Chinese-Japanese Relations Two Asian giants, China and Japan, are struggling to get along. Their issues include disputed oil rights, military buildups, national pride, and the legacy of the second world war. Neal Conan leads a discussion on how the growing power struggle in Asia affects the rest of the world.
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Chinese-Japanese Relations

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Chinese-Japanese Relations

Chinese-Japanese Relations

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From NPR News in Washington, D.C., I'm Neal Conan and this is TALK OF THE NATION. Growing tension between Beijing and Tokyo reverberates as far away as Washington. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellicke.

Mr. ROBERT ZOELLICKE (Deputy Secretary of State): I don't think it's affected our interests. I think that what is striking is that both Japan and China raised the topic with the United States.

CONAN: The troubles between the two Asian giants and why it's important.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tensions between China and Japan are nothing new. But through history, either one was more prosperous or powerful. Now, maybe for the first time, both are great economic powers and both have the potential to be great military powers, as well. Despite important trade and economic ties, relations between the Asian giants are bad and getting worse. Disputes include rival claims over oil fields in the East China Sea, Chinese objections to Japan's ambitions for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Counsel, and competition for influence with Taiwan, with Korea, and with the other great Pacific power, the United States. In no small part, the anger is fueled by the bitter legacy of the Second World War. Last month, our continuing series on China in the 21st-century focused on China's relationship with its neighbor, India. Today, the relationship between China and Japan, and what that means for the rest of the world. Later in the program, Massachusetts bars marriage for same-sex couples from out of state. And a coach's sons ride on the edges of their seats to the Final Four.

But first, China and Japan. If you have questions about the long history of this long rivalry, current issues, and the effect on the region and the world, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The email address is Ezra Vogel joins us now from the studios at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He's professor emeritus of Social Sciences at Harvard, also the well-known author of Japan is Number One. He also edited the book Living with China. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor EZRA VOGEL (Professor Emeritus, Harvard University): Nice to be here.

CONAN: How bad is it between these two nations today?

Prof. VOGEL: It's very bad. The public, on both sides now, has very strong hostility towards the other. On Chinese internet, one can see constant criticisms of Japan, very vehement. Japanese public opinion toward China is as bad as it's ever been. We now have, in the latest polls, 68 percent of the Japanese say they have no feeling of kinship toward China.

CONAN: Now, things have...

Prof. VOGEL: The leaders have not met for several years. And so, there are no ways at the very top to deal with the problems. So, both at the public and the top levels, they're really in very bad shape.

CONAN: Things were not so bad back in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s. Why have they gotten worse?

Prof. VOGEL: Number one, they have lost their common enemy. During the Cold War, until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China and Japan had strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union. They've lost that strategic cooperation. Number two, China no longer needs Japanese economic help as much as in the 1970s. In the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping said that China needed Japanese investment, technology, management know-how, to start the modernization. Now China is no longer as poor as it was, and they feel they don't need Japanese help as much as they did at that time. Number three, Japan has begun to fear that Japan is re-militarizing. After the Gulf War in 1989, the United States disappointed the Japan, already rich in rivaling us economic, did not send people who risked their lives, and they were late in sending money to the Gulf. The United States pressured Japan to accept more global responsibilities. Japan decided to defend their home islands up to 1,000 nautical miles. They began contributing soldiers for international peacekeeping. Chinese, whose closest contact with Japan was in World War II, who did not know how much Japan had become peace loving...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. VOGEL: ...understandably feared the Chinese militarism was reviving.

CONAN: Japanese militarism, you meant.

Prof. VOGEL: Japanese militarism was reviving. Number four, for the first time in modern history Japan and China, as you said, are both strong and are both now competing, as you said, for influence politically. They're competing economically and potentially military. And the Chinese feel the tables have turned. And now it's Japan's turn to bow down to China, as China has bowed down for a century of humiliation. Five, go ahead.

CONAN: No. Well...

Prof. VOGEL: Five and finally, the Japanese public, especially those born after World War Two, have grown sick and tired of apologizing and being polite in the face of Chinese hostility. When they saw on TV their soccer players in China being attacked in 2004, and the next year they saw on TV their embassy in Beijing being pelted with rocks, while the Chinese police stood for four hours without stopping them, it was hard for them to feel kindly toward China. And now we have a vicious cycle, as media from each country feeds on the extremism in the other. So those of things that made it change.

