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History testifies to Japan-China hardship to build friendship

Chinese President Jiang Zemin, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi toast after signing of youth exchange and technology exchange at the Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo on Nov. 26, 1998. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, Pool, File)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Since Japan and China normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972, bilateral relations have often been strained over wartime history and territorial claims, preventing them from building a friendship for the past 50 years.

    Especially in recent years, with the leadership of President Xi Jinping trying to bolster China's economic and military clout in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan, a close U.S. security ally, has begun to adopt a hard-line stance against the neighbor.

    Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, left, meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Beijing's Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on Dec 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Greg Baker, Pool, File)

    Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should pursue a well-balanced diplomatic strategy toward Beijing for stability in the region, as Xi is set to secure a controversial third term as leader at the once-in-five-years congress of the ruling Communist Party in October, analysts said.

    On Sept. 29, 1972, then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai signed a joint communique in which the governments of the two Asian countries agreed to "establish relations of perpetual peace and friendship."

    Zhao Lihai, a 65-year-old Chinese man who ran a business in Japan in the 2000s, said, "Tanaka is very famous in China. We do not forget those who dug the well," referring to a proverb of his nation.

    But a diplomatic source said, "Japan and China have unfortunately been on a path to confrontation, not friendship," adding, "There were some major turning points that negatively changed the direction of bilateral ties."

    Japan had invaded a huge swath of China before the end of World War II, which lasted until 1945. For years after diplomatic normalization, Tokyo made serious efforts to deepen trust with the giant neighbor to end the "abnormal state" between the two countries.

    In line with recognizing the Communist-led People's Republic of China as the "sole legal government," Japan severed diplomatic relations with self-ruled, democratic Taiwan, formally called the Republic of China.

    Beijing and Taipei have been governed separately since they split in 1949 due to a civil war. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.

    In 1978, China launched its "reform and opening-up" policy to promote a market economy under socialism, raising hope that the world's most populous nation would get closer to the capitalist Western bloc amid the Cold War.

    The following year, Japan started to provide official development assistance to China, then a developing country, to boost economic cooperation, while the United States, under then President Jimmy Carter, surprisingly opened diplomatic ties with Beijing.

    "At least until the mid-1980s, Japan had communicated with China relatively well, but bilateral relations sharply deteriorated in 1985," when then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Tokyo's war-linked Yasukuni shrine, the source said.

    On Aug. 15 that year -- the 40th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II -- Nakasone became the first post-war prime minister to make an official visit to Yasukuni, where convicted Class-A war criminals are enshrined along with the war dead.

    Nakasone, who served as prime minister from 1982 to 1987, built a solid relationship of trust with Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. However, his visit to the Yasukuni shrine triggered anti-Japan demonstrations on the mainland.

    In the wake of Nakasone's official visit to the shrine, the Chinese ruling party "apparently began to use Yasukuni as a tool to strengthen its power base at home by fueling anti-Japan sentiment," the source said.

    Kazuo Yukawa, a professor at Tokyo's Asia University, said the Yasukuni issue was considered to be "Japan's internal affairs," but China "overreacted" Nakasone's visit to the shrine.

    Beijing's harsher-than-expected response to Nakasone's visit to Yasukuni made Japanese citizens feel that it is difficult to interact well with Chinese people, said Yukawa, an expert on ties between the two Asian nations.

    For 37 years since 1985, former premiers -- Ryutaro Hashimoto, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe -- visited Yasukuni. Each time, China has criticized the shrine as a "symbol for Japan's militarism," urging the neighbor to "reflect on" its wartime history.

    Japan and China have created "past-oriented, not future-oriented" relations in the aftermath of the Yasukuni issue, Yukawa added.

    In 1989, the Tiananmen incident -- in which Chinese troops and armored vehicles cleared the square by force, killing a large number of protesters and bystanders -- occurred in China, prompting Western democratic countries to levy sanctions on the nation.

    Japan took the lead in lifting sanctions on China afterward, showing signs of a thaw in relations between the two Asian countries. In 1992, then Emperor Akihito became the first modern Japanese monarch to visit China.

    With expectations mounting that bilateral ties would improve further, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin repeatedly called on Tokyo to reflect on its wartime aggression against China during his state visit to Japan, disappointing Japanese citizens.

    Sino-Japanese relations have since frayed over several issues, including the Tokyo-controlled, Beijing-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, particularly after China overtook Japan to become the world's second-biggest economy in 2010.

    That year, a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol ships near the islets, fanning concern about a military conflict in the nearby waters. Since Japan nationalized the Senkakus in 2012, China has frequently sent its coast guard vessels near the islands.

    Japanese living in China said they had been compelled to refrain from speaking their language in public for the time being against a backdrop of intensified anti-Japan sentiment.

    For the past few years, Japan and Beijing have been at odds over Taiwan, which has become one of the sources of tensions between the United States and China. Japan's ODA to China formally ended in 2021.

    Another diplomatic source said, "It is extremely difficult for Japan to get along with China. Japan is now in a phase when it should consider how to communicate with China to avoid a contingency."

    Japanese Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi said at an event in September that the global environment surrounding Japan and China has "drastically changed, but the only constant is that the two countries are eternal neighbors."

    "Regardless of what kind of situation we are in, it is important to keep communicating and interacting with each other," he added.

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