China and Japan in an Asian perspective


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THE history of Asia has been discussed in various ways depending on how the region is viewed. Historically, Asia was first seen by Europeans as a place outside and beyond what they knew, and for a time Asians themselves adopted this regional perception of the outsider. Spokesmen for such a perspective included Fukuzawa Yukichi with his idea of ‘(Japan’s) dissociation from Asia’, Okakura Tenshin’s concept of ‘Asia as one’, and Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Greater Asia’. These ideas were inspired by Asian nationalism or regionalism resisting the forces of Europe; they were viewed in an East versus West perspective.

With the growth of Asia’s self-awareness, however, research was increasingly focused on the motive forces of Asian history itself rather than comparisons with Europe. Examples of this are studies viewing Asia from a civilizational and geopolitical perspective or analyzing the tribute system that was based on the ‘middle kingdom-vs.-barbarian-state’ order. This trend in research led to studies of the Ryukyu kingdom (modern Okinawa) in the context of Asian intra-regional trade networks.

Later, in Asia there emerged hegemonic structures built because of the colonial policies of Japan and the European powers that were quite different from what had prevailed before, and together with this process nationalism and nation-building became issues of central concern. This led to the development of studies of Asia framed by the realities of the colonialist/imperialist age. During this period, Ryukyu was incorporated into Japan, as Okinawa prefecture, and became an integral element in the fabric of Japanese nationalism. Nevertheless, the area retained its distinctive folklore, customs, and relations with the surrounding region.

Many peoples in Asia and Africa gained independence from colonial regimes after World War II and, by the end of the 1980s as the long-dominant Cold War structure collapsed, this impact was felt in Asia as the influence of the earlier mentality rapidly declined. Under these conditions certain new approaches to the study of Asia and new images of Asia were needed. Especially the rise of Asian NIEs (newly industrializing economies) in the 1970s, the rapid growth of Southeast Asian economies in the 1980s, and China’s reform and open-door policy in the 1980s-90s have resulted in the formation of multilayered relations within the region that transcend national boundaries. Most notable are the strong networks that have formed among the once-scattered overseas settlements of Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans and, what in Japanese are called ‘Uchinanchu’ (or Okinawans).


In 1997 Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty, creating a new relationship based on the ‘one country/two systems’ principle reminiscent of the old suzerain-vassal relationship. Asian studies, which have tended to focus on states and their relations, now need to be reformulated to accommodate the maritime role of China, the one-country/two-systems areas, the flourishing of transnational networks, and other new developments in the region. In this context we must consider the position and role of Okinawa as well as long-term historical changes in Asia, so that Asian studies from now on will accord more attention to the interaction of suzerainty, sovereignty and networks and to maritime and regional relationships.


Countries functioning as territorial states have traditionally distinguished themselves from others by their borders, extending their national territory even out to sea, often causing disputes with other states, such as the 200-mile sea zones, which results in issues involving conflicting claims to islands, as in the case with the Spratly Island. The state has long been regarded as the only entity to which all things belong, and in the days when all things were thought to belong ultimately to the state, both negotiations and conflicts focused foremost on exclusive possession of territory and division of territory by boundary lines. However, the state itself should historically be considered as a form of local government, while regions are multifaceted in both content and composition. In this age of regionalization, I believe that there ought to be diversity in regional concepts as well.

The meaning of the seas cannot be fully appreciated as long as they are seen as opposed to the land and as long as we focus our gaze exclusively on the land. The seas should be viewed as that which forms and sets the conditions of the land. The seas and the lands are not separated by the coastlines, rather the land is a part of the seas.

Looking at Asia from the viewpoint of the seas brings into focus the features that identify Asia above all as a maritime region. The seas along the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent form a gentle ‘S’ curve continuing from north to south. The chain formed by the seas that outline the continent, its peninsulas, and adjacent islands can be seen as shaping the premises of Asia’s geopolitical space throughout history. The ‘maritime areas’ thus formed are smaller than an ocean and not as closely associated with the land as with bays or inlets.