CONAN: Yet, you say that China no feels Japan is as important. Yet Japan is a very important investor in China, a very important market for Chinese products. You would think economic interests would help outweigh these differences.

Prof. VOGEL: China feels they have more leverage than they did in the ‘70s. In the ‘70s, when they were so weak, the Japanese were very much needed. But now, China feels that their market is so big, that they already have a high level of technology, that even if Japan should reduce the technological aid, they're not going to be in such bad shape. They're much more confident.

CONAN: Hmm. If you'd like to join our conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The email address is And let's get Jason on the line. Jason calling us from Philadelphia.

JASON (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Prof. VOGEL: Okay.

JASON: I know a lot of the problems between China and Japan are between the fact of the war crimes that Japan committed in China. And one of the reasons that China recently has had such a horrible issue with Japan was because Japan decided not to recognize the Rape of Nanjing and actually changed the history in their textbooks. It's a lesson what they did in China. So my question is, don't you think that if Japan would come to an understanding, or recognize the war crimes they committed in China and publicly apologize for them, it would be on the step to the right direction for diplomatic relations between the two countries?

Prof. VOGEL: Well, Japan has, in fact, apologized time and time again. Every time their prime minister has met a Chinese leader they've always apologized. That's been going on for 30 years.

JASON: Oh, I think...

Prof. VOGEL: While it's true there are some Japanese who downplay Nanjing, a vast majority in the textbooks acknowledge that Nanjing was a horrible massacre. The Chinese have not given objective publicity to how much Japanese have turned down, have turned on the criticisms of Nanjing, and how much their textbooks have criticized Japanese militarism in World War II.

JASON: Why do you think that that's the case? Why do you think they're playing that down?

Prof. VOGEL: I think...

JASON: Why do you think China is not...

CONAN: Jason, let the professor answer, if you would. Please.

Prof. VOGEL: I think for one thing, the Chinese found that in World War II, they united their people in anti-Japaneseness. And in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was lots of anti-Russianism in China. Around the later time, around 2000, after the United States bombed the Yugoslavian and the Chinese Embassy, there was quite a bit of anti-Americanism. And now it's turning toward Japan.


Prof. VOGEL: So, I think one of the reasons, is that there is a feeling that this can be useful uniting. Second, I think there is a base of very great anger at Japan for the horrors, that many people and their families have experienced, and they want Japan to continue to apologize. I think all of the things that I mentioned before also underline Chinese feelings, the feelings that for over a century they've been humiliated by Japan. Now, here's something that they can use in getting sympathy from around the world and help get people to be on their side against Japan.

CONAN: Would it be fair to say, Professor, that in part the Chinese Communist Party derived some of its unity and legitimacy from its role opposing Japan during the Second World War and again, now without the Soviet Union there, this is a role that it hearkens back to frequently.

Prof. VOGEL: It gained its power through World War II and Mao Tze Tung once said that we have to thank the Japanese for giving us our unity. However, I don't think it's so much that they look at that as legitimacy now. I think they feel the key issue for legitimacy is showing that they can progress economically. I don't think that that's, Japan is the key issue for showing their legitimacy.

CONAN: And one other issue about the war and that is that the Japanese prime minister has made a point of visiting a war shrine, a cemetery where many, I think more than a dozen, convicted war criminals are buried. And this is something that never fails to criticism, certainly in Beijing, Korea, and elsewhere throughout East Asia.

Prof. VOGEL: My own personal view is he should stop visiting that shrine because it would show the Asians that he takes their feelings very seriously. What he says is that he visits not because he believes in militarism, but because a lot of people in Japan have sacrificed for their country and he wants to show respect for those who have fallen and sacrificed. But the very fact of his visiting gets so much attention that the neighbors, China, Korea, other countries in Southeast Asia, don't read what he says, they just know the fact that he's visited, and that attracts a lot of negative feelings. Plus the fact that there is a museum connected with Yasukuni that's not necessarily connected with the places that he visits.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. VOGEL: But is a very strong national statement and there are some right-wing people there who have downplayed Japanese militarism.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call. You seem to be talking about emerging nationalism on both sides. The Japanese getting tired of apologizing, the Chinese feeling their new strength.

