David Pilling: Japan, China and Their ‘History Problem’

David Pilling is the Financial Times' Asia editor.

When the Democratic Party of Japan took power three years ago, it promised a radical overhaul of foreign policy. It wanted to rebalance relations with the US and China, by addressing its "over-dependence" on the former and its strained relations with the latter. In a world moving from US unipolarity to multipolarity, in the words of Yukio Hatoyama, then prime minister, Japan would rediscover Asia as its "basic sphere of being".

It was a grand vision. Today it lies in shreds. That became clearer this week with Tokyo’s replacement of its ambassador to Beijing after a flare-up in Sino-Japanese tension. Anti-Japanese protests erupted across Chinese cities at the weekend after a renewed war of words over the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu by China.

Since the Democratic party came to power it has failed to forge closer relations with China. Its relations with the US, easily its most important ally, are near rock-bottom following years of US frustration at its foot-dragging over military-base agreements. Japan is not only replacing its ambassador to Beijing. It is also sending new envoys to Washington and to Seoul, the latter following a parallel territorial dispute with South Korea.

There are obvious reasons for Tokyo’s continuing painful relations with Asia, much of which it tried to conquer seven decades ago. Arguments over territory, history textbooks, war memorials, fishing rights and oil deposits are just some. At the root of all these is Japan’s wartime conduct and its inability – at least in the eyes of its neighbours – to repent properly for what it did...

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