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Normalisation of China-Japan Ties: Historical Bonds and Limitations of their Roles

It cannot be denied that following the ‘ice-breaking’ visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 2006 and the ‘ice melting’ visit to Japan, in return, of his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao in April 2007, a positive atmosphere has come to prevail in the Sino-Japanese relations, which, for well-known reasons, had remained under strains for long. Remarkable at the same time has been the new stress given by the two leaders on the relevance of the historical contacts between China and Japan, for the future bilateral ties.

Can the Chinese and Japanese leaders succeed in leveraging the historic bonds for fully normalising bilateral ties? Are such bonds still strong enough to push the two nations into the path of reconciliation at this point of time, which is marked by changing power balance in East Asia as the 21st century progresses? Can China and Japan develop innovative policy options to take care of their newly emerged strategic concerns? All these questions need to be examined carefully, so as to arrive at meaningful conclusions.

It will be appropriate to start the discussion with a closer scrutiny of the 2000-year old China-Japan historical links. Japan’s indirect contacts with China began in the Qin dynasty period (221 BC) through migrants coming from the latter. Further development of links in the subsequent few centuries, led to introduction of Chinese technologies into Japan like rice and mulberry growing, silkworm rearing, textile making and smelting. The dominant Yamato clan in Japan (3AD) could capitalise on such technologies for enhancing its economic base and establishing political control over the main island Honshu, including Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. Confucianism was introduced to Japan from China in the Third century AD, followed by the Chinese script in the beginning of Fifth century AD. The latter marked an important development in Japan’s cultural history, as prior to that, there was no writing system in the country. Also significant had been the spread of Buddhism from China to Korea and then to Japan in the Sixth century.


The ideas of Chinese philosopher Confucius stressing human values, loyalty and morality, were introduced to Japan from China via Korea in the year 285AD. The ideas continue to influence the Japanese thought even today. Among important historical evidences in this regard are the blending in Prince Shotoku’s Constitution (574-622 AD) of the principles of Confucian social order and Buddhist social harmony and the adoption of ‘Neo-Confucian’ concept (stressing economic, rational and scientific aspects) by the Tokugawa Shogonate (1600-1867) as official philosophy in 1790. Japan’s embrace of the concept turned out to be a positive factor for its ability to make use of Science and Technology from the West, after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The rise of Samurai or Bushido (Way of the warrior), as a model for society, had been another outcome of implementation of the concept. It was also natural that later, the Japanese imperial family adopted ‘Neo-Confucianism’, for instituting a ‘vertical bureaucracy’ in the country.

Chinese Writing System

The system, though introduced in Fifth century, could be completed in written form only in Eighth Century. It is true that the Chinese script opened gates for knowledge for the Japanese, especially in the fields of philosophy, religion and art. More importantly, through Chinese language, the Japanese could access Confucian and Buddhist philosophies and use them for setting up a centralised political administration in the country.

To the credit of the Japanese, they could develop a unique writing system, in combination with use of Chinese characters. A Japanese government order issued in 1981, listed 1945 regular Chinese characters for official use, in addition to 166 special characters (Joyo Kanji list). The special characters are to be used phonetically whenever the Japanese find no Chinese characters to represent their own names or concepts. Thus, there are two pronunciations of the Japanese Kanji, one for Sino-Japanese words (On Yomi reading) and other for native Japanese words with the same meaning (Kun Yomi reading), for e.g the word ‘sui’ (on yomi) and ‘Mizu’ (kun yomi).

The Japanese also used Chinese characters to develop a new sub- system called ‘kana’, meaning borrowed words. The ‘Hiragana’ and ‘Katakana’, under the sub-system, are used to represent respectively particles like ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘from’ etc and foreign words. The Japanese literary classic ‘ Manyoshu’ (collection of myriad leaves) (1st half of eighth century) uses the Kana sub-system. The Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi who had studied Sanksrit in India, for the purpose of developing Japanese phonetic pronunciations, introduced ‘hiragana’ in Japan. Thanks to introduction of Chinese script, Japanese works of ‘Kojiki’ (620AD) and ‘Nihongi’ (few decades after 620AD) could be written. Notably, the two works heavily borrowed from Chinese history writing styles, with themes on Chinese mythology and religion. The Chinese Tang dynasty poetry inspired the writing of the great Japanese classic ‘Genji monogatari’ (11th century).


Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China via Korea in the middle of the Sixth century. In late 580s, the controlling Yamato regime declared Buddhism as official religion and under the increasing cultural influence from China, formed Chinese-model government councils and departments. Buddhist religious beliefs and art forms dominated the Yamato Japan and Buddhist artisans, particularly from Korea, brought to Japan new techniques in architecture, painting, sculpture and music; the construction of early Buddhist monasteries like those in Nara is a case in point. During Tang dynasty period (618 to 907AD), Japan sent envoys to China over ten occasions, who brought back Buddhism and Tang culture to Japan and as a result, many Buddhist temples in Tang Dynasty styles were built in Kyoto and Nara. Influences from Tang Dynasty have been preserved and are still intact in Japan even to this day.

There are chances that Japan’s cultural and linguistic debt to China, may be misunderstood to mean that the former did not have a civilisation of its own, prior to contacts with the Chinese. This is untrue as Japan already had its own brand of developed culture and civilisation much earlier to establishment of links with the Chinese. To cite few examples, the Japanese could develop a fine aesthetic sense, thanks to the country’s temperate climate and natural beauty. The Jomon era (10000 to 3000 BC) was known for the pottery skills of the inhabitants, received through Korean and Manchurian settlers. By First century AD, the population in Japan became homogeneous under the religious umbrella of Shintoism (nature-worshipping). A Shinto-style architecture (characterised by unfinished woodwork and lack of ornamentation as in Ise shrine, as opposed to ornate Buddhist style of Nara monastery) and a social system providing superiority to women (matriarchal households, claiming of descent by Yamatos from the Sun-goddess Amaterasu) emerged. It was another matter that Japan’s assimilation of Chinese laws, ultimately eroded the traditional supreme position accorded to Japanese women and from early Ninth century, the Japanese elite even refused to allow women from the imperial family to rule in their own rights. What happened in overall sense, had been the selective assimilation by the Japanese of Chinese culture with their own already existing one, of which the blending of the native religion of Shintoism with Buddhist religious beliefs stands out.

Very interestingly, in response to the negative impact coming from the loaded Chinese bureaucracy models, the Japanese, since the Eighth century onwards started promoting indigenous customs and institutions at the expense of Chinese models and converting Buddhism into a distinctively Japanese religion. Another point symbolising the originality of Japan’s indigenous culture relates to its connotations on certain key aspects, differing much from that of the Chinese, for e.g. according to the theory of ‘mono no aware’ of the Eighteenth century Japanese thinker Motoori Norinaga, all actions, whether good or bad, deserve positive recognition. This Japanese thinking had no parallel in the Chinese thought. The theory, by implication, looks important in the matter of understanding the current tendency in Japan to defend its wartime role.

Also, there is a significant difference in the manner in which the Chinese culture spread to Japan on one hand and to areas like North Vietnam and Korean Peninsula on the other. In the case of the former, the spread was through the sea and effected without use of any force or imposition. In cases of the latter, the Chinese civilisation spread invariably through land and by war and conquest. Such facts assume meaning when contrasted with the ‘Japanese militarism’ and occupation of lands through force in the modern era .

Now comes the key question- how far the cultural bonds can go in helping restoration of normalcy in Sino-Japanese relations? Abe and Wen have stressed the importance of cultural (also economic) exchanges to future bilateral relations. But, it is clear that a full normalisation has to wait till the issues dividing them, like history, territory, energy resources in East China Sea and Taiwan, all strategic in nature, are resolved through more substantive political measures from the two sides. The chances in this respect appear not promising at the moment as a fundamental change has taken place in the East Asian geo-politics – for the first time in history, both Japan and China have acquired an equal status in the region, thanks to the former’s rapid rise both from economic and military angles. It may take some more time for China to act as a mature economic and political power. Japan, in the meanwhile, is responding to the emerging power equation in the region by revamping its foreign and security policies. It is looking for alliance with other partners in Asia as a counterweight to a rising China; its recent proposals for ‘Broader Asia’ excluding China and ‘Quadrilateral initiative’ (involving Japan, India, Australia and the US) are examples. Under such circumstances, what China and Japan can do at the best is to manage their differences, without waiting for a final solution to them. That would be in the interests of stability and prosperity in East Asia. The very stated intentions of Japan and China to put together ‘ the wheels of politics and economy’ assume significance in this connection. The PRC’s approach seems to be more characteristic than that of Japan- it wants both the sides to seek ‘common ground while shelving the differences’. A hidden meaning of this Chinese formula could be that the shelved issues may flare up in future; this could make Japan to feel nervous about possible developments from a long-term point of view. A broad conclusion could therefore be that the cultural and economic bonds can only play a limited role in the normalisation of Sino-Japanese ties at this juncture. It will be interesting to watch how the events will unfold in the coming years.

(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. He was formerly Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The article is based on the writer’s presentation on the subject at the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai on 19 September 2007. email:

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