China vs Japan – Background

The relationship between China and Japan has been going on for about 2000 years. Relations between the two civilizations have known ups and downs over the years, but one thing has always remained stable. China is a superior civilization. Japan is an inferior civilization.

It was a Japanese who learned from China, which was influenced by China and sent delegations to visit China. This went on for almost the entire period, until the nineteenth century.

When the Chinese Empire began a process of brutal decay that was also expressed within China itself, against the Western superpowers and finally against Japan, which was inferior to it, for so long and suddenly became the senior.

China vs Japan relations
China vs Japan – Nanking Massacre

The Japanese advantage was exploited for a great deal of violence against its neighbors in East Asia, especially China. Japan was very scornful in China and saw in its vast territory its potential development potential and treated it accordingly and with great cruelty.

The events of the twentieth century left very bad precipitation within China towards Japan.

As long as China waded during the reign of Mao Dze Dong and Japan built itself from the ruins of World War II, the confrontation was postponed.

Since the 1980s, when China began to grow again and take its place in the international arena, the tension between the two countries began to rise again.

Since then, it’s China vs Japan, it’s an ongoing confrontation in various configurations. This article reviews the potential for restoration of relations between the two ancient civilizations, China and Japan.

China vs Japan -Historic Perspective

China vs Japan - Nanking Massacre
China vs Japan – Nanking Massacre

One of the most shocking events in World War II, which was so rife with horror, was the Nanjing massacre, during which the Japanese raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and massacred hundreds of thousands in the most brutal, imaginable and unimaginable methods.

The Japanese never took responsibility for their actions and never formally recognized the terrible crime they were responsible for.

Still, the relationship between China and Japan can’t only be understood in the context of World War II.

In order to understand this relationship, we have to go back almost 2000 years, to the beginning of the relationship that has been going on since then, with varying intensities.

There are several significant milestones in the long relationship between the two civilizations In order to give a perspective that is broad enough to understand why the restoration of China-Japan relations is not only through one concession or another, it should be remembered that this is only a small sample of a very long relationship.

The article does not pretend to present the entire scope of the Sino-Japanese relationship throughout history.

China-Japan Relations – The Begining

China and Japan conflict
Qin Shi Huang Chinese emperor

According to Japanese tradition, Japan was founded in 660 BC by Emperor Jinmu-Tennō but the earliest historical record was recorded by Chinese visitors who came to Japan in the second century CE.

On the other hand, documented Chinese history dates back more than 1500 years to Japan.

At the same time (during the Wei Dynasty) Chinese visited Japan, China was hundreds of years after the unification made by Emperor Qin, in 221 BC.

While an organized and structured agricultural society developed in China, the Japanese lived as hunter-gatherers.

By the time China had a developed writing system, the Japanese were still unable to write. By the time China was already united, the various Japanese tribes fought in the islands of Japan.

Thus, a great advantage of Chinese civilization was built over the Japanese. An advantage that was expressed in government, cultural aspects, philosophy, religious and intellectual works, social structure, and economics.

The Chinese visitors who documented Japan for the first time described a country ruled by tribal families and even before they became a united people, they brought offerings to China.

China and Japan relations
Yamato territory

The Chinese visitors called the Japanese “Wa”, which means “dwarf”. The Chinese described the Japanese as long-lived people, who like to drink alcohol, clap their hands when praying in their temples, descriptions that are true to these days.

In the third century CE, the Japanese tribes were united by the Yamato tribe and from then on there was a central rule in Japan.

In the fifth century, the central Japanese government accepted the supremacy of the Chinese emperor and from that moment on, even in periods when Chinese influence was less or actually zero, the Chinese emperor was considered superior to Japanese rule.

Moreover, the adoption of Chinese culture gave prestige to the Japanese emperor since Chinese culture was considered an elite culture. Throughout history, China has perceived itself as a central-main empire in relation to all its neighbors and the world at large.

China and Japan culture
Zhong Guo – The Middle Country (on earth)

The Chinese name of China is Zhong Guo which means: Middle-earth. That is China in the center and all the countries around it.

China’s relations with the countries around it were also maintained. The rulers of the neighboring countries sent delegations and offerings to the Chinese Empire.

In many cases, the delegations that arrived in China from around Asia included many people who came to learn what China has to offer and to give the Chinese Emperor presents. In exchange, the Chinese Emperor gave gifts to the delegations that arrived and allowed them to stay and learn from China what China had to offer.

China-Japan relations
The Great Wall, North China

For most of its existence, the main risk for China came from the north, due to invasions of tribes that lived in the steppes north of China.

This is also the reason why China built the wall in northern China, a wall built first time during the reign of the Qin Emperor (and later disintegrated and rebuilt).

It was not until the nineteenth century that a naval threat came from the Western powers, especially Britain and in the twentieth century, a significant land threat appears from Japan.

So that most of the Chinese Empire’s history went through relative security outward and the main threats were internal, usually in the dwindling stages of each dynasty.

China affected all countries around it and Japan was part of the Chinese sphere of influence and when the Japanese applied their teachings from China, they always took it and adapted to their local culture.

