In the first and longest of the three essays that comprise my recent book, Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time, I offer a history of the political and cultural relations-with a certain admixture of economic ties-of those countries we now call China and Japan. I stress the implicit last point, because it is not only ahistorical, but politically inexpedient, to look at the two nation-states today and extrapolate them as they are backwards in time. The very idea of the nation-state in a world made up of many such is, at the earliest, a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon in East Asia. In addition, the map of China has changed radically over the course of many centuries, which render claims of "age-old" territorial rights to certain places now tenuous at best.
My general argument-and, let me stress, this view is informed by four decades of reading but is only one educated man's view-is summed up in the word I, more or less, coined: Sinosphere. Pre-mid-nineteenth-century relations in East Asia were decidedly not based on a system of equal, interacting nation-states who contracted treaties regulating their political and economic intercourse. They were hierarchical with the ruling dynastic house on the mainland ("China") receiving visitors from the archipelago ("Japan") and from the many statelets along the peninsula ("Korea"), as well as elsewhere in the region. "China" was recognized as the center of the civilized world, even by those who shared none of its cultural trappings, and recognition of one's state or regime by the mainland dynasty in power was a hallmark of one's place in the civilized world.
The shape of the Sinosphere changed over time as the nature and geography of the mainland regime and the states surrounding it changed as well. "China" in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) would have been unrecognizable to that of the Zhou dynasty over two millennia earlier, and the same can be said for the regimes on the archipelago and the peninsula. One of the most telling things about the hierarchical ties within the Sinosphere is that this was accepted as the norm everywhere in the region until early modern times.
In the case of "Japan," the earliest substantive, written evidence we have of interactions between a regime there and a mainland state dates to the Former Han dynasty in the last two centuries B.C.E. The earliest piece of written evidence backed up by material evidence is an inscribed gold seal presented by the court of the founding emperor of the Later Han dynasty to an emissary from somewhere on the archipelago in the year 57 C.E. It was discovered in 1784 by a farmer in Kyushu and now resides in permanent exhibition at the Fukuoka City Museum. I have written a book about this gold seal and the controversies that have surrounded it over the past two-plus centuries, due out spring 2013 from Brill.
Seals of this sort as well as an assortment of other tokens were sought by numerous peoples living on "China's" periphery; they were a visible mark of the ritual or ceremonial infeudation within the reigning Sinosphere. The "Japanese" began to take serious advantage of the cultural side of this relationship from the early seventh century when hundreds of students, secular and religious, made what was then a dangerous sea voyage to the mainland to study at schools and monasteries there. Some stayed for a few years, others for decades. Those who returned home brought with them the highest achievements in their fields and planted the seeds for same on the archipelago. All of the main branches of Japanese
Buddhism, except for the Nichiren sect, were offshoots in the first instance of mainland sects, and most of them were of ultimate Indian origins.
The Buddhist sect that was most closely tied to mainland cultural development in many fields-not just religion-was that
Chan (Zen, in Japanese). Zen's many sects and sub-sects found branches launched in Japan, and Japanese Zen monks made their way to the mainland long after a ban on external travel was put in place by the shogunal government in the mid-seventeenth century. During the era of the Ming dynasty in China (1368-1644), virtually all Sino-Japanese trade was conducted on ships owned and operated by Zen monks. This may not jibe with the average person's idea of what Zen monks did on a daily basis, but this is precisely what a great many did for a great many years.
Despite changes throughout its long historical tenure, the world of East Asia understood as the Sinosphere structurally was given its coup de grâce with the onslaught of the Western imperialist powers, the imposition of unequal treaties and the rule of "international" law, with the conscious withdrawal from the Sinosphere by the Japanese government in the Meiji period, and a host of other factors over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. China might still be looked up to culturally, although it was slipping on this front, too, but politically it had lost most of its cachet, and indeed the Japanese took their subsequent lead from the West and joined the imperialists. The general story thereafter is too well known to need rehearsal.
Thus, I feel compelled to argue that the
territorial disputes over uninhabited clods of earth masquerading as "islands" are a mystery to me. Certainly, the pertinence of the Sinosphere is long gone. It has been, cynically, suggested that the only reason either side now feels the need to have those clods be considered geographically theirs must have to do with natural resources beneath the sea nearby. Maybe. Much anti-Japanese sentiment (and even violence) on the mainland is stirred up by Beijing, as part of an effort to coalesce its own domestic strength. There's nothing like an outside threat (even if domestically manufactured) to bring people together, an argument we are hearing among those opposed to a pre-emptive strike on Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons.