Japan and China have been rivals for more than a millennium. In more recent times, China was the more powerful until the late nineteenth century, while Japan took the upper hand in the twentieth. Now, China's resurgence has emboldened it even as Japan perceives itself falling behind, exacerbating long-standing historical frictions.
June Teufel Dreyer's Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun provides a highly accessible overview of one of the world's great civilizational rivalries. Dreyer, a senior scholar of East Asia, begins in the seventh century in order to provide a historical background for the main story: by the mid-nineteenth century, the shrinking distances afforded by advances in technology and the intrusion of Western powers brought the two into closer proximity in ways that alternately united and divided them. In the aftermath of multiple wars between them, including a long and brutal conflict in World War II, Japan developed into an economic power but rejected any concomitant military capabilities. China's journey toward modernization was hindered by ideological and leadership struggles that lasted until the death of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong in 1976.
Bringing the narrative up to the present day, Dreyer focuses on the issues that dominate China and Japan's fraught current relationship: economic rivalry, memories of World War II, resurgent nationalism, military tensions, Taiwan, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and globalization. Dreyer argues that recent disputes should be seen as manifestations of embedded rivalries rather than as issues whose resolution would provide a lasting solution to deep-standing disputes. For anyone interested in the political dynamics of East Asia, this integrative history of the relationship between the region's two giants is essential reading.