Let us follow the ‘Asian seas’ from north to south. The Sea of Okhotsk shapes Kamchatka and Siberian Russia. Further south, it merges into the Sea of Japan; then comes the Bohai and the Yellow Sea. These, with the East China Sea, embrace the Korean peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and the islands of Okinawa. The chain of seas then is divided in two. On the east side is the Sulu Sea leading to the Banda, Arafura, Coral, and Tasman seas. On the west side is the Java Sea that stretches west and connects with the Strait of Malacca and thence to the Bay of Bengal. From the intersections of these seas trade networks formed pivoting on ports such as Nagasaki, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Asian studies have revolved around the history of land-based states; it is necessary from now on to study Asia in terms of the movement and exchange that takes place among maritime zones.


To see what a trade zone was like, let us look at the history of Ryukyu. The first series of the Litai Paoan, a collection of official Chinese tributary trade records, tells us that when the Ming dynasty ruled China, the Ryukyu’s engaged in commercial transactions with various parts of Southeast Asia, such as Siam, Srivijaya, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Annan and Patani. It can be assumed that Japan, Korea, and China were added to these Southeast Asian countries, thereby linking the Ryukyu’s in an extensive trade network.

These trade relations, which can be called the Ryukyu network, were founded upon the Ryukyu tribute trade with China. Its trade with Southeast Asia was aimed to obtain pepper and sappanwood, both of which were included in its list of tribute gifts to China.

The trade network had two distinctive features. One was that the trade with Siam and other Southeast Asian countries was vigorous between the early fifteenth century and the mid-sixteenth century. The other feature was that, as far as we know from Litai Paoan, records of the trade with Southeast Asia declined while those of the trade with Korea and Japan increased.

This phenomenon prompts us to ask two questions concerning the Ryukyu network: What happened with the trade with Southeast Asia after the mid-sixteenth century? What was the nature of the trade with Manila, Luzon, as part of Ryukyu’s trade with Southeast Asia?

In examining these questions, we can assume that the Ryukyu’s were involved in two trade routes between South China and Southeast Asia, as found in the sea linkages we earlier discussed. One route ran along the island chains in the eastern side of the South China Sea from Luzon to Sulu and the other stretched along the coast of the continent on the western side of South China Sea from Siam to Malacca.


The eastern route started from Zhuanzhou (or Fuzhou), stretching between Ryukyu, Taiwan, and Sulu. This route not only carried the trade with Southeast Asian tributary states but also, from the sixteenth and seven-teen centuries onward, the transit trade with Spain centred at Manila – for silk – and with the Dutch East India Company centred on Taiwan. At the same time, the route ran farther north from Fuzhou docking with the soybean and soybean meal trade of North China and thereby mediating trade between the North and South of China’s eastern regions.

The western route, starting from Guangzhou, linked various parts of Southeast Asia through the coastal routes. This represented the trade with major Southeast Asian tributary states such as Siam, Malacca, and Sumatra. Considering that rice, marine products and spices were major trade articles, we can assume that this route was closely related to food products produced in the Guangdong, Guangsi, Hunan and other parts of South China. And notably, that rice and sugar imports from Southeast Asia and South China’s rice and sugar production complemented each other.


In this connection, in 1666, ninety-six years after the records of official trade with Southeast Asia stopped appearing in 1570, the Ryukyu king Sho Shitsu asked that spices which were not produced locally be excluded from the list of tribute goods and approval was granted. This means that by that time, without relying on official trade, Ryukyu was able to obtain spice, which had been among the tribute goods for nearly a hundred years. In the backdrop of this development, there was an increase in rice trade with Siam, which in turn expanded the Chinese merchants’ route of trade with Siam, bringing more merchants from the Chinese coast to Southeast Asia. As a result, Ryukyu obtained pepper and sappanwood either by joining up with the Chinese merchant trade in Southeast Asia or by direct purchase from Chinese merchants.

Ryuku, even after it was invaded by the Satsuma domain during the rule of the Tokugawa in Japan in the early seventeenth century, continued to dispatch tribute envoys to Qing China. At the same time, it sent envoys to Tokugawa shoguns in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Its relations with Korea also cannot be ignored.

After the Ryukyu kingdom was abolished and it became an administrative unit of Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the port city of Naha which had been an entrepot for East Asian and Southeast Asian trade, was closed and a new treaty ports system came into being created by treaties with western countries. Hong Kong and Singapore played an important role in this new Asian treaty port system.


The tributary system changed from within, as three developments in modern East Asia suggest. First, ‘tributary’ states and ‘equal’ trading partners asserted themselves as ‘middle kingdoms’ in their own right to create a zone of autonomy and to resist China’s hegemony, long before the Opium War of 1840. Second, the tributary trade, run on the governmental level, had become less and less profitable in the nineteenth century, because the Qing government pursued a policy of currency inflation. This policy, which invited growing discontent among tributary states, led to a flourishing private trade, and reduced tributary exchange to nominal levels. And finally, in the nineteenth century, former tributary states adopted Westphalian international principles and methods and turned them against China.

We have noted that the European countries did not constitute a separate category outside the tribute system. They were all included within the logic of tributary relations, and geographically speaking, were simply seen as being situated at some indeterminate distance beyond the frontiers of China. In Guangdong, for example, Great Britain was not even identified by Chinese officials as the same country that had earlier sent a diplomatic representation to Tibet. From an Asian perspective, Asian countries did not respond individually to western countries coming to Asia; rather they primarily interacted through the tribute trade system to which all of them belonged.


Tributary states increasingly grew discontented economically in the course of the Qing because China ‘rigged’ tributary trade for its own convenience. The Qing government demanded more tributary goods in larger volumes, but the goods it gave in exchange were not always those desired by the tributary states. The Qing court often gave paper currency as its ‘gift’, which depressed the value of tribute goods. The Qing also imposed tighter trade controls. Chinese merchants engaged in the tributary trade in and around China thus grew increasingly critical of the situation. Meanwhile, private trade along sea coasts and borders, which had long accompanied the tributary trade, expanded with the emergence of Asia-wide commercial networks, and threatened to surpass the tributary trade in importance. This development was yet another factor contributing to the change in the Sino-centric tributary relationship.

‘Western impact’ needs to be understood in a changing historical context in which the tributary trade system was extended to encompass trade between European and East Asian countries. In the records of trade from the Netherlands and Portugal to China in the Kangxi period in the seventeenth century, several European-made cotton textiles are listed together with woollens. European-made cotton textiles are also mentioned in lists of tribute articles from Southeast Asian countries to China. Thus the tributary system came to constitute a multilateral trading network capable of absorbing commodities from outside itself.

These aspects of the tributary trading system became more pronounced in the transition from Ming to Qing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First, the ideal of Sino-centric unity was expanded and consolidated, strongly affecting Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Second, tributary trade was expanded with the participation of European countries. And third, private trade expanded along with the tributary trade, and trade-related institutions such as trade settlement and tax collection became increasingly sophisticated.


The western presence was eventually exploited by Siam, Burma, Tibet, Vietnam (Indochina), Japan, Korea, and other countries in China’s vicinity to resist China and adopt ‘modernization’ policies to become more autonomous within the framework of tributary relations in East Asia. Having reached East and Southeast Asia, European powers sought to conclude advantageous treaties with local states, but they encountered major problems. One was how to decide whether the party they were negotiating with actually represented the legitimate power in its locality. The other was how to make sure that agreements concluded were honoured.

As long as the Sino-centric relationship in East Asia continued, bilateral treaties with local states that ignored their relations with China, especially when negotiating with states near or bordering China, were simply ineffective. European powers were forced to take into account the regional ‘tributary sphere’, the East Asian regional order of suzerainty. While trying to establish treaty relations with East and Southeast Asian states, the European powers tacitly recognized their vassal relationship with China. The tributary system and the international treaty relationship existed side by side.

The history of relations between China and Siam provides an interesting example of how Asian countries viewed western countries and utilized them within Asian frameworks. In 1884, during the Sino-French war over Indo-China, the Governor General of Guangdong and Guangxi, Peng Yulin, sent the self-strengthening movement entrepreneur Zheng Guangying on a mission to Siam. His personal records contain the following observation:

‘On the 26th of May, 1884, when Zheng Guangying met the "consul" of Siam in Singapore, Chen Jinzhong, he said that it was a "crime" for Siam to have stopped its tribute embassies to China and that such a decision by Siam was not justified, even under international law.’ Although Zheng was known as an enlightened, western-educated Chinese who might be expected to rely on international law and apply it as a standard, he in fact argued for maintaining the historical tributary relationship between China and Siam, that is, a superior-subordinate relationship. In other words, he utilized international law only as a means of argument, not as a basis for equal relations.

On the other hand, Chen Jinzhong counter-attacked by saying that if China wanted to arrange a treaty with Siam, it should welcome Chen in Guangdong or Tianjin for ‘negotiations’. Chen thus utilized the concepts of western ‘international law’ and treaty negotiations between equals to back his argument. Both, however, clearly saw the relationship between the two countries as a tributary relationship, making only partial use of western ideas.


With this brief description of the relationship between the Asian tributary trade system and the West, we can now turn to the question of Sino-Japanese relations in modern times. Previous studies have concentrated on the differences in how the Japanese and the Chinese modernized under ‘western impact’. Such a focus – on Japan’s adoption of the national self-strengthening policy and on its imperialist expansion into China during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 – traces the history of modern Japan only from the perspective of ‘westernization’ and understands the history of modern Japan as the emergence of a ‘small West’ in Asia. But Japanese modernization is more fruitfully examined in terms of its generation from within the Sino-centric tributary system. From this perspective Japanese modernization was an attempt to move the centre of the tributary trade structure from China to Japan. In other words, the main issues in Japanese modernization were how to cope with Chinese dominance over commercial relations in Asia, a dominance that had long functioned as the base for Sino-centric integration through the tributary trade relationship, and how to reorganize relations among Japan, China, Korea, and Liuqiu (Ryukyu) in ways that put Japan at the centre.


First, let us consider these questions from the economic perspective. In scholarly literature, Japanese modernization is described as a matter of industrialization and the recovery of tariff autonomy, that is, in terms of the formation of a national economy and the achievement of full national sovereignty. Analyses of these questions usually start by explaining how Japan achieved ‘national wealth and power’. Yet there is hardly any inquiry into why Japan opted for industrialization as it did. Because the course of Japan’s modernization has been studied as a process of overcoming its subordination to western powers or achieving independence from the West, the importance to Japan of the historical relationship between Japan and China has been largely ignored. To understand the direction and nature of Japanese modernization, however, it is crucial to recognize that Japan opted for industrialization after the opening of its ports in an effort to transform its location in a web of commercial relations with China.

Japan opted for industrialization because its attempts to expand commercial relations with China had been defeated. Japanese merchants could not compete with the entrenched overseas Chinese merchants who ruled the so-called Dejima trade (Deshima is the island of Nagasaki where the Dutch and Chinese were located and allowed to trade from) in Nagasaki during the Edo period. Chinese merchants held a monopoly on the export business for seafood and native commodities that Japanese traders simply could not break.


When the Japanese consul in Hong Kong, Suzuki, emphasized the importance of the Hong Kong market in 1890 in a report to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he commented on the low morale of Japanese traders in Hong Kong and pointed out the following: (i) Chinese merchants were united and had a long-term strategy that went beyond short-term profit; (ii) Japanese merchants were undercapitalized and when they suffered even a single loss, had to withdraw; and (iii) There were indications that Japanese producers sold their products to Chinese merchants cheaper than to Japanese merchants.

According to the consul, Chinese merchants not only controlled the local market but even extended their influence to Japanese producers, and he was very pessimistic about Japanese merchants entering the Hong Kong market. It was under such circumstances – the commercial power of Chinese merchants and their influence in Japan – that the need for cultivating the Chinese market increased. And it was from Chinese merchants in Japan that Japanese obtained the information needed to start a modern cotton textile industry capable of competing with western cotton textiles for a share of the Chinese market.


In the nineteenth year of Meiji (1887), Chinese merchants in Yokohama started buying cotton cloth produced in Saitama prefecture. The parties concerned pressed the authorities to promote exports to the Chinese market and asked the Japanese consul in Hong Kong about future possibilities. Prominent Chinese merchants in Hong Kong advised the Japanese to produce cloth in bolts as wide as those sold by the West, both plain and striped at a competitive price. Based on this advice, production and export to China got under way. This example is representative of the general course of Japanese industrialization, which started in the 1880s with the production of substitutes for western textiles in Asia. Competition among Japan, China, and India in the production of cotton textiles also started at about this time.

