Monday, April 09, 2007

When the Ice is Melting and Flowers are Starting to Blossom

Brash statements aside, since the new administration has come to power in Japan, Tokyo's relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors appear on the rise. Prime Minister Abe's implicit stance on not visiting the Yasakuni shrine has revitalized the islands' ties within the region and overall, things appear to be on the up.

At the same time, it strikes me that improvements have been largely one-dimensional, in that Japan's relationship with China has been improving significantly, while Tokyo's relationship with Seoul, though better than before, remains comparatively stagnant. It seems that Beijing is making a major effort to improve popular perceptions of Japan. One example that comes to mind is an upcoming CCTV documentary on Japan during the early 20th century, part of an effort to proliferate understanding and a more balanced presentation of the Japanese. Japan seems to be making appropriate strides to do its part, to "face up to its history," with one or two glaring exceptions aside.

The latest chapter in this unbalanced diplomatic initiative is Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Japan this week, where the two sides will continue to strengthen ties and attempt to make strides in addressing their mutual energy, environmental, and regional security interests.

Perhaps this bias is imagined. Perhaps it is the result of my Sino-centric academic eye. Perhaps it is completely accurate. Can anyone think of any major political strides taken to bolster the Japan-ROK relationship since Abe came to power? Does anyone think that developments in the China-Japan relationship are overstated on my part? Maybe I'm putting too much stock in generic activity. On the other hand, maybe China's economic prowess simply trumps anything Seoul has to offer Japan and Tokyo wants to capitalize.

From a different angle, I wonder if national identities in China and Korea play a role in the openness to developing close relations with Japan. While the two are without a doubt very nationalist, I think that China's nationalism has refocused itself in the present context.

Back in college, everything I read about China was how nationalism drove everything: retribution for a century of humiliation, restoring China to its once great status, etc. Well, guess what? Another decade of economic growth later, China's kinda done that from my perspective. The once somewhat stand-offish rising power, has not only continued to prosper and develop, but it has also begun to craft a role for itself in the international community as a great power. The "China threat" is becoming a "responsible stakeholder" on a "peaceful rise." Now better integrated into the international system, I think that China's nationalism has changed course. It's rise is no longer validated by its need to recover from its historical obstacles, but by its need to continue to develop and grow in the present.

I am not so confident saying the same of Korea's nationalism. This course has suggested to me that ROK remains very much held hostage by its troubled past. Certainly, division provides a demoralizing reminder of this difficult history, but nonetheless, Korea's nationalism, I believe, remains very much rooted in the past. This perhaps makes them less willing than the Chinese to engage Japan now that their neighbour has reached out.

I'm curious to hear what people think.


Sayaka said...

I also noticed that there have been a lot of news articles from China that emphasize its improving relationships with Japan. But what we hear is the government's voice and I am not sure how ordinary people in China embrace nationalism. The rapproachement between the two governments is not new, but also appeared in the late 70s. The tide of (both official and popular) nationalism is hard to predict.

Korean nationalism is indeed very strong, but the impact of its (sometiems excessive) nationalism on the international order is not that big, in my perception. It creates some tensions between Korea and Japan/China, but it is hard to imagine that they go to war because of nationalistic sentiment. In other words, unlike China, South Korea won't be a threat to anyone.

snowume said...

I totall agree with Bill that korea's nationalism is deeply rooted in the past. That's why Korea's nationalism sometimes functions as an obstacle to ROK-Japan relationship. However, the troubled past seems to be overcome at the level of every day lives.