The adoption of the Chinese writing system

Chinese calligraphy - China and Japan relations

Japan, an archipelago of about three thousand islands, was always far enough to be invaded (except for two failed attempts by the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century) and close enough to absorb and adapt to external influences.

And so it has been with Chinese influences over the years. The first wave of Chinese influence included the Chinese writing system and along with it, the art of Chinese calligraphy.

In addition to the writing, there were other influences in the field of diplomacy, trade, and manufacturing methods of silk and ceramics.

Above all, since the fifth century AD, Japan recognized Chinese superiority and this was the basis of a relationship that continued until the end of the 19th century.

The arrival of Buddhism to Japan

China and Japan culture
Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue of Amitabha Buddha, made of bronze, is 11.40 m high and weights 93 t.on

Buddhism came to China through Tibet in the first century AD and became part of the Chinese mainstream in the third century.

Buddhism was supported by various rulers in China and in the 4th century became the main religion of the empire.

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue of Amitabha Buddha, made of bronze, is 11.40 m high and weights 93 t.

Buddhism was the only great doctrine that China received outside its borders until the modern era.

At the end of the 4th century, Buddhism came to Korea as part of the Chinese influence there and from Korea, it made its way to Japan where it was adopted by the Japanese Emperor.

Until the arrival of Buddhism, Shinto was the local religion. Most of the population worshiped ancient gods who represented the various forces of nature.

In a process that took several hundred years, Buddhism permeated the emperor and the powerful families into the common masses.

Confucianism arrived in Japan Kung Fu Dze, better known by its Latin name, Confucius, a name given to him by Jesuit monks (about 2000 years after his time), founded his system centuries ago.

China and Japan history
Confucius, one of the main influences of China on Japan

The main points of the Confucianism are a harmonious and hierarchical conception of existence. Harmony is the goal to be achieved and hierarchy is the way to achieve it.

As there is harmony in nature, there must be harmony in the social order. Social harmony should be the aspiration of human society and government.

Every person needs to know his place and his role in society and this is the key to social harmony.

The hierarchy is based on five basic relationships in which one is defined as the more senior in the hierarchy. For example, the ruler is superior to the subject and therefore the subject must obey him. The father is more senior than his son, so his son must obey him.

China vs Japan in history
Samurai – Felice Beato – Bennett, Terry.

As with Buddhism, after the Chinese Confucian doctrine was adopted, it was transformed and accepted by the Japanese mainly as a social and political doctrine, which gave moral sanction to the rulers and demanded obedience from the people in gratitude, which strengthened the hierarchical structure of Japanese hierarchical society.

Beyond the influences of the Chinese writing system, Buddhism and Confucianism, there were other influences of governance, architecture, and more.

Most of the effect usually came in conjunction with the flowering period in China. In more difficult times, the Chinese influence faded until they were almost nonexistent.

The opium wars and the Japanese lesson

In the mid-nineteenth century, during the decay of the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty that ruled China, China experienced two opium wars.

British bombardment of Canton from the surrounding heights, May 1841

The opium wars were against the drug trade waged by the British Empire, which raised opium in India (in the Bengal region), marketed it to China’s coastal cities and brought millions of drug addicts to the market.

The Chinese tried to stop this, fell into two wars with Britain and because of Britain military supremacy, lost both wars and in both cases were forced to sign humiliating contracts with Britain and then with other Western countries, including Russia.

But the disaster did not end, the deterioration in China was reflected in a very large rebellion in southern China (the Tai Ping Rebellion), spread north and threatened to overthrow the Qing dynasty, a rebellion that cost twenty million dead.

The Japanese saw and got the message. If this is what happens to the huge Chinese empire, the Japanese understood that this can happen to them if they confront the Western empires.

Restoration of Meiji in Japan

China and Japan history
Commodore Perry’s visit in 1854

Japan was closed to foreigners for centuries and was forcibly opened to the West only in the middle of the nineteenth century by the armory of several US warships.

The opening of Japan and the need to sign agreements with Western countries opened a series of internal events that ultimately led to the abolition of the Shogun rule and the return of power to the emperor in the so-called “Meiji Restoration.”

As part of the restoration, Japan underwent a series of profound social changes that led to its reorganization from a governmental, military and economic perspective.

China vs Japan
Emperor Meiji of Japan (1852-1912)

Instead of choosing a path of confrontation with the more powerful Western countries, the Japanese chose to follow a different path that made them extraordinarily powerful.

The failed Chinese model was for the Japanese a very big warning sign of what would happen to them if they dared to confront the superior military power of Western countries.

The Japanese wanted to escape Chinese fate. They wanted to become the Asian model of the Western imperialist powers and instead of being exploited, to be an exploiting country.

And so began the upheaval that led to a dramatic change in the balance of power in East Asia.

The First Sino-Japanese War

For most of its history, Korea was under the influence of China and was, in fact, its protege, but for Japan, Korea was a “knife aimed at the heart” (of Japan) and therefore a worthy target.

