Tensions have recently arisen between the People’s Republic of China and Japan as a result of territorial disputes, changes in leadership and the ever-present acrimony of historical grievances.  In dispute is a small, unpopulated group of islands claimed by Japan and China, known respectively as the Senkakus or Diaoyus Islands, as well as Japan’s contrition over past alleged war crimes.

According to professor of Chinese history Xiaowei Zheng, such tensions are nothing new and date back to the First Sino-Japanese War. This war culminated in a newly industrialized Japan’s ascendancy over China, which had long been considered the dominant power in the region.

The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki was disastrous for China, as it led to China’s loss of Korea and thus launched the unruly tensions between China and Japan.

“The treaty was the start of the bad blood between China and Japan,” Zheng said.

Professor of Modern Japanese Cultural Studies Sabine Fruhstuck said subsequent hostilities were exacerbated by brutal war crimes Japan committed in the 1930s and 1940s. The most infamous of these crimes is the Rape of Nanking, a six-week massacre that occurred following the Japanese capture of the former capital of the Republic of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Another source of controversy was debate over what incidents justify military action. In reference to the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s — a series of armed conflicts over strategic islands in the Taiwan Strait — Fruhstuck said there was a shift in what Japan saw as a threat justified by military response. These were in contrast to previous provisions, which were concerned not so much with the extent of bloodshed or the overall intensity of the conflict, but instead solely with the distance from the Japanese coastline.

According to Japanese History professor Luke Roberts, China’s actions have led Japan to tread carefully.

“The Japanese have become more wary of China, even as they have seen it as a growing market opportunity,” Roberts said in an email. “The Chinese are interested in putting the ‘Shame of WWII’ behind them through assertive politics.”

Much of the Japanese population has become disillusioned with Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party, as Abe’s views on history have long been a point of controversy. The prime minister has voiced skepticism over the alleged coercion of “comfort women,” which are essentially women who were forced into prostitution during World War II.

Toru Hashimoto, the nationalist mayor of Osaka, has echoed Abe’s opinion, insisting that the exploitation of comfort women was necessary to maintain discipline and allow soldiers to rest.

Fruhstuck said that while there are several autobiographical accounts of members of the Imperial Japanese Army and sexual slavery survivors, Abe “essentially ignores such historical evidence” while Hashimoto “reproduces the attitude of the state during the war.”

In addition, Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minster, sparked controversy during his recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. According to Shinto beliefs, the shrine houses the spirits of individuals killed in the service of the Empire of Japan, which includes a number of notable war criminals. Aso’s reputation as an aggressive former prime minister, in addition to this visit, has brought condemnation from neighboring countries.

Japan’s nominal gross domestic product, meanwhile, is comparable to what it was in 1991, with the country continually seeking to end its own economic stagnation while also resisting an empowered China.

On the other hand, China has been claiming a number of islands in the region, which has led to widespread territorial conflict.

“China has been aggressively claiming very small islands all over the East China Sea and South China Sea area, and is in disputes with about four or five countries now,” Roberts said.

Among these islands are the Senkaus or Diaoyus Islands, a group of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks Japan first obtained in the First Sino-Japanese War. While the islands boast natural resources, this alone does not explain why China now counts it among its “core interests” along with Taiwan.

One cause of the dispute over ownership of the islands may be that China and Japan each have a new leadership regime, according to Fruhstuck.

“Both governments have issues from which they want to distract their own population’s attention,” according to Fruhstuck, who named “Japan’s economic slump and the 2011 triple disaster in Northeastern Japan and the associated uproar against nuclear power” as fiery issues.

As for China, Fruhstuck pointed to “the downsides of its rapid economic growth — including the widening class gap, environmental disaster and the continuation of a certain level of authoritarianism.”

However, the issue is further complicated by significant U.S. involvement in the region. Past alliances with Japan may have stirred up residual tensions, but according to Zheng, this is an old system of alliances that does not necessarily reflect significant power shifts in East Asia or the U.S.’s current foreign interests.

“These are old treaties tying into an old Cold War framework,” Zheng said. According to Zheng, relations between China and the U.S. are far more practical than their ideological differences might indicate. Zheng also said the U.S. wants to deter Japan and Taiwan from any provocations of extensive conflict.

China could theoretically be a threat due to its manpower and ongoing modernization, according to Fruhstuck, though this does not mean anything drastic will happen in the near future.

“During the 1980s, for instance, when anxieties about the fading of America’s greatness and economic superiority were all focused on Japan, we heard a lot of rhetoric from Japan and the United States about Japan reemerging as military power.  It didn’t happen,” Fruhstick said.  “We don’t really know whether this might apply to China as well or not, but let’s not forget that it’s not inevitable just because of its rise as an economic power with a great deal of military capacity.”

 A version of this article appeared on page 1 of the May 29th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus