Japanese Emperor's China Visit Carries Burden of Wartime Past

Tokyo will scrutinize Akihito's treatment in China, looking for clues about Beijing's future policies

AS Japanese Emperor Akihito starts a largely symbolic visit to China today, his trip carries with it both the historic baggage of his nation's wartime past and the makings of a new post-cold-war alliance between two Asian giants.

China eagerly sought the imperial visit to help end its isolation, to draw more Japanese investment, and perhaps to play "the Japan card" against the United States, especially if Bill Clinton should become president, analysts here say.

"If a Democrat is elected president, then US policy toward China will become much tougher," says Mineo Nakajima of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. With this visit, he adds, "China is trying to lure Japan away from the US" and gain more Japanese support internationally.

Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, in fact, are worried about Washington's reaction to the trip because they differ with US congressional concerns about human rights in China. "While US officials have so far remained silent," says Mr. Nakajima, "inside their minds they have strong objections." American diplomats have been reluctant to comment on the trip because of Japanese sensitivities about the emperor.

Observers in Tokyo are watching how the emperor is treated in China for clues on how Beijing leaders will act toward Japan in the future. If the emperor, for instance, is not allowed to meet with Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, or if the official Chinese media depict the emperor with less than the highest respect, some analysts say, such slights on the emperor's status may indicate that China regards Japan as a "tributary state" or perhaps as a potential military rival in the region.

"The Chinese are worried about Japan," says Andrew Mack, a professor of international security at Australian National University. "The whole tenor of Chinese security conversations these days is to be critical of both the United States and Japan."

Some analysts note that China may be trying to keep Japan off-balance by playing "the Korea card." Beijing hastily recognized Seoul, a former enemy, in August, and made sure that the South Korean president visited China before the emperor.

China has assured Tokyo that no embarrassing incidents will occur during the emperor's trip, which will last from Oct. 23 to Oct. 28 and includes stopovers in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. Politically meaningful events will be scarce, since the trip is mainly intended to mark the 20th anniversary of official ties between the nations.

Authorities in China have suppressed at least one Chinese group seeking reparations for atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Beijing also told Tokyo that it will not ask for a formal apology from Akihito, even though an opinion poll in China revealed a strong desire for such an apology.

"Attempts to make the Japanese people submit to a moral apology is something that appeals to other Asians," says Shinkichi Eto of Tokyo's Asia University.

The emperor's mission is not to make an apology, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa. But, he adds, the emperor will touch on the past "in one way or another." The government has written a speech for the emperor to give at a banquet tonight in Beijing.

Less than one-fourth of Japanese think the emperor should apologize, according to a Jiji Press poll, while almost half say the emperor should "express regret for the unfortunate past."

"The Japanese people have not been able to reach a clear recognition ... of Japan's historical past, in which Japan indeed did force numerous sacrifices upon other nations," states Takashi Sugimoto, a China expert at Nippon Steel Corporation.

In a pre-trip press conference, the emperor himself gave the official response that Japan has demonstrated its peaceful nature since the war. "After the war, looking back on the past, Japan resolved that it would live as a nation of peace, and has since worked for the peace and prosperity of the world," he said.

This overseas trip will be the second one for Akihito since he became emperor in 1989. The first was to Southeast Asia in 1991. Akihito has expressed interest in visiting South Korea, perhaps the most bitter of all Asian nations toward past Japanese rule.

By having Akihito travel in Asia, something his father Hirohito could not have done because of his role in the war, the government hopes to improve Japan's image in the region and take a leadership role. Still, this particular trip raises anxiety among some Asian nations about a possible China-Japan axis.

"It is perhaps natural for Asian neighbors to fear that this economic power called Japan might support the military and political power called China," Nakajima says.

Despite its size, China has not attracted as much Japanese investment or trade as Taiwan or Southeast Asia. Sino-Japanese trade was $22.8 billion last year, and may reach $26 billion this year. Japan, however, hopes that its economic model can be imitated by China in its transition to a market economy, and that this will help stabilize its mainland neighbor from political upheavals.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.