What does ‘normalization’ really mean for Japan-China ties? by OKAMOTO Takashi

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on May 30, 2022:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

Photo:The Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo

May 30, 2022

What does ‘normalization’ really mean for Japan-China ties?

Professor, Faculty of Letters, Kyoto Prefectural University





2022 marks 50 years since Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations.

But after consideration of that concept and its history, the idea does not sit quite right.

It is fair to say this year is the 50th anniversary of the 1972 release of a joint communique by the governments of Japan and the People’s Republic of China for “the normalization of relations” to bring an end to “the abnormal state of affairs” that had existed between the two countries until then.

However, it is odd to specifically point to the Japan-China relationship of the roughly 25 years since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and describe it as “abnormal.” It seems that the understanding among the Japanese people had been inclined toward that view since 50 years ago.

When or how the term “normalization” came up in the first place remains unclear.

There must have been certain reasons and background behind the use of the word at the time, but at least from the current point of view the term is misleading.

Looking back further, the relationship between Japan and China — not restricted to diplomatic ties — has continued for some 1,500 years since Japan sent missions to China during the Sui and Tang dynasties.

How much of those years can be described in terms of historical fact as normal diplomatic relations?

Diplomatic relations refer to governments having official communications on an equal footing in international relations.

In that sense, we should say that Japan’s diplomatic relations with the United States began when Commodore Matthew Perry demanded that Japan open up and the two countries signed a treaty in 1854.

In the same way, we can say that Japan’s diplomatic relations with China started in 1871 when the two countries signed the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty.

While Japan-U.S. diplomatic relations have a history of nearly 170 years, Japan-China relations are shorter at around 150 years.

This is only one-tenth of the 1,500 years since the missions to China, and the 50 years after the normalization of the ties amounts to only one-thirtieth of the 1,500 years, both a very short period of time.

And throughout the period in which Japan and China had diplomatic ties, how well did the two countries get along? Although there were both good and bad times, the overall relationship hadn’t been as smooth as can be imagined from the term “normal.”

Despite that fact, Japan has not questioned this expression and has maintained it for a long time, which has led Japanese people to have something of a biased view toward China.

When it comes to the issue of Japan-China relations, many people only have the impression that they have “normal diplomatic relations.”

In that case, we need to review the history of not only the past 50 years, but probably of the past 1,500 years, both in general and in detail in order to recognize the subtlety and the implications of the future Japan-China relationship that we should be aiming for.


Discord from the start

Japan’s history started with its relationship with China.

No matter how many domestic archaeological sites and relics there are, it is not possible to explain the creation of Japan as a people and a nation only with those remains. We can’t capture the country’s shape without records from China.

What is more, Japan was established on a full scale under a set of codes and laws that replicate China’s system from the Tang Dynasty.

However, while China had constructed its society based on the dual structure of the Eurasian Continent comprising nomads and cultivators, Japan was basically a one-dimensional society made up of agricultural people.

Since the two countries were fundamentally different, even if Japan copied the Chinese system it didn’t fit well with society.

From the start, ancient Japan had to adjust the set of codes and laws that it had adopted from China. Later it shifted to political systems including regency politics, cloistered governments and feudal governments, completely different from that of Imperial China.

Because of this, China couldn’t fully understand how Japan’s systems worked, and the same was true about Japan’s understanding of China.

Both had difficulty understanding the other, and this has been true since the early stages of the bilateral relationship. Official relations between the two countries had bad chemistry from ancient times.

And that relationship has basically remained unchanged.

In addition to the Mongol invasions of Japan in the late 13th century, there were frictions between Japan and the Ming Dynasty — which ruled China a hundred years later following the collapse of the Mongol Empire — over China’s sea traffic ban and trade control. This induced the emergence of pirates known as wokou or wakо̄ who plagued the seas of East Asia.

And 300 years after the Mongol invasions, the two countries went to war again following Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea as China sent an army to repel the Japanese invaders.

These incidents show that there were few periods in the history of the governments of Japan and China in which they had an official, peaceful and constant relationship that can be described as normal.

Unofficial intercommunication between the two countries’ private sectors with economic and pragmatic motives went much more smoothly.

