The Pride of having ‘never been conquered’
The Japanese are not afraid of China. They do not share the historical memories of the Koreans, whose kings of Goryeo Dynasty(918~1392) named themselves after the letter chung(忠: loyalty, subservience) and knelt before the Mongols. In contrast, the memory of kamikaze, the divine wind crushing the invading Mongol cavalries, is engraved in the Japanese psyche. The Korean peninsula had been invaded countless times by the continental forces, whereas as far as the official history concerns, there never was a time when the Japanese allowed the hoofs of conquerors on their shores(except, of course, for the Americans.) Rather, they have made a reverse case in the modern history, which the Chinese cannot deny.
Psychologically, the Japanese believe that they are superior to the Chinese. Prince Shotoku, a semi-mystical figure of 6th century credited for establishing legal codes of the Japanese court and flourished the Asuka Culture(538-710), left a famous letter, which has become a proud iconic legacy of Japanese diplomacy toward its continental counterpart. It reads: “The Son of Heaven from the Sun-Rising(Japan) greets the Son of Heaven of the Sun-Setting(China), how art thou…”
Ancient Japan, a nascent kingdom which had just graduated from the tribal states-level, was by all means receiving benefits of arts and technologies from Sui China(581-618); Nevertheless, Shotoku blowfly called Japan “the Sun-Rising” and China “the Sun-Setting”. Moreover, he dared to elevate himself to the title of “the Son of Heaven”, which would be exclusively used to refer the Chinese emperors, while the proper titles given to other foreign rulers would be “kings” and “princes”. This 1400-year-old letter displays the age-long Japanese psyche that China has never been their overlords. This worldview continues to live on, persuading many to believe that the Sino-Japanese conflict stems from Japan not kowtowing to the Chinese suzerainty. Japan likes to reiterate that it has never been conquered by any foreign nation except the U.S. It emphasizes that Japan was the only Asian country which remained truly independent from the Western colonial powers, dismissing Thailand which, according to the Japanese analyzation, was virtually controlled by the British puppet government.
China perceived from the land-connected peninsula, and China seen from the sea-locked island, are thus completely different. A nation historically subservient is easy to disregard, but a nation like Japan with such strong pride has to be dealt different. If a reconciliation between China and Japan is not brought about, no one can foresee how Japan will reactㅡnot to mention Japan already tries to contain China with the help of U.S.
The Japanese know better of the Chinese than Chinese themselves.
Another relevant background explaining Japan seeing green in China’s eyes has to do with their unique fervor for academic investigation of China. In Japan, there is an extensive amount of texts and data studying China as well as Korea. The original texts may be in China, yet it is the Japanese who put tremendous effort to sort out and scrutinize the Chinese legacies. For a taste, let us look at the timeless Chinese classic:「Romance of the Three Kingdoms」
Nearly 15,000 items appear when the keyword Romance of the Three Kingdoms is searched at Amazon Japan– mostly books, but others are literally everything one can imagine related to「Romance」: themed video games, Chinese costumes in the style dating back to the novel’s historical setting, and even recipe books for cuisines of the time. Chinese Wikipedia page covering 「Romance」is a mere translated copy of the Japanese edition. There are countless number of field studies done by Japanese scholars who toured the real places in China where the scenes from the novel took place. The Japanese know「Romance」thoroughly better than its authors.
This Japanese attitude toward「Romance」 can be applied to their approach to China as a whole. They have investigated, analyzed, and assessed China since the time two countries made contacts. Japan is the only foreign nation-state which has the experience of ruling over the most of Chinese territory. Following the Sino-Japanese War of 1937, its imperial army ransacked all the way from Beijing to Nanjing, and succeeded in conquering the entire China, only falling short of its western ends. During that time, the Japanese leaders made extensive researches on China’s history, politics, and cultureㅡto the areas even the Chinese themselves never bothered to care. The Japanese confidence over China originated from their accumulated in-depth knowledge of China. They know China better.
Japan does not believe in the alleged Chinese state-of-art technology which sent an unmanned lunar exploration probe. The analogy, at best, would be this: A Made-In-China car with a Ferrari logo. In fact, the probe is currently broken and left on the lunar surface. The world watched China launching a space rocket, yet no one knows or cares what happened afterwards. Japan figured this out: It is not just about the fake shoes, mobile phones, and cars China scantily copies; it is China’s shallow understanding and the underlying unprofessional approach toward the material world, which inevitably conclude with made-in-China imperfections. The Japanese believe that this is the core weakness of the Chinese bonanza. This is why the Japanese think “We can fight, and when we do, we can win.” This is not some minority opinion professed by handful militant right-wing demagogues.
They say, knowledge is power. In order to obtain a relevant knowledge which in turn would grant invaluable insights to the turbulent future of Northeast Asian international relations, understanding this key perception gap between Japan and Korea is essential. The two nations, although they seem outwardly similar in that they are modernized societies with longstanding historical ties with a powerful central player called China, their respective experiences and resulted national perception towards it significantly divert. Major foreign policy makersㅡespecially the Korean ones who tend to dismiss the Japan factorㅡ must take note of this before they make an effort to devise a region-encompassing strategy that actually works.