Looking through recent newspaper archives about Japan, I found this chilling headline: Is World War Three about to start by accident?
It was the title of a piece by an eminent historian called Max Hastings in the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail.
“The tensions between Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have been increasing for years,” wrote Mr Hastings.
He warned that “many wars have been triggered by miscalculations” and said that there was “a profound fear in Washington, in Tokyo, and maybe also in Beijing, that one day something unspeakably ghastly could happen by mistake.”
I am pleased to say that since the piece was published in January 2014, the relationship between China and Japan has improved significantly, and although America is playing a new role in Asia, it is not stoking up a fear of war.
In Osaka, Tokyo and Nara, Chinese tourists appreciate Japan’s famous hospitality, known as the generous spirit of omotenashi. Some Japanese shopkeepers greet their customers in Chinese. Chinese tourists pose for pictures wearing kimonos.
Japan and China have cultural connections which pre-date recent differences over ideology and territory.
Mr Hastings was right to observe in the Daily Mail that until recently there was a poor relationship on the diplomatic level. So in 2014, the idea that Japan, of all places, would sign up to support China’s international expansion would have seemed quite implausible.
Yet this September, a meeting will be held in Beijing at which senior representatives from China and Japan will decide how to cooperate on projects which are part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, such as a railway in Thailand.
China and Japan have different visions for the world. Projects associated with the Belt and Road initiative are based on the idea of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Japan has another system. But I sense appreciation for projects which would benefit for Asia and the wider world.
It was significant that neither Prime Minister, nor any other Japanese cabinet ministers, visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo this month to mark the anniversary of the end of the War.
The shrine commemorates people who died in battle but this includes soldiers who were convicted of war crimes in Asia. In the past, visits by Japanese politicians to Yasukuni shrine have provoked resentment in the Chinese media. Such unpleasantness has been avoided for a few years now.
Clause Nine reform
Also, there has been very little mention of Mr Abe’s plan to reform Clause Nine of the Japanese constitution. A change to that clause would open the way for Japan to significantly expand the role of its military – changing it from a Self Defence Force into an army with the capacity to fight internationally.
I don’t believe the goal has been abandoned. However, Japan, like China, knows when to soft pedal on sensitive matters. In particular, the Japanese would prefer to avoid any confrontations ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.
Tensions over territory
There remains worry about the flashpoint the Daily Mail mentioned in 2014 – the Senkaku islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu. Yet most people go about their lives without worrying too much about uninhabited rocks which are barely specks on the map.
A lasting settlement over that contentious issue would be a big step forward in improving Sino-Japanese relations and make the threat of an accidental war still more remote.