Such activities include commercial trade and academic exchanges conducted from the 12th century through the 14th century between Japan and China during the period of the Sung and Yuan dynasties.

The aforementioned pirates in the 16th century came about as a result of the two countries’ private sectors with deepened economic ties working together to resist authorities’ control.


The modern era

Going through the history of Japan-China relations, we can see that discord was inevitable.

This is because while Japan maintained a one-dimensional system in which the public and private sectors were almost homogeneous, China’s public and private sectors were detached in a pluralistic social structure where politics and economic affairs were handled by groups of people of a different nature.

The two countries, against this backdrop of discord and inconsistency, went through a major war triggered by Japan’s dispatch of troops to Korea in 1592.

After seeking a path to stabilize the relationship, Japan implemented a national isolation policy during most of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

When looking at Japan’s period of isolation, Japanese people and experts of Japanese history tend to focus only on the relationship with people from Western countries, referred to as nanban and kо̄mо̄.

However, as a matter of fact, such people from Western countries — including Christian missionaries — at the time merely served as intermediators for Japan and China’s economic relations.

The biggest challenge at the time had been how to solve the friction that tended to arise from Japan-China relations.

The best way to do so was to maintain a relationship neither too close to nor too remote from each other — restricting exchanges between governments to a minimum in every aspect while controlling activities so as not to sour economic ties — and that indeed was the real situation of national isolation.

During their 200 years of isolation, Japanese people studied China and the Western countries.

Japan had been studying China — a country with a long-standing relationship and that is often said to share the same culture and ethnicity — and began to become allergic to it as a result.

Japanese people then turned to studies of Western countries using Western languages and found that they better matched their interests.

That was possibly because Japan’s systems and society developed in a way closer to those of Western countries than the Chinese and Eurasian world.

And that was why Japan was able to peacefully open up and accept the establishment of diplomatic relations with Western countries in the 19th century.

Despite the fact that Japan was in the midst of the drastic changes of the Meiji Restoration, friction with other countries was clearly much less than China’s experience after the Opium War.

Not only that, Japan smoothly imported and adopted Western systems and cultures during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), unlike the time when the country had difficulty applying the set of codes and laws that replicated China’s political system from the Tang Dynasty.

This highlights the nature of Japan, which took in advanced civilizations while situated between the West and China.

The West is located far away from Japan, across the oceans, while Japan and China are separated only by a narrow strip of water. It would be more understandable if Japan had difficulty adopting the Western systems, but the situation was totally opposite in reality, because for Japan, its neighboring countries have been more incomprehensible.

And such asymmetry of geographical distance and comprehensibility led to Japan’s tragedy in the 20th century.

Seeking geopolitical interests, Japan intruded into the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese continent under a completely pro-Western logic of establishing diplomatic relations that the country had newly accepted.

Japan got deeply involved in those areas without sufficiently understanding the societies and systems that were totally different from its own.

Not only did Japan colonize Korea, but it created the puppet state of Manchukuo in Northeast China adjacent to the Korean Peninsula. Japanese troops even advanced into Northern China.

Around the same time, Japan and China were both in the midst of an industrial revolution.

Contrary to political confrontations, the two countries were strengthening their relationship of interdependence in private economic activities for both production and consumption.

Historically, Japan-China relations have developed in a pluralistic way, with the public and private sectors being inconsistent.

Since the diplomatic relations began in 1871, much friction was seen in their official relationship, but there were also periods when exchanges including trade deepened in the private sector.

This indicates that keeping a distance neither too close to nor too remote from each other contrarily worked to stabilize the relationship.

However, it is concerning that despite such history, many Japanese people of today tend to view China from the standpoint that the Western interpretation of “normal diplomatic ties” is the only standard.

The concept of a “normalization of diplomatic ties” didn’t exist in China originally.

The term imported by Japan is in itself an outcome of the asymmetry in the bilateral relationship which brought about conflicts and catastrophe in the past, and we need to give our thought to the history and realities of normal relations.

The 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties gives us a rare opportunity to look into the real picture of the two countries’ relationship, as well as reconsidering Japanese people’s views of history.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.