Over the centuries, few relationships have matched the geopolitical animosity between China and the island nation of Japan (perhaps the best European parallel would be France and England and their five centuries of on-off warfare).
Contact between what are now the world’s second and third largest economies dates back to around the year 200. Cultural interaction reached its height during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Chinese influence on Japan was deep, evident in the writing system that the Japanese use today, as well as much of its past architecture and city planning.
Many of China’s emperors showed little interest in Japan as long as it sent regular tribute and thus acknowledged its vassal status to the Dragon Throne. But Japan’s commitment to the tributary system was intermittent – in some periods its rulers opted out of sending gifts. These lulls coincided with greater Japanese piracy on the Chinese coast, a situation that irked China’s ruling dynasties.
How did the rivalry begin?
Things came to a head when a conquering Mongol – Khubilai Khan – seized power in China and decided Japan should be next to bend the knee. After the Japanese declined his more diplomatic demands for submission, he sent an invasion fleet of 900 ships and 15,000 soldiers in 1274. Famously this did not succeed, as a divine wind (‘kamikaze’) blew the fleet off course. Khubilai made two later attempts to land in Japan before calling a halt on the invasion plan in 1286. However, the period became a key part of Japan’s national story, fostering deep mistrust of its far bigger neighbour.
The next major confrontation between the pair was far bloodier. This time it was the Japanese military despot Hideyoshi Toyotomi who did the invading, targeting Ming China’s ally Korea in 1592. Known in English as the Imjin War, the conflict lasted seven years and saw Hideyoshi send a massive invasion force of 158,800 soldiers (compare that with the Spanish Armada in 1588 which numbered 30,500 troops).
Hideyoshi was initially successful in conquering Korea and capturing Seoul, and soon he was proclaiming that he would take Beijing too. However, six months after the invasion began, the Wanli Emperor sent 100,000 Chinese troops to bolster Korea’s defences. By 1598 Hideyoshi was dead and Japanese troops were withdrawing – China having restored Korea’s borders. The war confirmed the Chinese in their view that the Japanese were unruly bandits – not only to be distrusted but brutally barbaric too (in one early rout Hideyoshi’s army cut the noses off 8,000 Korean soldiers and sent them home packed in salt).
A humiliating period
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan started to encroach on China’s sovereignty again. In 1894, flushed with pride in the wake of its successful modernisation programme, Tokyo ignited the First Sino-Japanese War in a contest (again) for regional supremacy over China’s tributary state, Korea. The conflict resulted in a decisive Japanese victory and the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed by a fading and demoralised Qing Dynasty.
The humiliation was total: China relinquished any hold it had on Korea and gave up Taiwan and islands nearby, plus the eastern portion of Liaodong Peninsula (near the Korean Peninsula) to the Japanese. China also had to pay reparations to Japan.
Japan’s startling victory marked a dramatic shift in East Asia’s established order and also set the stage for some of the major political faultlines that still bedevil the region today: most notably Taiwan (a former Japanese colony) and the heated dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over what Japanese call the Senkaku Islands and the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
A Japanese invasion
In 1931, Japan seized Manchuria in northeastern China and established the client state of Manzhouguo. A full-scale invasion of China began in 1937, marking the start of China’s “eight years of resistance” until the end of the Second World War.
By the time Japan surrendered in 1945, more than 35 million Chinese had been killed or wounded. The Nanjing Massacre, a six-week atrocity committed by Japanese soldiers in December 1937, came to symbolise the worst excesses of the conflict and the brutality unleashed on the local population.
Memories of the suffering still reverberate in the Chinese psyche, not least because the education system teaches younger Chinese about the historical stain of the period. Among patriots, a revenge narrative is never far from the surface – with a host of TV shows and movies portraying Japanese infamy during the war.
It’s a complicated relationship…
In 1978, Japan and China signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, sparking a new phase in the relationship in which Japan provided technical aid and investment that helped China grow economically. Over the past decade, as China’s gross domestic product surpassed that of Japan, relations have changed again. With the Chinese military growing more assertive in the region, there has been growing debate in Japan about changing its constitution to permit remilitarisation. For historical reasons Beijing vehemently opposes this.
The two Asian giants have enjoyed slightly closer ties since Donald Trump took office in 2017 and the Sino-US trade row kicked off. Chinese policy seems to dictate that it shouldn’t make enemies of Japan and the US simultaneously. Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo have also talked about a return to a “normal track” in relations after earlier disputes over islands in the East China Sea.
However, the relationship will always be tricky because of the complex history between the two nations, as well as some of the prejudices that each society has about the other. That said, as ordinary Chinese travel to Japan in ever greater numbers as tourists their stereotypes have been challenged and they often comment on the cleanliness and politeness in Japanese society. Many come home with a Japanese rice cooker too, convinced that the quality is much higher than Chinese made-equivalents.
But as Beijing eclipses Tokyo as the premier power in Asia, the view in Japan of China as a potential threat has grown substantially. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre, 85% of Japanese had an unfavourable view of China – by far the most negative response across all 32 countries surveyed.
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