Japanese Nationalism & Sino-Japanese Relations

A Review of The China Problem in Postwar Japan: Japanese Nationalism and Sino-Japanese Relations, 1971-1980, by ROBERT JAMES HOPPENS.

In this authoritative and wide-ranging dissertation, Robert James Hoppens refocuses the study of postwar Sino-Japanese relations on Japanese and Chinese nationalist narratives. He argues that these conceptions of national identity both shaped and gave cultural meaning to the bilateral relationship. The chief argument details how the conservative Japanese government emerged as the “main champion of closer Sino-Japanese relations” (p. 6) in the 1970s, and how intellectuals and politicians understood this shift in terms of Japan’s identity. Beyond the time-frame implied in the title, Hoppens in fact develops a thorough explanation of the political and intellectual antecedents, and consequences, of this watershed decade.

The first part of the dissertation discusses the complexity of Japan’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China under the Cold War alliance system. For Japanese intellectuals, this relationship impinged crucially on the issue of Japanese autonomy. Hoppens here builds upon Kevin Doak’s analyses of nation and state as competing loci of attachment in Japanese nationalist thought. In the years immediately following Japan’s defeat, progressive and leftist scholars such as Maruyama Masao and Takeuchi Yoshimi construed a Japanese nationalism in opposition to the conservative state. Takeuchi moreover advocated an embrace of the PRC for the anti-imperialist cause, and Chinese nationalism as a model to resolve the bifurcation of organic nation and state in Japan. From the 1960s, however, conservative voices challenged these approaches to relations with China, arguing that following PRC policy was itself inimical to Japan’s independence.

The next part deals with the Nixon shocks and Japan’s normalization of relations with the PRC, events that reshaped the Cold War order in Asia. These developments in turn drove discussions on Japan’s autonomy and national subjectivity. Leftists hoped that improved ties with the PRC would lead to Japan’s liberation from a neo-colonial relationship with the U.S. Right-wing politicians and writers, however, vigorously attacked the abandonment of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Their positions revolved around the recurring theme of Japan’s weak national consciousness, as exemplified by Ishihara Shintarō’s argument that Japanese suffered from a “passivity complex” (p. 228) that prevented them from standing up to the PRC.

The third part analyzes the contentious negotiations in the mid-1970s that prevented a speedy conclusion of a Sino-Japanese peace treaty. The two major controversies during these years were an aviation agreement and the PRC’s demand for an “anti-hegemony clause” in the peace treaty. The former would force Japan to further isolate the ROC, and the latter implied strategic coordination between the PRC, Japan, and the U.S to oppose the USSR. Here, Hoppens lucidly demonstrates that both issues stimulated debate over Japan’s China policy and national identity. As Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai articulated a realist diplomatic strategy to resist the USSR, they alienated leftist Japanese who had supported the PRC on ideological grounds. The aviation agreement, however, angered far-right critics of normalization, who found this agreement to be “100 to 1” (p. 276) in favor of the PRC’s position. In response to these developments, right-wing writer Yamamoto Shichihei elaborated on the theme of ongoing submission to China. To Yamamoto, Japan had successively internalized Chinese influence since ancient times, which led to an inability to distinguish between native and foreign, and hence, no sense of its real national history.

The final part of the dissertation covers the deepening of Sino-Japanese cooperation with the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese peace treaty and the first of a series of Official Development Assistance agreements. The political narrative here closely hews to arguments advanced by Ming Wan that, contrary to the mainstream of Japanese academic opinion, Japan did not conclude the peace treaty on a tide of emotion or without due regard for national interests. Hoppens substantiates this claim with the writings and speeches of Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi and Foreign Minister Ōkita Saburō, showing that both offered explicitly pragmatic justifications. Moreover, Ōhira and Ōkita believed that serving as aid-giver to China validated a positive view of Japanese history and identity, and sustained a self-flattering image of Japan as regional leader. This triumphalist national narrative also emerged in the writings of conservative thinkers like Etō Jun, to whom the economic failures of China’s Maoist period brought Japan’s successes into stark relief. Other conservative scholars critiqued China’s “hyper-realist” (p. 388) power politics, seeing its nationalism as both aggressive and atavistic. These were also the very issues that led leftists to reconsider the pro-China cause, and the PRC invasion of Vietnam in 1979 forced many progressives to repudiate Chinese nationalism.

In the 1980s, however, the conservative triumphalist narrative of Japanese national identity would not sit well with the PRC leadership, despite the continued compatibility of strategic and economic interests. The epilogue and conclusion deal with the hidden tensions within the 1970s rapprochement, particularly the emergence of the “history problem,” i.e., controversies regarding differing interpretations of Japanese imperialism and the Sino-Japanese war. Other scholars have attributed this destabilization of Sino-Japanese cooperation to changes in the Cold War and international environment. Hoppens, however, forcefully makes the point that these dynamics were driven by incompatible conceptions of national identity.

This dissertation persuasively establishes the link between Japanese intellectual production and diplomatic practice, and contributes to our understanding of one of the most important and troubled bilateral relationships of our time. It builds on “constructivist” international relations scholarship, providing a methodical consideration of how identity is shaped by international encounter. It also provides a wealth of information about the vicissitudes of nationalist thought in postwar Japan. Congruent with scholarship by Victor Koschmann, Kevin Doak, and Oguma Eiji, this study shows that postwar Japanese intellectuals were deeply involved in theorizing national subjectivity, despite rhetorical positions that claimed that Japan lacked a true national consciousness. Hoppens’ dual approach yields many insights. For instance, political scientists like Ming Wan have debunked the notion advanced by many Japanese analysts that Japan had conducted its China policy with submissiveness and sentimentality. This dissertation takes the issue further, situating these arguments within a postwar intellectual project to restore Japan’s national consciousness, and demonstrating how very central the “China Problem” was to the articulation of postwar Japanese national identity.

Eric C. Han
Assistant Professor
Department of History
The College of William and Mary
echan@wm.edu

Primary Sources

Japanese monthly general interest magazines such as Sekai, Chūō kōron, Bungei shunjū
Japanese documentary collections such as Shiryō Nihon shakaitō gojū nen and Nit-Chū kankei kihon shiryō shūsei
Chinese documentary collections such as Mao Zedong waijiao wenxuan and Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan

Dissertation Information

University of Washington, 2009. 451pp. Primary Advisor: Kenneth B. Pyle.

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