Nothing seems timelier than studying the history of modern Japan when distrust between China and Japan has surged to new heights following the diplomatic wrestling over the Diaoyu Islands on East Sea.
While many blamed the United States for handing over the Diaoyu Islands to Japan rather than China in 1972, scant attention has been given to the deep-rooted intricacies that explained, at least to a certain extent, the delicate relations between China and Japan as demonstrated in the drama of Japan's detention of a Chinese fisherman last month.
The hostilities between China and Japan can find their roots way before the Second World War, or even the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. In Hong Kong, predominance of histories written from the Chinese perspective pointing an accusing finger at Japanese imperialism is hardly surprising, if taken for granted. This is why James McClain's lucid narrative of modern Japan from a non-Chinese, albeit not really Japanese, point of view is such an eye-opener. Read this:
"The Japanese who pondered the fate of their nation as Western imperialism spread across Asia were not malicious individuals. They did not harbour any particular animosity toward fellow Asians, and no person in a position of authority concocted or endorsed any concrete plan calling for the acquisition of territory overseas or the economic domination of Asia. Collectively, however, men like Yamagata [Arimoto], Matsukata [Masayoshi], Fukuzawa [Yukichi] and Tokutomi [Soho] were developing a mentalite that countenanced imperialistic behaviour. By the early 1890s they and many of their countrymen, from the political right and left, both inside and outside government, had reached the same conclusion: The world was a dangerous place, Western imperialism and racist attitudes posed grave threats to Japanese independence, and their country was justified in contemplating action outside its national borders in order to preserve its national integrity. Seizing upon the rhetoric of expansionism that filled the air, they helped forge an emerging consensus that Japan must be assertive, must even victimise others, if it wished to avoid being victimised itself." (Japan: A Modern History, Chapter 9, page 295)
Of the prominent Japanese names mentioned in the quote above, Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and thinker whose portrait is printed on the 10,000 Japanese yen note, was perhaps the most influential of all. Millions of copies of his An Encouragement of Learning, written between 1872 and 1876, were reportedly sold in Japan. What was more intriguing, however, was On De-Asianisation published in 1885. Although it was not as widely circulated as An Encouragement of Learning, this short article seemed to have provided a strong philosophical base for the impending imperialism of Japan. For the reader today, it provides some insight into the underlying causes of Japanese scepticism toward China.
In this controversial essay, Fukuzawa criticised China and Korea as "old-fashioned autocracies without abiding laws" and whose gentlemen were "too deeply infatuated to know what science is". According to Fukuzawa, despite Japan's success in transforming itself into a "civilised" (by Western standards, of course) global player, it might still be misunderstood by the West as an inferior Asian nation because China and Korea, its long-time neighbours, failed to embrace Western civilisation and enlighten themselves. As a result, Fukuzawa concluded, "To plan our course now, therefore, our country cannot afford to wait for the enlightenment of our neighbours and to co-operate in building Asia up. Rather, we should leave their ranks to join the camp of the civilised countries of the West. Even when dealing with China and Korea, we need not have special scruples simply because they are our neighbours, but should behave towards them as the Westerners do. One who befriends an evil person cannot avoid being involved in his notoriety. In spirit, then, we break with our evil friends of Eastern Asia." (English translation by Hidehiro Okada in The Meiji Japan Through Contemporary Sources, Volume 3, page 133)
Although Fukuzawa's position on China and Korea remains a subject of debate (Mikiaki Ishikawa, an editor of Fukuzawa's works after his death, was blamed for inserting strongly discriminative comments about China and Korea and attributing them to Fukuzawa), the criticism and contempt of China expressed in this short essay seem to hint at the negative views of China among the right-wing politicians and activists in Japan. If this is the case, it would be a deadlock only to be resolved by collective efforts of rectification. However, it would be an immense challenge for both China and Japan when the foundation of mutual trust and co-operation remains regrettably fragile.