Can China and Japan Rehabilitate Their Political Relations?

One of the most shocking events in World War II, which was so rife with horror, was the Nanjing massacre, during which the Japanese raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and massacred hundreds of thousands in the most brutal,  imaginable and unimaginable methods.

China and Japan political and cultural relationship

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

China and Japan political and cultural relationship

Still, the relationship between China and Japan CAN'T only be understood in the context of World War II.

In order 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.

I chose several significant milestones in the long relationship between the two civilizations In order to give a perspective that is broad enough 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 and Japan political and cultural relationship - Jimmu tenno

Jinmiu Tenno - Ginko Adachi (active 1874-1897) - artelino - Japanese Prints - Archive 29th May 2009

According to Japanese tradition, Japan was founded in 660 BC by Emperor Jinmu-Tennō but the earliest historical record was recorded by Chinese visitors who came to Japan in the second century CE.

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

Qin Shi Huang 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 fought in the islands of Japan.

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

An advantage that was 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 relationship

In the fifth century, the central Japanese government accepted the supremacy of the Chinese emperor 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. China and Japan relationship

Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya, 443 CE

Moreover, the adoption of Chinese culture gave prestige to the Japanese emperor since Chinese culture was considered an elite culture. Throughout history, China has perceived itself as a central-main empire in relation to 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, China and Japan relationship

Zhong Guo characters 

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 to give the Chinese Emperor presents.

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.

China great wall - China and Japan relationship


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

This is also the reason 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.

China great wall - China and Japan relationship

So that 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 was 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 at the beginning of the 5th century AD

Japan, an archipelago of about three thousand islands, was always far enough to be invaded (except for two failed attempts by the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century) and close enough to absorb and adapt to external influences.

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

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

Chinese calligraphy - China and Japan relationship

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 and this was the basis of a relationship that continued until the end of the 19th century.

The arrival of Buddhism to Japan

Buddhism came to China through Tibet in the first century AD and became part of the Chinese mainstream in the third century. Buddhism was supported by various rulers in China and in the 4th century became the main religion of the empire.

Japanese Buddhism - China and Japan relationship
Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue of Amitabha Buddha, made of bronze, is 11.40 m high and weights 93 t.

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 from Koreait made its way to Japan where it was adopted by the Japanese Emperor. 

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 - China and Japan relationship

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 - China and Japan relationship

The main points of the method 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 government.

Every person needs to know his place and his role in society and this 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 - China and Japan relationship

Samurai - Felice Beato Bennett, Terry. 'Early Japanese Images'

Hundreds of years later, with the rise of Samurai, the hierarchical structure of Japanese society 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.

Opium wars - China and Japan relationship

British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The opium wars were against the drug trade waged by the British Empire, 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.

Opium war - China and Japan relationship

The Chinese tried to stop this, fell into two wars with Britain and because of Britain military supremacy, lost both wars and in both cases were forced to sign humiliating contracts with Britain and then with other Western countries, including Russia. 

But the disaster did not end, the deterioration in China was reflected in a very large 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 can happen to them if they confront the Western empires. 

Restoration of Meiji in Japan

Japan was closed to foreigners for centuries and was forcibly opened to the West only in the middle of the nineteenth century by the armory of several US warships.

Commodore Perry's visit in 1854 - China and Japan relationship

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 the abolition of the Shogun rule and the return of power to the emperor 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

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 very big warning sign of what would happen to them if they dared to confront the superior military power of Western countries.

The Japanese wanted to escape the Chinese fate. They wanted to become the Asian model of the Western imperialist powers and instead of being exploited, to be an exploiting country.

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

The First Sino-Japanese War

For most of its history, Korea was under the influence of China and was, in fact, its protege, but for Japan, Korea was a "knife aimed at the heart" (of Japan) and therefore a worthy target.

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

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

The Chinese at that time 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 in order to create an opportunity to react and intervene in what was happening there, and that led to the first Sino-Japanese war.

Dingyuan, the flagship of the Beiyang Fleet

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 seeing China as a giant and in Japan a small dwarf challenging a giant.

Sino Japanese first 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 in practicethe opposite happened. For the first time in the history of East Asia, Chinese hegemony was transferred to the Japanese after Japan's military humiliation in Japan. 

Satirical drawing in the magazine Punch showing the victory of "small" Japan over "large" China.


Satirical drawing in the magazine Punch (29 September 1894), showing the victory of "small" Japan over "large" China.

The results of Meiji's restoration proved that the Japanese had quite underestimated the lesson China had in her pride.

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

The Second Sino-Japanese War 1931-1945

Japan's economic and military power sought other avenues to realize itself and make Japan the most dominant country in Asia, at the expense of other countries, of course.

The relevant channel 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 course of the resistance brought by the Western powers, Japan invaded Manchuria, established an artificial state called Manchukuo, with puppet rule.


Propaganda poster promoting harmony between Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu. The caption says (Right to 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)

The size of China 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,

The end of the war, of course, came with the dropping of 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 for thousands of years she had sent to the mainland of China, which she had sent delegations to learn from, which had begun to develop many hundreds of years after her, was many times smaller, 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 into China.

Since 1945, Japan has been under American sponsor and the Chinese giant has continued to destroy itself through the Communist regime. It was only the death of Mao Dze Dong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping that opened China and began to unleash its full potential that led to the awakening of the Chinese giant.

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

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

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 that appear in the Indian Ocean.
Dispute in South China sea South-east facing aerial view of PRC-settled Woody Island. The island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Chinese and this is my personal opinion, and I suppose there are those who will disagree with me, 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 tomorrow morning Shinzo Abe recognizes Japan's 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 between them and the rest of Asia.
The real reconciliation will come if Japan ostensibly recognizes again China's prestige over Japan and would choose to be China's protege instead of being the US protege.

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