China vs Japan: A Story of Nationalism and Old Rivalries

Anyone following world events will have noticed that there continues to be a growing tension in East Asia. The conflict predominantly stems from the rivalry between China and Japan; a rivalry that has stretched back centuries.

Recent headlines concerning the conflict are centered on the dispute of which of the two countries have sovereignty over a small island chain. Japan has legally owned the islands for decades, but has claimed ownership since the late 1800’s. Despite this, China still claims the islands belong to them and have gone so far as to include the islands in their Air Defense Identification Zone. This, of course, has only further aggravated the debate over the island chain, as well as the overall relationship between the two nations.

Conflict between China and Japan is nothing new. Armed conflict dates back centuries. The First Sino-Japanese War was held from 1894 to 1895, mostly over control of Korea. The most infamous conflict held between the two countries was the Second Sino-Japanese War which was held from 1937 until 1945. This war merged with the greater, global conflict being fought in World War II. The main purpose of the Second Sino-Japanese War was to expand Japanese control over China’s vast natural resources, and was a result of Japan’s imperialistic policies. The most controversial event to come out of this war was the Nanking Massacre, commonly referred to as the Rape of Nanking. It is because of such atrocities committed against the people of China, that the relationship between the two nations has never quite healed.

One of the biggest sore points in China’s relations with Japan, is that the Chinese feel that they have never truly received a satisfactory apology for what Japan did during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan has not done much in the way of pacifying this need, as they have overlooked that time in their country’s history. There are also accusations that some Japanese officials have made revisionist comments over the years, as well as some textbooks. More recently, Japanese officials visited a World War II monument dedicated to Japanese soldiers who died in action. China viewed this as an insult as well as stating that it points to a glorification of past imperialistic ambitions.

China has not forgotten, and will not let anyone forget, its history with Japan; in particular, all that Japan has done to them. There is nothing wrong with this. But problems arise when this history is being used to propagate and continue anti-Japanese sentiment within China. This propaganda has even spilled outside of China as officials in the UK have used newspapers as platforms to bash Japan, and likewise Japanese officials doing the same. It has even reached the UN, where Chinese officials have warned the world against a potential second coming of an imperialist Japan. There are many in Japan who feel that China is being far too aggressive as of late. Japan has also not forgotten how China was reluctant to give any aid to Japanese victims who suffered in the aftermath of a violent tsunami and earthquake only a few years ago. There is also growing concern, not only from Japan, that China is trying to push around its weight and test out how much power it actually has through its recent foreign policies and actions. This has led to anti-Chinese propaganda withing the country.

In other words, both countries view each other negatively and there do exist growing nationalist feelings.

Courtesy of the NY Times

The danger of this can not be understated. With their past history and continued strained relationship, the conflict will only escalate. With concern to the disputed island chain, China has declared that they will send drones to fly near the islands. In addition, they stated that, should Japan shoot these drones down, that it would be an act of war.

These two countries, with the largest economies in the world after the United States, are on a collision course. There are those who view such action unlikely due to the economic interdependence that exists between the two nations, current global “rules” that exist to prevent such events, and the Japanese alliance with the Unites States, a country that also shares strong economic ties with China. Despite these reasons, there still exists a very real possibility of armed conflict. Both countries are increasing their military capabilities, especially in terms of naval strength. The war of words is only growing stronger. The nationalistic propaganda is sure to only increase at this point. What is needed now, before events spiral out of control, is peaceful resolution.

Japan must embrace their dark past. There is nothing they can do to truly make up for what happened to China, however a strong and heartfelt apology is needed. At the same time, China must realize that the Japan of today is not the same Japan of yesterday. In the same way that people no longer perceive today’s Germany to be the same as Nazi Germany, so too must the Chinese stop viewing Japan as the Empire of Japan.

A quote comes to mind by Thomas Szasz that I feel is appropriate to the current situation between China and Japan, as well as being an overall good quote for everyday life:

“…the wise forgive but do not forget.”


Related Article:

Is East Asia Stoking the Fire Towards Major Global Conflict?


  1. Japan has apologized. The emperor and empress also recently visited and apologized once again. Also, there is another key player in this many are forgetting to mention: South Korea. They haven’t had the best relationship with China either.

    • Valid points. But China has not accepted these apologies as being satisfactory.
      In my previous article I mentioned South Korea and Taiwan are in the mix, but this particular article is meant to focus on Japan and China

    • Japan has “apologized,” but it was merely a lump apologize towards all the countries that they invaded and wronged in the second World War. Japan and China’s conflicts go far back even before WWII so this is an ancient rivalry. Whether it’s China’s fault or not, China wanted a more personalized apology that specifically singled out China as victims of Japan and they wanted it in words on a document. Japan refused to do either and so China never took it as an official apology.

      And obviously South Korea isn’t gonna like China cuz China fought on the opposite side of the Korean war and still stands behind North Korea today. Tbh I don’t see why China still stands behind NK, but the main motivation must be that China doesn’t want to see yet another Pro-Japan/USA country on its doorsteps. There’s already Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and to some extent India on China’s doorstep and China is probably feeling a little threatened from all these military bases and pro-Western nations within hours of China’s homeland.

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