Prof. VOGEL: I think nationalism has been strong in both countries; it's now taking a new shape. The new Japanese nationalism, which in the ‘70s and ‘80s was taking pride in their advancement, is now beginning to feel that here's a country that's pushing them, and so it's a reactive antagonistic nationalism that's different. China had been nationalistic, certainly during World War II, and certainly during the Korean War, certainly during the Vietnam War. So nationalism is not new in China, but the new focus is on Japan. That's what different.

CONAN: Hmmm. We're talking about Xano(ph)-Japanese relations, the deterioration of them, with Ezra Vogel, a professor at Harvard University. We're going to take a short break and return with more of your calls on this issue. 800-989-8255 if you'd care to join us, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION Talk from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today we're exploring the deterioration in relations between China and Japan, part of our series on China in the 21st century. Our guest is Ezra Vogel, former director of Fairbanks for Chinese Studies and author of Japan is Number One. You're invited to join us, of course. Our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is And, Professor Vogel, I wanted to ask you, both these countries are huge importers of energy. Japan even more vulnerable than China on this point. And one of these disputes is oil fields in the East China Sea. How serious is that?

Prof. VOGEL: It could be potentially very serious. The Chinese have been sending in ships very close by. They're drilling very close to the line that would be exactly halfway between the two countries, even though the line has not been officially set. And with clever use of oil digging, it's possible that they could slant their oil digging and get into what the Japanese consider their side. The Japanese have been sending some observation boats and planes, and it's not impossible to imagine there could be a clash near that site.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We had heard other disputes similarly involving energy. Both, you know, both China and several other countries had claims in the Sprackley(ph) Islands, the Paris Isles, those seemed to have ebbed a bit.

Prof. VOGEL: There's still a great deal of tensions about those various islands that are claimed by both countries, and there is a danger that they could break out at any time. Generally, places like that are a symbol for the feelings and the relationship. When other things get tense and you say, where is the danger that something might break out, then those are the hotspots where it could break out.

CONAN: Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. This is Christian. Christian with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

CHRISTIAN (Caller): Hi, Professor.

Prof. VOGEL: Hi.

CHRISTIAN: Hi. I've enjoyed your comments today. I was a Japanese Ministry Education scholarship student and I used my master's in finance there for four years.

Prof. VOGEL: In the JET Programme?

CHRISTIAN: No, in the Monbusho Program.

Prof. VOGEL: Yes, okay.

CHRISTIAN: And 80% of my fellow master's and quite a few Ph.D. level participants as well were Chinese. And so there were tens of thousands of us on this program, 80% of which were Chinese. I'd be curious to know what you thought, you know, of the educational exchanges between Japan and China, that hopefully, you know, both sides after spending three or four years in each other's country, maybe similar to a Pope Bride(ph) or to a Rhodes Scholarship. What effect do you think that will have on teacher relations and I'll listen to your comments on...

CONAN: Thanks, Christian.

Prof. VOGEL: I think that Chinese and Japanese student exchanges are a wonderful thing. The problem on the Chinese side is that many of them choose to stay in Japan, don't come back, and, therefore, cannot take part in public discussion in Japan. And also that they don't seem to rise up high enough in China in the decision making. While there are some people in China that specialize in studying Japan and know a great deal about it, their knowledge and their understanding of Japan has not been effectively communicated to the top leaders. On the Japanese side, there has been a great eagerness to learn about China, and the number of students now going abroad from Japan to China has increased. There are about 100,000 foreign students in Japan and almost half of them are from China. Koreans make up the biggest group of students in China, but there are also large numbers of students from Japan who are going and that number is increasing.

CONAN: Let's go to Patricia now. Patricia is with us from Hopkinton, I'll get that straight. These New England names really drive me crazy. Patricia, you're in New Hampshire, go ahead.

PATRICIA: Yes. Hi, Ezra?

Prof. VOGEL: Yes? This is Pat Conners Ares(ph). I knew you years ago from Harvard.

Prof. VOGEL: Yes, I remember. Greetings.

PATRICIA: And I'd love to hear your opinion about Robert Scalapino's writings and many others feelings that it is United States' government policy to build up Japan's military power, even to the point of nuclear power, to counter China, of which we are more suspicious.

Prof. VOGEL: The United States has been very much against Japan going nuclear, and Japan has decided itself that does not want to go nuclear. The United States wants Japan to play its role in the defense of the region and to take a part in global activities. But it has not supported a thoroughgoing revival of militarism. The Japanese have about 200,000 people in uniform compared to over two million in China. And there is little sign, either from the United States or from Japan, that there's a desire to increase that number.

