East Asian relations

Editor’s summary

There seems to be no end to the cycle of perceived affront – demand for apology – eventual apology – yet another perceived affront that has been going on between Japan and its neighbors for decades now. We pick up the drama with a meeting between Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and China’s President Hu Jintao in Jakarta on May 20.

Hu said Koizumi should back up his apology with action, but did not demand that Koizumi stop his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, one of the actions that has been perceived as an affront by China and the two Koreas. In fact, Koizumi said he intended to continue his visits and said other countries should “not interfere.” Yasukuni honors Japan’s war dead, including wartime leaders who were convicted as “Class A War Criminals” in the war crimes trials following World War II. China and the two Koreas have made it known that they will not remain silent whenever a modern day Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni to honor, among the other war dead, these men responsible for wartime atrocities.

On May 23, Chinese Deputy PM Wu Yi first asked for and then canceled without explanation a meeting with Koizumi in Tokyo. This happened just after Hu told Japanese parliamentarians visiting Beijing that the Yasukuni visits were still a problem.

On May 24, a spokesman in Beijing said the abrupt cancellation came after “Japanese leaders made remarks on the Yasukuni Shrine issue that are damaging to China-Japan relations.” So the Chinese have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of following Koizumi’s request that they “not interfere” with his visits to Yasukuni.

(Reaction against Koizumi’s plan to continue visiting Yasukuni also came from a prominent politician from Okinawa, where anti-war sentiment is strong due to memories of the tremendous civilian casualties suffered during the closing months of World War II and the fact that it has hosted a large U.S. military force ever since the end of that war.)

Koizumi has also set a date to meet South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun on June 20. Will Roh also go along with Koizumi’s stand to continue visiting Yasukuni? Unlike China’s Hu, Roh has to consider the implications of such a stance on the next elections.

For the South Korean public, an even more important issue is Japan’s territorial claim on an island (which each country refers to by a different name) that lies in the middle of the body of water between the two (which also each country refers to by a different name.)

Behind this cycle is a clear perception among Japan’s neighbors that Tokyo may be about to return to its militarist days of territorial aggression. Also, China may be feeling that, after a century and a half of letting Japan play the role of regional power in East Asia, it is about time for China to reclaim its rightful place as the “Middle Kingdom.”

While Japan stagnates demographically and economically, China is growing at a break-neck pace. The tide of history may already have turned against Japan.