In A.D. 804, a 30-year-old monk named Kukai set sail for China as part of a Japanese government delegation, making his way to the capital Chang-an (present day Xian), one of the world’s most prosperous cities at the time. Over the next two years Kukai would study Esoteric Buddhism and Sanskrit with the great master Hui-kuo, excel in the Chinese writing system, and observe firsthand the achievements of science and engineering of Tang dynasty China.
The voyage was to transform Kukai into one of Japan’s most influential historical figures. His achievements are staggering: Upon returning home he established the Shingon (“True Word”) Buddhist school, worked on refining and spreading the Japanese syllabary, founded the first private school for commoners and instructed his countrymen on temple construction and public work projects such as those he had seen in China.
An accomplished scholar, poet and calligrapher, Kukai’s life’s work was to be the creation of a Buddhist center of learning in Koya-san, a high-mountain plateau in central Japan, where to this day more than 100 temples continue his teachings.
Missions such as Kukai’s were no rarity: Between the 7th and 9th centuries alone at least 14 major Japanese delegations made the difficult journey across the East China Sea, bringing back knowledge, skills and goods that would impact every aspect of Japanese life. The expeditions included not just diplomats and priests but carpenters, doctors, engineers, gardeners, historians, metalworkers, musicians and translators. So great was enthusiasm for and interest in China that some delegations, members of which could run into the hundreds, would stay years, even decades to complete their studies.
So it has been particularly depressing to witness the ferocity but also the pettiness of the current spat between China and Japan over what started as a territorial dispute in the East China Sea. By early October, after weeks of saber-rattling, the governments finally came to their senses, letting diplomacy reassert itself. But the genie is still not back in the bottle: Orchestrated or otherwise, riots continue to break out in China against Japanese companies. They flared up again a few days ago in a number of major cities.
On the streets of Japan, meanwhile, loudspeakers on rightists’ trucks have been venting anti-Chinese sentiments, for once not quite out of touch with ordinary people’s anger at the public humiliation inflicted by Beijing. And despite the government’s efforts to calm things down, there have been frequent demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo.
What a breath of fresh air, therefore, to visit recently in the midst of all the belligerent clamor two gemlike exhibits at the Shanghai Museum: the first devoted to no other than the revered Kukai and his Chinese predecessor, the monk and scholar Jianzhen, who brought Buddhist teachings to Japan in the 8th century; the second, a major collaborative effort between museums and private collections in both countries, resulting in “Masterpieces of Chinese and Japanese Calligraphy.” Simply thinking of the hundreds of scholars and technicians who must have worked together on these exquisite initiatives is surely cause for some optimism.
There are legitimate reasons to think that meaningful Sino-Japanese relations are all but impossible: scars from atrocities committed by the Japanese Army during World War II are still fresh, and Beijing’s tendency to periodically drag out historical grievances for domestic political consumption has not been helpful. But in a relationship this long, deep and mutually beneficial, surely there can still be many areas to make common cause.
For starters, it is good to remember that business, tourism and academic exchanges are going strong. Japanese companies and citizens are among the largest foreign contingents in China today. The fastest-growing group of tourists to Japan is Chinese, as is Japan’s largest foreign student body (80 percent of the students in my language class are Chinese — and thanks to a shared writing system with Japanese, also the quickest learners).
For China, the benefits of partnering with Japanese companies and learning from their technological know-how and work ethic are inestimable. For Japan, the size and needs of the Chinese market are giddying. Joint environmental partnerships are emblematic: Earlier this month more than 350 Chinese public and private executives attended a summit with Japanese counterparts to approve 44 ecoprojects, from smart grid energy systems to traffic installations that reduce carbon dioxide technology.
But a merely utilitarian perspective will not do justice to what is at stake. Different as they may be in their national characters, Chinese and Japanese share many similar cultural values. As one model of development, Japanese society — with its emphasis on harmony, its respect for tradition and particularly its ability to safeguard key aspects of its culture even as it transformed itself into a prosperous nation — provides important insights for China.
Every year, two Japanese friends and I travel to Koya-san to visit its splendid temple architecture and pay our respects to Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi — the great teacher. Koya-san, 1,200 years after its inception, remains Esoteric Buddhism’s most important center of scholarship. Marvels of religious art, many brought from China, are lovingly treasured in its temples and museums — even as they are lost after centuries of colonial plunder, wars and communism in China itself.
Most of history is geography, as my father would often remind me. In their proximity, Japan and China are wed by the dictates of nature. As long as our planet revolves around its axis, these two ancient and remarkable civilizations shall remain neighbors. Surely they could do a better job seeking the higher ground? It is in their mutual benefit to not stoke fires of discord, to help each other in the resolution of shared problems and, who knows, over a few generations to genuinely respect and maybe even like one another anew.
Nassrine Azimi, senior adviser at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar). These comments reflect her personal views.