PATRICIA: Well, that's reassuring. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Patricia.

Prof. VOGEL: You're welcome.

CONAN: The United States does support the idea of Japan becoming a member, a permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council, or at least sort of. The Chinese object. Why?

Prof. VOGEL: The Chinese, I believe, are concerned about the basic power implications. They feel that Japan is gaining power around the world and reacting very much like a military and political power in the 19th and 20th Century, they want to do everything they can to monopolize power in the region. I think their view is not really in their interest. It's in their interest to have Japan as an active participant and constructive member of the United Nations Security Council, and many Chinese agree with me. But at least the current policy is to do everything they can to keep Japan out of the United Nations, which will only encourage Japan to become more hostile. There's a real danger that this feeling between China and Japan and could lead to a clash. And it's really much in both countries interests to head that off.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Sarah. Sarah is with us from Santa Rosa, California.

SARAH: Hi. I was in Peace Corps 10 years ago in China in Szechwan Province.

Prof. VOGEL: Great.

SARAH: It was interesting. Every time there was a holiday or a date like the rape of Nanking, there would be propaganda put up in our small town. And my students who I was teaching, I was teaching at a normal school, were very, very anti-Japanese. And what I saw was an entire generation of students who had extremely negative propaganda, all, that's all they saw about Japan. My husband lived in Japan for four years and he saw students who had absolutely no concept of what had been going on between China and Japan during World War II and would have no understanding of where that animosity would come and I just wonder how, you know, that's going to be a lot to overcome between...

Prof. VOGEL: I think what you just described is very accurate. However, in the 1980s, in China, there were a lot of Japanese movies on Chinese TV that went over very well. Ha Shin(ph) was a great popular home drama with the Chinese people and Chinese film viewers could see Japanese films. Now, there's almost nothing on TV, and so I think it's going to take a period of gradual introduction of more Japanese culture and of determination on the leadership to have a public that has a better and more accurate understanding of Japan. I think in Japan the situation is not so dangerous. There was that basis for understanding China, and it's true that some textbooks did become very extreme. The danger is now in Japan that because the Chinese attacks and criticism have been so strong, it strengthens the right-wingers in Japan who want to be very tough on China. So, there is a real danger now of those hostilities escalating still further, and it's going to take some strong, confident leadership on both sides to turn that around.

SARAH: And my concern would also be with the Japanese kind of being, at least the younger generation, being completely shocked and not understanding where this extreme animosity, I mean, my students had extreme animosity towards the Japanese, and none of them, you know, they certainly lived in an area where they would have had very little exposure to Japanese or anyone...

Prof. VOGEL: I think in the last year or two, there has been a lot more of the Japanese present in the TV and the Internet about what the feelings of China are and a lot more recognition of the issue. And in the upcoming election between Koizumi's replacement...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. VOGEL: ...over the question of Koizumi's replacement, the China issue will come on very strong. And there are a lot of people in Japan who really do want to try to improve relations. A lot of people in China want to improve relations.

SARAH: Yeah.

Prof. VOGEL: But they need a lot of help, both from the public and from the very top leadership.

SARAH: Definitely and as it moves from the East Coast into the more inner parts of China that are more rural and the smaller towns because...

Prof. VOGEL: Well, I visited some of these isolated areas too, and there's a lot of people there who really don't know anything about international affairs who were really extremely isolated. And a lot of the -- you recall that in the 1960s there was a lot of anti-American propaganda. But once things opened up in the 1970s, the feelings towards America changed very, very rapidly, so that old publicity didn't matter that much. It's gonna be harder in the case of Japan, because a lot of people experienced Japanese hostilities during World War II, and they know from their relatives. But it's now 60 years and many of them have learned about Japan only through the hostility. And when they meet Japanese they're surprised how friendly, how decent, how law-abiding, they really are. So there is a potential for change.

CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much.

SARAH (Caller): Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's get a question in from Neil. Neil's with us from Novi, Michigan.

NEIL (Caller): Hello. Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NEIL: Yeah. My question is, with this growing attention between China and Japan, what U.S. can gain or lose from this tension between the two nations?

