The China Problem in Postwar Japan: Japanese National Identity and Sino-Japanese Relations by Robert Hoppens (review)
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The China Problem in Postwar Japan: Japanese National Identity and Sino-Japanese Relations. By Robert Hoppens. London: Bloomsbury, 2015. 312pages. Hardcover £85.00; softcover £28.99.

Robert Hoppens’s The China Problem in Postwar Japan presents a detailed account of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s. The book is divided into four main parts, the first of which examines the period between 1945 and 1970. The remaining parts focus on three key developments in the 1970s—the normalization of relations and the so-called Nixon shock that preceded it; the bilateral peace treaty negotiations in the mid-1970s and the controversy over whether or not to include an antihegemony clause; and, finally, the conclusion of the 1978 peace treaty and subsequent economic cooperation.

A key argument of the book is that the Japanese debate on policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was influenced by a discursive struggle to define Japanese identity and Japan’s place in the world. Different political actors interpreted Japan’s relations with China and argued for particular policies toward the PRC based on their preferred understandings of Japanese identity. They also sought to use Sino-Japanese relations to support the conceptions of identity that they promoted.

Hoppens makes this argument in relation to the common understanding that post-war Japan lacked a national identity or national consciousness. He forcefully and convincingly demonstrates that this perceived lack of national identity actually formed a shared basis on which struggles over identity took place. Conservatives and rightists as well as progressives and leftists all agreed that “Japanese lacked a normal, healthy, or truly independent national identity” (p. 2). What they disagreed on was exactly what a “normal” and “healthy” identity looked like and what it should be “independent” from.

Leftists wanted to construct a national identity independent from the United States and from the conservative Japanese state. According to their vision, the state would serve the Japanese people rather than the other way around. They viewed Japan’s past wars and imperialist project as having been rooted in blind loyalty to the state; they drew inspiration from and regarded as legitimate the nationalism of the anti-imperialist liberation movements elsewhere in Asia, including China. Conservatives, by contrast, objected to the separation of the people and the state promoted by leftists and considered defeat in the war and the subsequent Occupation to have brought on an abnormal lack of identification with the state. They embraced a national identity in which the state and its symbols were central.

In the 1970s, the book claims, Sino-Japanese relations were a key battleground in this struggle to define Japanese national identity. By Hoppens’s account, Japan’s relations with China in general and with the PRC’s policies in particular initially lent support to leftist narratives but then changed during the decade in ways that seemed more and more to validate conservative identity constructions. [End Page 142]

Before Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1971 and Japan’s subsequent normalization of relations with the PRC, Japanese leftist narratives presented the absence of official relations with and recognition of the PRC as indicating a lack of independence, suggesting as it did that Japanese foreign policy was determined by the Cold War strategic concerns of the United States. For leftists, China exemplified the struggle for Asian national independence, and they consequently promoted a national identity based on resistance against the Japanese state and its close ally the United States. Arguing for recognition of and close relations with the PRC was a key part of this resistance. Yet after Nixon’s visit, Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization, and Chinese policies seeking cooperation with the United States as well as the conservative Japanese government, it became increasingly difficult for leftists to make the situation fit into their preferred narratives. Leftists were, as a consequence, alienated from the PRC. Instead, conservative narratives found strength in the Chinese government’s behavior, which, especially as economic cooperation between Japan and China deepened, included explicitly stating the need for China to learn from Japan. Such developments served to boost conservative triumphalist narratives that emphasized Japanese postwar success, superiority, and pride; conservatives also (mis)interpreted...