Professor Tsuneo Akaha was born and raised in Japan,and has been at MIIS since 1989 (and is about to celebrate 25 years here!) Since then, he has been travelling back and forth over the Pacific, doing research, guest lectures, and of course, visiting family. This trip, the first of its kind, and done in partnership with Professor Wei Liang, emphasizes the importance of placing Japan-China relations in the context of the dynamic and changing region of East Asia.
Q: What is the overall purpose of this trip and seminar?
We aim to bring students as close as possible to the ground in terms of policy in Japan and China, which have more problems than the other regional powers in terms of challenges. For example, the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which both countries claim; or Japanese leaders’ visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals; and the two countries’ conflicting understandings of facts and the meaning of prewar and wartime history.
This course, including the field trip, will introduce our students to policy challenges from both inside each country and from outside (internationally). This will give the students a 2-level perspective. The Japanese and Chinese governments and other regional powers have their official positions and perspectives on these issues, but there are some divisions of opinion inside each country. This makes coordination of policy rather challenging, especially in Japan, because it’s a democracy.
Q: What do you mean by the “conflicting understanding of history” of the two countries?
The history that includes before, during, and after the second world war continues to color mutual perceptions and adds to the complexity of contemporary issues, and this is particularly true with respect to territorial disputes and rising nationalism. From China’s perspective, the past history weighs much more heavily than from Japan’s perspective. Japan is more interested in a future-oriented relationship with China. From political and strategic perspectives, China wants to emphasize the past because it helps strengthen nationalism in the country, frustrate Japan’s effort to expand its international role (including security role), and also build a coalition with Korea against Japan (because Korea shares a similar history against Japan).
Q: it is clear that history has quite an impact. Is there any room for cooperation?
Yes, indeed, as there are common challenges facing the two countries. For example, I would say, environmental deterioration and resource depletion are common concerns, particularly because both countries are heavily dependent on imported energy supplies (although this also means that the two countries are competing). Another concern is terrorism and political stability in the region. For example, the nuclear and missile development in North Korea is a potential source of instability the region.
Additionally, policymakers in both Beijing and Tokyo are struggling with the question of how to deal with the changing balance of power in the region, due to China’s rise and influence in power.
Q: Does the US play a role in this?
Yes, the US plays a very important role, for strategic, political, and economic reasons. China and the US are locked in a competition for regional leadership. Japan also wants to play a leading role in the region, and the US is her closest ally. So, where the US stands on regional issues and even on China-Japan relations – matters a lot. China is now Japans most important trading partner, but their political relations are full of problems. Some call their relations “hot economics and cold politics.” There is also a tendency to divert public attention to foreign challenges, instead of looking in. This applies to both China and Japan. China has domestic woes, such as developmental and income gaps, and serious environmental problems. And Japan is struggling to get out of its sluggish economic performance, which has lasted over the last two decades. Each country finds the other an easy target for criticism.
Q: Please tell me what the students will get out of the seminar and the field trip?
Well, prior to the trip the students will select a topic of particular interest to them and develop a research proposal. They will use the field trip to gather information and after they return, the research will culminate in a research paper. During the trip, they will be listening to local experts’ lectures, discussing regional issues with students at universities in Tokyo and Beijing, and conducting interviews with government officials and others. Among other places we will be visiting Waseda University, International Christian University, and the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo; and also Peking University, University of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing. We will also visit some historic and cultural sites, such as the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and the Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
This is the first time we are organizing this trip and both Professor Liang and I are very excited about it, especially because we will be visiting some familiar places in the two cities including our respective alma mater.
Link to website and information on the course: http://sites.miis.edu/eastasia/