Increased foreign trade with western countries through foreign firms also provided an impetus to Japan’s industrialization. The expansion of new exports like silk and coal, along with such traditional items as seafood, accelerated its industrial development. Although this was due to the commercial activities of western firms, the main aim of such firms was not to export industrial products of their own countries but to import Asian products. The opening of the Japanese market thus did not change Japan’s trade relations with East Asia significantly.

Political relations between Japan and China in the early Meiji period can now be reinterpreted in this light. Previous studies of the Sino-Japanese treaty of 13 May 1871 have generally concluded that the treaty was predicated on the equality of the two nations as demonstrated by the approval of mutual consular jurisdictions. It is pointed out that the treaty embodied the idea of equality of nations common to modern international intercourse and that it marked the opening of the modern era in international relations in East Asia. It is doubtful, however, whether the equality Japan supposedly obtained was recognized as such by Qing China. China’s dealings with other states were informed by its long-established idea of a hierarchy of dignity with the Emperor at the top. ‘Equality’ with the Emperor was unthinkable, indeed impossible, in the Chinese scheme of things. The Kiakhta Treaty of 1727 with Russia serves as an illustration of this.


Article 6 of the Kiakhta Treaty, which concerned the exchange of official letters, included a clause which implied ‘equality’ between the signatories. The article provided that such letters should be exchanged between the Russian Senate and the Qing Colonial Office. Compared with the one-sided nature of the tributary system in which China was clearly dominant, the exchange of letters under the Kiakhta arrangement appears even handed. Yet China did not really view Russia as an equal; after all, the mandate of the Colonial Office was to control the affairs of the Mongols. The treaty also provided for the opening of mutual trade on the frontier in place of trade in the Assembly Hall in Beijing. Although this stipulation seems to imply equality between the two countries, the trade in question was originally conducted as part of the tributary trade. We can also find a good deal of evidence to show that knowledgeable Chinese were merely doing a favour to Russia.


How then should we interpret the significance of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1871? The Chinese party concerned with the treaty negotiations was the Yamen of Foreign Affairs. The duties of the Yamen were similar to those of a ministry of foreign affairs. Established under strong pressure from western powers to replace the Bureau of Ceremony, the Yamen included among its members some of the ministers of the Council of State and was thus far more powerful than the Colonial Office or the Mongolian Superintendency. But it did not have the power to bind Governor Generals and Provincial Governors responsible for policy implementation. It is hard to imagine that when the Yamen signed treaties with foreign countries, China recognized them as equal. It was Japan who exploited this expression of ‘equality’ as if it were a concession from China to reorganize international relations in East Asia to its own advantage.

In view of these factors, which were implicit in the tributary system and not part of the ‘western impact’, we can argue that Japan’s modernization was initiated in a fairly unstable international environment. In the course of the Edo period, it sought to abolish the tributary system (of which it had previously been a part) and re-enter East Asian relations on a new basis. Japan confronted the tributary system when it initially tried to reconstruct its relationship with Korea and the Ryukyu, eventually seizing outright control of both and transforming their historical relationship to the tributary order.

‘Modernization’ and the ‘nation state’ in Asia emerged as a reaction against the all-inclusive superior-subordinate relations of the traditional tribute system. Mercantilist control over tribute by the Qing dynasty led overseas Chinese merchants to oppose Beijing’s trade policy and expand their own private trade. As a result, the Qing was in turn compelled to shift from the role of monopolistic trader-merchant to that of tax collector. European countries expanded their influence in Asia by first utilizing the tribute trade system and heavily investing in it. Japan, using westernization as a means of modernization, tried to reconstruct the Asian system, but found itself trapped between a still strong Sino-centric order and the militarily powerful and expansive West.


Our approach has been to try to grasp Asia as an integrated historical system whose central institution, the tributary trade system, long after the arrival of the European and American powers continued to shape outcomes on the ground. What is required to understand ‘modernization’ in Asia is to trace how each country and area within Asia attempted to cope with the transformation of the tribute system.


* Translated from Japanese.



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