The Japanese, who since the Meiji Restoration tried to resemble the West, saw imperialism as a worthy field and the first object of imperialism was neighboring Korea.

China vs Japan conflict
First Sino-Japanese War 1894/95: Soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army are firing their Murata Type 22 rifles.

The Chinese at that time were in the last years of the Qing dynasty and the government system was completely rotten. The army, divided into four smaller armies, was divided and not ready for war.

The Japanese led to the deterioration of things in Korea in order to create an opportunity to react and intervene in what was happening there, and that led to the first Sino-Japanese war. Only one-quarter of the Chinese army took part in the war, and still, it was three times the size of the Japanese army, but it did not help.

The Japanese stunned the world, which was still used to seeing China as a giant and in Japan a small dwarf challenging a giant.

An illustration of Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese as a warning to others by Utagawa Kokunimasa

China Japan conflict
David beats Goliath

The international expectation was that the Chinese would crush the Japanese, but in practice, the opposite happened.

For the first time in the history of East Asia, Chinese hegemony was transferred to the Japanese after Japan’s military humiliation in Japan.

The results of Meiji’s restoration proved that The Japanese internalized the lesson from China’s boastful attitude toward the Western superpowers.

In one generation only, Japan had become a superpower equivalent to the Western superpowers, and China had suffered further humiliation since the Opium Wars but this time it was Japan, her protege who challenged China.

The Second Sino-Japanese War 1931-1945

Japan’s economic and military power sought new ways of territorial expansion and make Japan the most dominant country in Asia, at the expense of other countries, of course.

China and Japan relations
Japanese propaganda for Manchukko

The relevant option was in Manchuria, which was rich in territory and resources but a small problem … It belonged to China.

Thus, the Second World War, which began in 1939 for most of the world, began for China in 1931 in Manchuria, first with small steps and in 1937 it became a war and the peak reached in the Nanjing massacre.

In the course of the resistance brought by the Western superpowers, Japan invaded Manchuria, established an artificial state called Manchukuo, with puppet rule.

Propaganda poster promoting harmony between Japanese, Chinese, and Manchu. The caption says (Right to left): “With the cooperation of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace.”

In 1931, China was caught up in internal struggles and the economic and technological backwardness between it and the West did not allow it to resist Japan effectively. The Japanese appetite was not satisfied with Manchuria only, and in 1937 they invaded China from the east and sank into stagnation which took a heavy toll on them.

Sino – Japanese second war

China-Japan conflict - second world war

Japanese occupation (red) of eastern China near the end of the war, and Communist guerrilla bases (striped)


The size of China and the size of the population did not allow them to move deeper into China.

China, on the other hand, was engulfed in a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Dze Dong, who invested most of their forces and energies in a war against each other and a relatively small part of their power,

The end of the war, of course, came with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the American occupation and the creation of the new constitution that bothered Japanese militarism.

Thus, the small and weak protege that for thousands of years, had sent delegations to the mainland of China, in order to learn everything the Chinese civilization had to offer,  had humiliated China again and again from 1894 to 1945.

The Nanjing Massacre was not one random event but a record event in decades of warlike bullying, invasions of Chinese influence and into China.

China vs Japan – Post Second World War

Since 1945, Japan has been under American sponsor and the Chinese giant has continued to destroy itself through the Communist regime. It was only the death of Mao Dze Dong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping that opened China and began to unleash its full potential that led to the awakening of the Chinese giant.

The more China grew economically, the more it expanded its economic and military influence beyond the borders of China.

The economic impact is evident throughout the globe, in countless projects in South America, Africa and Asia, and especially in two mega-projects designed to position China as a power equivalent to the US:

1. AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), the Chinese version of the world bank
2. The BRI (The Belt and Road Initiative) which is the New Silk Road Project.

China and Japan relations

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road

The military impact is evident mainly in the South China Sea, in the dozens of bases that China has built on fighter jets flying near Japan, with submarines that appear in the Indian Ocean.

The dispute in South China sea South-east facing aerial view of PRC-settled Woody Island. The island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Chinese (and this is my personal opinion) are not interested in any war despite their military expansion.

I believe that the Chinese way is a combination of two parameters: China’s vision of itself as Zhong Guo, a central state and a Confucian concept that espouses hierarchy and harmony.

The hierarchy is to see themselves as the top country in Asia and perhaps in the whole world, and harmony will come when other countries recognize this.

It is clear that the Chinese are not planning to return the delegation system that brings offerings to China, but it is clear that they do not see themselves as equal to other countries in the region.

Chinese feelings toward Japan are beyond the Nanjing massacre. China mainly wants a new order in East Asia. An order that will highlight China’s more senior position over other countries, including Japan.

In my opinion, even if Japan acknowledge their responsibility for the Nanjing massacre and the events of World War II, apologize and pay compensation to the survivors of the massacre and/or their family, China will not bring its relations with Japan to normal.

I believe that the Chinese are looking to re-establish the whole relationship between them and Japan and between them and the rest of Asia.

The real reconciliation will come if Japan ostensibly acknowledges again China’s prestige over Japan and would choose to be China’s protege instead of being the US protege.


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