Monday, April 20, 2009

China-Japan relations

Last night in Hong Kong, I went to a dinner sponsored by the Asia Society where Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Japan, spoke about China-Japan relations - a topic that interests me personally and professionally. Seats were assigned beforehand; I was seated between a US diplomat and an older Japanese businessman, a man whose informality betrayed his long experience overseas (or his lack of interest in me). Ambassador Cui was seated next to Sato Shigekazu, Japan's consul general in Hong Kong. Around the table were several other consul generals from the US, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. Despite the close economic ties, and Consul General Sato's insistence that the foreign ministries of both countries were on good terms, what was remarkable to me was how often Ambassador Cui raised the issue of history, specifically "the war started by Japan." In the Q&A, one Canadian guest, who told me later his wife is Japanese, insisted that there was no need to teach the minutae of war in Japanese schools and that the free press in Japan would allow people to educate themselves about history when they were adults. That didn't sit well with Ambassador Cui, and it doesn't sit well with me either. After the ambassador's prepared remarks, I asked the American diplomat to my right what he thought, and he said, basically, nothing new, that's what I would have expected him to say. But when I asked the Japanese businessman to my right, he had heard it in a completely different way: he said the speech had been "tough". He wished the ambassador had started his speech with the fact that Japanese rescue teams were the first foreign groups to reach victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And while he admitted Japan had made plenty of mistakes in the past and its discussion of the war, he wished that the speech hadn't focused so much on politics. Better to discuss ways to expand economic cooperation, he said.

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