative blossoming in the relationship. Following the normalization of relations in 1972, and as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping took over the reins of power, Sino-Japanese relations entered a period of closer ties and political thaw.

“The relationship was really moving in a very positive way,” Vogel said. Japanese aid and foreign investment was key to the opening up of China to the world economy and there was a flow of exchanges among youth and of popular culture between the two neighbors.

That “special era” remained through year 1992, even as the rest of the world distanced itself from China, both economically and politically, following the Tiananmen Square incident. The visit of the Japanese Emperor to China that year marked the peak of a “golden age” of positive relations between the two countries following the war.

‘Golden age’ fades

After 1992, the constructive relationship between China and Japan began to slip for several reasons.

By the mid-1990s, the Soviet Union no longer existed as a threat – a “broad strategic reason” that had united the countries. Taiwan’s growing independence movement was becoming a flashpoint of contention, with Chinese irritation over the close ties between pro-independence Taiwanese leaders and Japan.

Perhaps most important of all, China, in the wake of the student protests, embarked upon a “patriotic education” campaign designed to shore up the loyalty of youth by stressing broad themes of Chinese national pride. In that campaign, reminders of the wartime struggle against the Japanese invasion of the 1930s occupied a central part of the message, communicated in textbooks, movies and books that remain a staple of Chinese popular culture. The demonization of Japan has colored Chinese perceptions, Vogel said.

In Japan, the sense of anxiety about the rise of China is also reflected in a rise of conservative attacks on China and the promotion of a Japanese version of ‘patriotic education.’ The perception that Japanese leaders are increasingly unrepentant about the wartime past, symbolized by the visits of Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine to Japan’s war dead, feeds these tensions over the past.

Vogel said biased education on that wartime era and misinformation in the media are key factors behind the publics’ formation of historical memory, and subsequently, encourage strong antagonism toward one another.

Guarded optimism

Disputes over history, particularly of the wartime period, must be addressed for any warming of the Japan-China relationship to occur.

“I think until we get some kind of deeper meaning of World War II, we’re not going to have much progress,” he said.

Vogel said the Japanese should try harder to give a fair representation of World War II to youth, who often only receive a few short details on that time period. The Chinese should “slow down” on anti-Japanese propaganda, he recommended.

Vogel said he is optimistic about an improvement in the bilateral relationship, but also emphasized that progress will be hard to achieve under current leadership. Even so, the two countries would be remiss to avoid dealing with issues of historical interpretation, especially as it continues to serve as a roadblock to an easing of tensions in the region.

The audio and transcript from the April 3 seminar, "The Shadow of History and Sino-Japanese Relations," are posted below.