Campus & Community

Vogel hopes to help expedite Sino-Japanese détente

5 min read

Cautiously optimistic about ‘complicated, controversial’ effort to ease tensions

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping visited Japan. Although the trip made little impression on the West, Ezra Vogel calls it one of the greatest meetings between national leaders of the 20th century. In fact, it was the first meeting between top leaders of the two countries in 2,500 years.

Vogel, the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus, has been following relations between China and Japan for many years, as well as making efforts to improve them. As one of the few scholars with expertise in both countries, he is the right man for the job.

It is not the first time Vogel has played a mediating role between cultures. In 1979 he published a book whose title alone was a shock to many Americans: “Japan as No. 1.” The book provided insight into Japan’s economic success and helped to initiate a period of national introspection in the United States. It also became a best seller in Japan and made its author something of a celebrity there.

Now that the Japanese star has faded slightly while that of China is rapidly gaining magnitude, Vogel believes it is time to confront some of the issues that have caused the two nations to be wary of one another, if not downright hostile, through much of the 20th century.

“We can’t resolve things for other nations, but if we can get them to agree on what actually happened, we can give the political leaders a firmer basis to work from,” he said.

Vogel has been organizing a series of conferences bringing together scholars from China, Japan, and the United States to discuss in detail one of the most contentious issues in Sino-Japanese relations, the conflict between the two nations during World War II.

The first conference, which took place in Cambridge in 2002, looked at how the war affected different localities in China. The second conference, which took place in Hawaii, explored the military history of the war in China, something that has never been done before. The third conference, sponsored by Japan, focused on educational, literary, and cultural aspects of the war. Edited volumes based on the first two conferences are forthcoming.

According to Vogel, getting Chinese and Japanese scholars to talk to each other about the war is a much bigger undertaking than getting Americans and Japanese to see past their misconceptions and prejudices.

“It’s much more complicated and controversial,” he said. “It’ll take a much bigger effort.”

On the one hand, the Japanese are very reluctant to talk about “the terrible things they did” during their occupation of China, while the Chinese “are wary about discussing the complex issue of collaboration — how they adjusted to the Japanese occupation.”

On May 11, Vogel gave a talk sponsored by the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research titled “From Sino-Japanese War to Sino-Japanese Peace,” making the point that since the Japanese invasion of China in 1931 there have been few opportunities for smoothing relations between the two countries. Despite their differences, China and Japan’s best chance for constructive engagement may lie in the future.

After fighting what may have been the most destructive war in history with casualties in the tens of millions, China and Japan went through what Vogel calls a period of “postponed peace.” From 1945 to 1949, while Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government struggled unsuccessfully to bring stability to China, diplomatic relations between China and Japan were neglected. After the Communists took over in 1949, Japan, as an ally of the West, was discouraged from establishing relations with its neighbor.

Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the subsequent normalization of relations between China and the United States set the stage for a new era in Sino-Japanese relations, culminating with Deng’s 1978 visit.

Vogel, who is working on a book about Deng Xiaoping and his times, said that the Chinese leader’s visit was a highly productive one. Deng’s meetings with influential Japanese business leaders and his visits to high-tech manufacturing facilities may have helped plant the seeds of China’s own industrial rise.

Despite having little experience with Western-style press conferences, Deng handled himself well, and the visit was portrayed favorably in the Japanese media. Unfortunately, Deng’s trip received little coverage in China, which may be one reason its impact was not more widespread.

Since then, Sino-Japanese relations have had their ups and downs. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 turned many in Japan against China, while the visit of Emperor Akihito to China in 1992 and his guarded acknowledgment of Japanese World War II atrocities seemed to hold promise of improvement. During the 1990s, however, former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japanese war dead including more than 1,000 convicted war criminals, served to hinder relations between the two countries.

What’s ahead? One development that gives Vogel great hope is a recent decision by the Chinese and Japanese governments to appoint officially sponsored groups of scholars to look into the contentious history of World War II. Meanwhile, in an effort to get both sides on the same page, Vogel and his associates are compiling an online bibliography of agreed-upon sources pertaining to the Sino-Japanese conflict.

As China rises, Vogel foresees increasing competition over resources, markets, and influence, but he also sees deeper contacts in these areas.

“It’s going to be a very complicated period,” he said. “But there is potential opportunity for farsighted leaders to resolve long-standing differences.”