In the case of these two major debates over national security, it has been a discourse that seems to be migrating from a particularistic focus on Japan’s unhappy past to a more universalistic engagement with its democratic present. The large Japanese center hears extreme views, but seems more comfortable taking the edge off each. Now when it comes to the once taboo subject of national security, the national debate is vigorous, future oriented, and is increasingly being contested on universal grounds by a public that is more independent and less ideological than in the past.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge how the struggle to use history effectively is particularly consequential for the future of Sino-Japanese relations. China benefits both from the Japanese left’s fear of militarism and by the right’s loathing of defeat. Slippery slope arguments on the left are fully consistent with Chinese preferences, while revisionism by the right allows China to depict Japan as “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” This hardly seems smart strategically.
Nor is either productive for relations with the United States. Each, in fact, alienates Japan’s major ally. Revisionism reminds Americans that China, not Japan, was its ally in “The Good War,” while the slippery slope reminds Americans how unequal its alliance is with Japan and makes some question Japan’s commitment to it. There are obvious security costs if the United State is alienated. One need not advocate America playing global cop to understand that Washington continues to have a positive role to play in the region—especially vis-à-vis Sino-Japanese relations, relations which more than ever before are being battered about by competing historical narratives.
Meanwhile, for their (far more important) part, China and Japan each need leaders who will use history strategically to craft a productive future, not just flick at an unpleasant past for domestic political advantage.
Richard J. Samuels is the Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, was published by Cornell University Press in 2013.