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  • That Distant Country Next Door: Popular Japanese Perceptions of Mao's China by Erik Esselstrom
  • Shogo Suzuki (bio)
That Distant Country Next Door: Popular Japanese Perceptions of Mao's China. By Erik Esselstrom. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2019. x, 230 pages. $68.00.

Erik Esselstrom's new book reveals the complexities of Japanese perceptions toward the PRC in Japanese society. The author does this by excavating the "everyday" in Japanese society, analyzing a wide variety of primary sources such as satirical cartoons, advertisements, and editorials from a broad spectrum of current affairs periodicals that were published between the 1950s and 1970s. Esselstrom's approach is to provide readers with snapshots of important events in Sino-Japanese relations during this timeframe (the visit of Li Dequan, China's exploding of the atomic bomb, the Cultural Revolution, and the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations), which also serves to highlight important societal changes that took place within Japanese politics and society.

Sino-Japanese relations have often presented something of a paradox for analysts of foreign policy and international relations. While the bitter and emotional feud between Japan and South Korea has been in the spotlight more in recent months, there is no love lost between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan. Despite the fact that the two states enjoy close and dense economic relations, this has not, as is often assumed, resulted in enhanced trust or the reduction of diplomatic tensions. Opinion polls indicate [End Page 176] that feelings of affinity toward the PRC remain low. The current absence of disputes over the collective remembering of World War II (known as the "history issue") has meant that there are no overt tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. However, the arguments over the territorial ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have not gone away, and all it takes is a small spark to bring any suppressed emotions to the surface.

The bilateral relations, however, were not always like this. When China and Japan normalized their diplomatic relations in 1972, the two states emphasized friendship. Japan enjoyed something of a "China boom," epitomized by the panda boom and the Sino-Japanese documentary on the Silk Road, which cultivated a somewhat romanticized image of China among the Japanese.

The positive start to Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations after 1972 is often explained through the lens of cold war strategic interests. In the context of the Sino-Soviet dispute, Beijing decided to balance against the Soviet Union by cultivating closer relations with the capitalist West, and this was achieved in dramatic fashion by the Sino-U.S. rapprochement in 1972. The normalization of Sino-Japanese relations soon followed. The PRC considered Japan to be an important ally in its confrontation with Moscow, while the Japanese were keen to tap into the vast Chinese market. In this explanation, it is strategic interests that contributed toward "warm" relations between the two states—a classic case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Once China's relations with the Soviets began to improve in the early 1980s, Japan's strategic value for China began to diminish, and previously "suppressed" territorial disputes or the "history issue" came to the fore and have dogged the bilateral relationship ever since.

These explanations are a useful first cut to understand the fluctuations in Sino-Japanese relations, but they are both state-centric and also a fairly blunt instrument to understand the broader societal context in which the two states conduct their foreign policy. While they may be able to explain why Tokyo and Beijing were able to "shelve" their differences (albeit temporarily) for the sake of cold war strategic interests, they cannot quite explain how and why the Japanese were seemingly able to make a switch from their often outright racist and hostile attitudes toward China during World War II and support friendly relations with their former foe. We may also ask why and how it is that the feelings of affinity the Japanese held toward China in the 1970s have managed to be transformed so thoroughly in recent years. The suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 is typically given as a turning point; but while...