Prof. VOGEL: Some people in the United States think that hostility between the two countries would be good and that we would be, as the Chinese say, the fisherman who profits from the battle between two fish. But that's not the dominant view. The dominate view is our national interest is for peace and stability in the region, and that the escalating tensions between Japan and China threaten that peace, and that we ought to be doing all we can to encourage the two countries to cooperate. There's no way we can be the mediator. The two countries don't want us as the mediator. But we can do a great deal as we talk to each side to encourage them and to help promote a better understanding and more contact between the two countries. That's very much in our national interest. And Bob Zelick(ph) whom you had on the radio before, very much understands that.

CONAN: One add on to that, one of the reasons Japan has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons is that, of course, it's under the nuclear umbrella of the United States...

Prof. VOGEL: Yes.

CONAN: The United States is a strong ally of Japan, and could that be, play a role in all of this? Is, oh, well Chinese have, own a great deal of American debt at this point?

Prof. VOGEL: There is a danger that if the Chinese push Japan too hard that they will do just what the feared Japan might do. If they begin to treat Japan as an enemy, as they seem to in the last couple of years, Japan could turn into an enemy. And the hostility coming from China now toward Japan does a great deal to fuel the desire to have a stronger military and more military technology. It's fueling the antiballistic missile effort. I think that it's very unlikely that Japan will go nuclear, but they will certainly develop a lot of other kind of weapons systems if the Chinese keep pushing at them.

CONAN: Neil, thanks very much for the question. We appreciate it.

NEIL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today about China and Japan, part of our series on China and the 21st century. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get John in the conversation. John's calling from Boca Raton in Florida.

JOHN (CALLER): Yes. Hi. I was interested in hearing the professor's comments about the unification of Korea. And how North Korea is a large, welfare state of China and how the Japanese possibly could be thwarting any efforts for North Korea and South Korea to become unified. And I'll get my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, John.

Prof. VOGEL: China and Japan have been competing over Korea for over a century. And Korea is so strategically located right in the middle that they get involved whenever there're big power conflicts in Asia. That was the place where the Sino-Japanese War started in 1894, 95. It was the place where the Sino-Russian -- the Japanese-Russian War started in 1904, 1905. It was, of course, the place where the Korean War took place as the Soviet Union, United States, again, focused on that central location. The Chinese, historically, have had more influence. After all, Korea is a peninsula that sticks out from China, and South Korea, since the late ‘80s when they begun to open up relations with China, have had a kind of honeymoon. But that honeymoon is beginning to fade now, as some South Koreans feel that if China is gonna become a real strong power, perhaps it will behave like other strong powers and begin to push a little too much. And to have such a strong neighbor might be a little frightening. And therefore, a lot of Koreans, just in the last year or two now, are beginning to talk more about keeping the strong defense relationship with the United States, and keeping a strong relationship with Japan, despite the fact that Korea and Japan have still a lot of differences of views about World War II.

CONAN: And one other country that, of course, or at least not exactly a country, of course, Taiwan, and, there's rivalry there between China and Japan, as well.

Prof. VOGEL: China has been afraid that Japan is trying to help Taiwan remain independent. And it is true that because the japans occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, and taught Japanese, and that they're a lot of people in Taiwan who thought the Glomandon(ph) leaders who came from the mainland were worse than the Japanese, there has been a flirtation and a close relationship with Japan since World War II. But Japan is not about to use military means to keep Taiwan independent. Mainland China is very much afraid of that. I think that if this issue is handled carefully that there's no reason for the two countries to come into conflict over Taiwan. Japan does not want to go so far as to encourage Taiwan to become politically and militarily independent.

CONAN: One final question, we just have a few seconds left with you, Professor. But is the coming Olympic Games in Beijing, is that going to be an opportunity of sorts, to, you know, at least repair some of these relations?

Prof. VOGEL: It would very useful if Beijing, before the 2008 Olympics, and then again, before their huge expo in 2010 in Shanghai, decided they wanted as much foreign participation as possible, and then have very good participation from Japan, a lot of cooperation. It would be an excellent opportunity if handled well. If not handled well, it could lead to increased tensions. The danger that many people worry about is after 2010, if China does well through the Olympics and through the Shanghai exposition, they will become so confident, they will begin to behave again like a lot of great powers in the world with strong military and bullying the neighbors. We don't know. And there are a lot of good signs that widely Chinese trying to avoid that. We ought to do everything we can to encourage them. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Ezra Vogel, thank you very much. We appreciate your time today.

Prof. VOGEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Ezra Vogel former director of the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard and former director of the U.S./Japan program at the Center for International Affairs. He joined us today from the studios as Harvard University. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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