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Commentary | California Prospect / TOM PLATE

Japan and China: Facing History

The failure of the logical Asian leaders to fulfill their roles has deep roots.

September 08, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches in UCLA's policy and communication studies programs. E-mail:

When North Korea lobbed a ballistic test missile toward the Japanese archipelago last week, the provocation not only rattled the good people of Japan and South Korea but also illuminated discomfiting truths about Asia that rarely erupt into public view.

One is that Japan can boast of few true friends or allies in the region; money buys a certain amount of loyalty, but fewer yen are available for the purpose these days. The second is that China, by failing to stand up to North Korea, shows itself still unequal to its ambition to become a great world power. The consequence of these sad truths about the two leading Asian nations is a region whose stability is guaranteed solely by the presence of the non-Asian superpower: America.

For Japan, the lack of sympathy in the region, even when a miserable, failed regime is taunting it with missile tests, is alarming, especially when one considers how much development assistance Tokyo gives its neighbors. But the region has a long memory and refuses to forgive Japan its World War II atrocities, whether the infamous butchering of Chinese civilians and soldiers in the so-called Rape of Nanking or the tragic coercion of Korean women into being sex slaves for its conquering troops. Current crises perpetuate the hostility: Consider the widely perceived ineptitude of Tokyo's politicians and the iron grip of its cold bureaucracy. A sweeping new study of globalization attitudes worldwide by Tokyo's Dentsu Institute for Human Studies concludes: "Japanese agree that the country has reached a point where it needs to change urgently, but there appears to be little idea of what kinds of measures should be adopted. And the chance of changes in the political environment producing a clear blueprint for the future are small."

Old misunderstandings create new ones. History helps explain the indifference in Asia to Japan's fate and the amount of blame thrown its way, but the current truth is that even if Japan's economy were healthy, Asia would still have major problems. Moreover, in Japan, reform typically moves at a glacial pace, so Westerners who expect lightning action out of Tokyo are deceiving themselves. As globe-trotting Hong Kong developer Ronnie Chan points out: "While the Anglo-Saxon model is more efficient, the Japanese, socially and culturally, cannot handle that kind of system. They are not capable of changing in the way the U.S. would like them to--at least not in the coming decade. So why waste our breath and create ill will in the process?" The same may be said of Japan's wartime behavior: While much was despicable, cultural barriers deter Tokyo from offering the kind of abject, kowtowing apology that other Asian nations expect. Even so, as distinguished Stanford historian David Kennedy has pointed out, two recent prime ministers have tendered apologies for Imperial Japan's offenses; new textbooks teach more explicitly than ever about atrocities. And while Japan's government bureaucracy is powerful, does that make it unique? Hardly. "Bureaucracies dominate all developed countries," as Claremont Prof. Peter F. Drucker points out in his heretical "Defense of Japanese Bureaucracy" in the current Foreign Affairs.

The problem with China, a sprawling titan of a still-developing nation, is that it has more internal problems than it can keep track of, even when Mother Nature isn't ravaging its countryside. Still, Beijing's official reaction to the North Korean provocation seemed shockingly mild, even for North Korea's closest ally. China expressed official "concern" about the missile test and lamely called on "relevant sides" to begin negotiations to ease tensions. China will have to do bet ter than this--"sitting on the fence," as one disgusted Japanese diplomat put it--if its wish to improve bilateral relations with Tokyo, and indeed with Washington, is genuine. China, which would be happy to supplant Washington as the region's leading power, should at least try to persuade North Korea, whose army it in effect feeds, to stop further missile testing, return to the multi-party talks in New York and chart a course that would enable Tokyo to keep its aid commitments to Pyongyang, something which the antagonized Japanese public will not now permit. Adm. Joseph Prueher, the commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, who has worked hard to develop good relations with Beijing's military leaders, notes tartly: "It would have been awfully nice if the Chinese had taken steps to convince the North Koreans that this kind of stupid step--the missile test--was not in their best interests."

But Tokyo never expects much from China, which is why Japanese leaders rresist calls for a triangular relationship with Beijing and Washington. "The Japan-U.S. relationship is qualitatively different and must remain so," a Japanese official told me flatly last week. That's certainly the case for now, but China, in its own cautious way, does seem to be reaching out. Just a few days before the North Korean provocation, officials in Beijing secretly informed the Japanese to expect a missile test soon. The courtesy was appreciated in Tokyo. Asia will need that kind of communication--more willingness to share, work together, even (pardon the expression) trust, even (pardon the thought) forgive the sins of the past--if peace and stability are to become the norm in the region.

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