China and Japan Cover

China and Japan

Facing History

Ezra F. Vogel

Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019, 536 pages

Book Review published on: November 8, 2019

No countries can compare with China and Japan in regards to their historical connection to each other. For more than 1,500 years, China and Japan have shared bonds of deep cultural interconnection and mutual learning that is equally linked through periods of ruinous conflict, violence, and vanquish. America’s foremost scholar of East Asia and author of numerous works, Ezra Vogel, examines the major periods of historical interaction between China and Japan in his timely work China and Japan: Facing History.

Vogel states that an understanding of China and Japan’s history is required to fully appreciate the present-day relationship of both countries. He reports the first meaningful interaction between China and Japan occurred during China’s Sui-Tang dynasties, 600–838, when China was considered the center of civilization. Japan’s Empress Suiko sought to import features of the more advanced Chinese civilization that enabled China’s leaders to govern far larger areas than those she controlled. During this period, Japan learned Buddhism, adopted Confucianism that emphasized the loyalty of the subjects to their leaders, learned how to plan large communities in a systemic way much like city planning, developed art and poetry styles based on Chinese influence, and developed a written language based on China’s written language. Chinese influence further extended to the Taika Reforms of 645 when Japan weakened the clans and established central administrative control.

China and Japan’s mutual historical connection is incomplete without mentioning Korea. Vogel informs us that Korea played a prominent role in Japan’s development as China’s influence moved through Korea into Japan. Korean Buddhist monks and craftsmen travelled to Japan to join in the building of Buddhist statues and temples, and to train Japanese craftsmen. Korean Buddhists enabled the Japanese to acquire the skills required to duplicate the art and architecture that they had seen in Korea and China. China and Japan’s competing desire to influence or establish control of Korea resulted in numerous conflicts between the two countries.

Vogel states that the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) was a turning point in the history of China and Japan’s relationship. He describes how both sides supported rival factions in Korea that eventually led to open conflict between the two countries. Japan won the war despite China’s overall numeric superiority of personnel, weapons, and warships. Vogel concludes Japan was simply better organized than China. He informs us that the war had far-reaching ramifications. Japan forced enormous indemnities upon China that kept China in extreme economic despair while providing Japan with a financial advantage in developing its military. Japan’s victory created a sense of nationalistic confidence that contributed to Japan’s militarism and desire to establish its imperialist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Readers will find Vogel’s treatment of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) in chapter 8 interesting. He describes how each side miscalculated the other following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Japan underestimated the growing willingness of China to resist, and Japan was not prepared for a conflict to last more than three months. Chiang Kai-shek’s focus on eradicating the communist threat rather than Japan, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. Chiang’s decision to blow the dikes along the Yellow River and not surrender Nanjing remain among his most controversial decisions during the war. Historical estimates suggest that several hundred thousand people were drowned, several million people were rendered homeless, and between two and three million died as a result of the subsequent floods and famine that followed Chiang’s decisions. Chiang’s failure to approve the surrender of Nanjing resulted in the unnecessary suffering of thousands of Nanjing citizens in what is infamously known as the Nanjing Massacre. The Nanjing Massacre left a legacy of bitterness that remains today, and it has become a symbol of Japanese wartime atrocities. During the following several years, Japan would win all the battles and occupy eastern and central China, but its victories would be exhausting and lead to a stalemate. Both countries were completely devastated by 1945.

Vogel describes periods of positive interactions and lulls the two countries experienced since 1945. As he looks to the future, he describes increases in contact, trade, and joint economic ventures between the two countries. He is less sanguine regarding the level of trust and empathy between political leaders. Japan’s failure to acknowledge the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre, its enshrinement of the souls of Japanese war criminals to the Yasukuni Shrine, and the failure of Japanese textbooks to describe accurately the Sino-Japanese War remain points of contention for Chinese leaders concerned that militarism could return to Japan in the future. He remains hopeful that Sino-Japanese cooperation started in 2006–2008 will continue to improve relations between the two countries.

It will be of little surprise to the reader that Vogel enjoys tremendous respect and friendships in both countries for his ability to provide a balanced treatment of sensitive historical events. China and Japan includes exceptional notes and provides biographies of key figures. It serves as a reminder to policy makers of the significance of understanding the role history plays in understanding current international relations. China and Japan is a must-read for policy makers, historians, and students of East Asia.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas