Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 August 2010
Over the course of the 1980s, Sino-Japanese relations degraded. The overall cordial atmosphere in the 1970s was replaced by frequent intergovernmental disputes and simmering mutual antipathy at the popular level – both typical features of the shallow reconciliation–friction stage of interstate reconciliation. International structural conditions fail to explain this relationship downturn, as China and Japan still shared a common strategic interest to balance the Soviet threat. Instead, it was mainly the changing pattern of national mythmaking in China and Japan that accounted for the setback in bilateral reconciliation. From the early 1980s, the national memory of both countries entered a stage of renegotiation and reconstruction wherein the mainstream national myths were challenged and reshaped by both top-down moves of the ruling elites to adapt to their new political needs and bottom-up trends from social groups and the public. In Japan, conservative elites perpetuated self-glorifying and self-whitewashing myths, in part to shake off the war stigma and justify a more muscular international strategy, but the mainstream conservative historiography encountered stronger domestic and international objections. In China, domestic political needs to enhance regime legitimacy and facilitate social mobilization drove the government to promote victim consciousness and other-maligning myths regarding war history. These changes shattered the previous memory quasi-convergence between China and Japan and caused their history disputes to heat up.
A close examination of the various aspects of the bilateral relationship during this period suggests that the emotional and psychological effects of these history disputes exacerbated mutual perceptions of threat, poisoned popular relations, and stimulated public opposition to diplomatic compromises during a period of bilateral sovereignty and economic friction.