Shinzo Abe, Japan's former prime minister, speaks after being elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. Photograph by Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg
Shinzo Abe, Japan's former prime minister, speaks after being elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. Photograph by Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg

The sight of anti-Japanese Chinese protesters carrying placards of Chairman Mao may strike some as historically absurd. After all, the architect of China's Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and numerous other murderous campaigns was responsible for far more Chinese deaths than, say, Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime leader.

But it is no more bizarre than yesterday's election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead Japan's Liberal Democratic Party. Let's review his resume and pedigree, especially from the Chinese perspective.

Just about every description of Abe is prefaced with the word "nationalist." His premiership from 2006 to 2007 was marked by his moves to change Japan's pacifist constitution, his denials that Asian women were institutionally coerced to have sex with Japanese soldiers and his support for efforts to, in general, whitewash horrific episodes in Japan's World War II history such as the Nanjing Massacre. Time has seemingly not mellowed his views: He has suggested that, as prime minister, he would visit Yasukuni shrine, a nationalist theme park for Japan's war dead, and recant some of Japan's apologies for World War II.

Abe is the son of the former LDP stalwart Shintaro Abe, the foreign minister whose own hopes for a premiership were derailed by a campaign finance scandal. More tellingly, he is the grandson of former prime minister and Class A war criminal suspect Nobosuke Kishi, whom the historian John Dower described as "the brilliant and unscrupulous former bureaucrat…who had been the economic czar of the puppet state of Manchukuo and was accused, among other things, of being responsible for the enslavement of untold thousands of Chinese as forced laborers."

Set aside the dynastic insularity of Japanese politics (Kishi, for example, was the older brother of Eisaku Sato, Japan's longest-serving prime minister and a fierce opponent of Communist China). And never mind the intellectual bankruptcy of the LDP, with its circular dinosaur parade.

What's striking is the extent to which Japan and China remain in the grip of historical attitudes, animosities, resentments and rivalries that well predate the Second World War. In fact, they sharpened more than a century ago in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, when Japan crushed China's navy and army and acquired Taiwan and effective control of Korea, as well as ports along the Yangtze and commercial treaty rights. Japan's claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dates back to that conflict, when Japan "stood up," to borrow Mao's phrase, and joined the ranks of Western imperialist powers.

Now it's payback time. Chinese protesters who attack Japanese factories have their forebears in those who led boycotts of Japanese goods in the 1910s and '20s. And for many Chinese factory workers today, the division of labor is Manchukuo-lite, where they are executing orders -- call it higher value-added -- from their Japanese masters. They don't need much persuading to hit the streets to protest Japan's control of the islands.

Ironically, when Abe became prime minister, one of the first things he did was try to patch up relations with China. It's unlikely he and the LDP will win when Japan holds new elections. But if he does, he may be facing one heck of Nixon-Went-to-China moment.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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