There is a friendly feeling about Japan in China at the moment, and vice versa. This is partly, explains Duncan Bartlett, due to a record number of Chinese people visiting Japan, boosting its economy, and Japan’s support for China’s economic expansion. On the diplomatic front, there are even efforts to settle a long-running territorial dispute in the East China Sea

A record number of Chinese tourists are appreciating Japan’s famous hospitality, known as the generous spirit of omotenashi. You encounter crowds of them out shopping in the great metropolitan cities such as Osaka and Tokyo, and sightseeing in more rural areas, such as the northern island of Hokkaido.

Chinese visitors pose for pictures wearing kimonos, or even waving the national flag of their nation’s former invader. Some Japanese shopkeepers have learned how to greet their customers in Chinese, and have also thought of a name for the most enthusiastic Chinese shoppers – ‘bakugai’, which translates as ‘money explosions’. The Chinese like buying souvenirs such as rice cakes, chopsticks and lucky charms, which serves as a reminder that Japan and China have cultural connections which pre-date their recent differences over ideology and territory.

Troubled history

Yet the nations’ troubled recent history and their different perspectives on politics have affected the way the Chinese and Japanese see each other.

A few years ago, an article by the eminent historian Max Hastings appeared in the British tabloid newspaper TheDaily Mail under the chilling headline ‘Is World War Three about to start by accident?’

Japan has been caught in the crossfire of the USChina trade war

‘The tensions between Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have been increasing for years,’ wrote Mr Hastings, warning that ‘many wars have been triggered by miscalculations’. He claimed that there was ‘a profound fear in Washington, in Tokyo, and maybe also in Beijing, that one day something unspeakably ghastly could happen by mistake’.

When that piece was published in early 2014, the diplomatic relationship between China and Japan was in a very poor state. The idea that Japan, of all places, would sign up to support China’s international expansion would have seemed quite implausible.

Changing mood

Yet this September, a meeting will be held in Beijing at which senior representatives from China and Japan will decide how to cooperate on projects that are part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, such as a railway in Thailand. This marks a big diplomatic success for China, which takes great pride in the Belt and Road and sees it an extension of its national agenda, derived from socialism with Chinese characteristics.

In Japan, which has a political system based on representative democracy, there was until quite recently official distrust of the Chinese expansion plan. However, Japan now stands ready to collaborate on projects which will bring benefits to its businesses. This collaboration will be formally endorsed when President Xi Jinping visits Tokyo next year, taking with him a carefully-worded document marking 40 years of peace between China and Japan, emphasising their shared values and goals.

Yasukuni visit

It was significant that neither Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, nor any other Japanese cabinet ministers, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo this summer to mark the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The shrine commemorates people who died in battle, including soldiers who were convicted of war crimes in Asia. In the past, visits by Japanese politicians to the shrine have provoked resentment in the Chinese media. Such unpleasantness has been avoided for a few years now.

Clause Nine reform

In addition, there has been very little mention of Mr Abe’s plan to reform Clause Nine of the Japanese constitution. A change to that clause would open the way for Japan to significantly expand the role of its military, changing it from a Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.

It is unlikely that the goal has been abandoned. However, Japan, like China, knows when to soft pedal on sensitive matters. In particular, the Japanese would prefer to avoid any confrontations ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.

Tensions over territory

Most people in Japan and China go about their lives without worrying too much about uninhabited rocks which barely show up on maps. However, the tiny Senkaku islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu, lie at the centre of a bitter territorial dispute. Japan becomes annoyed when Chinese boats sail too close to the islands and scrambles its coastguard to protect them. In a bid to reduce the tension, China has now asked local fishermen to steer clear of the islands, further reducing the risk of a clash.

There was until quite recently official Japanese distrust of the Chinese expansion plan

A lasting settlement on the Senkakus would be a step forward in improving Sino-Japanese relations. Given the recent state of steady progress on other fronts, that could well be possible soon.

NOTABLE ABSENCE: Japanese PM Shinzo Abe did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo this summer to mark the anniversary of the end of WWII, which appealed to Chinese sensitivities
NOTABLE ABSENCE: Japanese PM Shinzo Abe did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo this
summer to mark the anniversary of the end of WWII, which appealed to Chinese sensitivities

Economic opportunity

China is currently smarting from a trade war with the US and Japan has been caught in the crossfire. America has imposed tariffs on Japanese iron and steel imports, causing considerable resentment and leading to concern about the implications for the Japanese automotive industry.

Some Chinese politicians and journalists are making the most of this discontent, asking if Japan feels let down by its unreliable ally.

The message goes like this: ‘As the world’s second and third largest economies – with thousands of years of doing trade together in Asia – shouldn’t we work together to reduce US dominance in our region?

‘Mr Trump has rejected multilateralism – China has not. Remember, China is a peaceful nation. If Mr Trump doesn’t want us to buy American cars, let the Chinese buy Japanese cars instead!’

Hearing such words, the Japanese are more likely to go on cooperating with their Chinese neighbours. After all, despite their rivalry, they both regard themselves as great trading nations.

Which helps to explain why Japanese shopkeepers smile when they see the Chinese coming to visit, and prepare to hear the happy sound of friendly explosions of money ringing through their tills.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo. He is the founder of the news portal Japan Story, a regular contributor to the Nikkei and Sankei newspapers in Japan and has recently written for Week in China and China Plus


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