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Newly Declassified Documents Reveal Japan's Misjudgment of China after Tiananmen

Japan in 1989 thought “China will be transformed into a more politically free and open state” after Tiananmen. Instead, the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party has simply pursued military expansionism and increased power.




Diplomatic documents recently declassified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) show that Japan strongly opposed sanctioning the Chinese government for the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, and only reluctantly joined other G7 nations in condemning the bloody crackdown.

The Declassified Documents

On December 23 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made public a large batch of diplomatic documents, comprising around 16,000 pages in 26 volumes, covering the period from 1987 to 1990.

The most explosive revelations in the documents involved the reaction of the Japanese government to the armed suppression by the Chinese government on June 4, 1989 of students and other citizens demanding democratization.

The documents make clear that, on that same day, Japan’s leaders made the decision to oppose joining the United States and other Western nations in sanctioning Beijing. as such an approach was deemed “to not be wise policy from a long-term, broad perspective.”

The rationale for the Japanese position was that isolating China would simply fuel Chinese chauvinism, and out of fear that Beijing would grow closer to Moscow. (The Soviet Union would collapse in December 1991).

Although Japan professed its concern for human rights and democracy, the end result of its response to Tiananmen was that China was soon able to break out of the international encirclement with little harm done to its interests. It also paved the way for Beijing’s current suppression of human rights in Hong Kong and elsewhere, as well as its aggressive expansionism.

A document dated June 4, 1989 that outlined the stance Japan would take [mainly for the benefit of the West] began by giving lip service to human rights, declaring that from that perspective the actions of the Chinese rulers were “unacceptable.”

However, the document quickly clarified that “Japan is opposed to jointly adopting sanctions or other such measures." It argued that the crackdown was a “domestic issue” in a China that had a different sociopolitical system and values. Therefore, it concluded, “criticism of China has its limits.”


The Chinese government has made “domestic issue” its mantra in legitimizing its rampant suppression of human rights. The tone of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs document is a good indication of the degree of importance the Japanese government at the time attached to human rights.

Japan's Misjudgments Enable China's Power

The prime minister of Japan at that time was Sosuke Uno, who had just taken office the day before the Tiananmen Massacre and was to resign in August of the same year in the wake of a sex scandal.

Nevertheless, it was Uno who attended the mid-July G7 “Summit of the Arch” near Paris. Western nations were eager to impose sanctions on China out of concern for human rights and democratization. However, the meeting ended up only issuing a joint declaration condemning Beijing’s actions while putting off a decision on joint sanctions.

On July 6, 1989, Uno told a Foreign Ministry official that “it would not be appropriate to drive China into international isolation.” He added regarding the Summit declaration that he wanted the text to make it clear that Japan’s position differed from that of the European Commission and the United States.

The government’s strategy is clear from a previously highly classified document dated June 22, 1989, that stated Tokyo should stick to a “wait and see” stance at the summit. Furthermore, “while affirming support for China’s reform and opening up, [Japan] should gradually work to normalize relations” with Beijing.

Even Using the Emperor

In the immediate wake of the Beijing bloodbath, Japan issued an advisory for its citizens to avoid all travel to China, and implemented a freeze on loans of Japanese yen and certain other sanctions. However, in August 1989, with the G7 Summit over, Tokyo quickly lifted the travel advisory, and in September a supra-partisan group of Diet members journeyed to China. Thus, Japan took the lead in lifting sanctions.

The rush to rapprochement with Beijing continued under Uno’s successor as prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu. In July 1990, Kaifu announced Japan was lifting the freeze on yen loans to China, and he ended its diplomatic isolation when he visited that country in 1991. That was followed in 1992 by a state visit by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

The declassified Foreign Ministry documents reflect the view that over time the “reform and opening” policies in China would cause “moderation of its foreign policy.” They are suffused with a positive confidence that “over the long term, China will be transformed into a more politically free and open state.”

Time has proven, however, that alongside economic reform and opening, the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party has simply pushed forward in pursuit of military expansionism and increased power.

(Read the original report here, in Japanese.)


Author: The Sankei Shimbun

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