A View from Japan

Amid the improving atmosphere in Japan-China relations, the crisis in Hong Kong has left many Japanese asking how their should country respond. In reaction to the proposed amendment to an extradition law, a vast number of Hong Kong citizens are repeatedly demonstrating in defense of Hong Kong’s freedom, which was guaranteed in the formula “one country, two systems.” For the neighboring country Japan, political problems that arise in China and Hong Kong are extremely important. Shortly after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo took office, he declared his intention of pursuing “strategic diplomacy based on the fundamental values ​​of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law,1” and a “values-based diplomacy.” However, recently Abe has sought to improve relations with China, which has a different outlook on values. The response of Japan to the Hong Kong question is one touchstone to determine which objective does the government truly prioritize: values-based diplomacy or closer Japan-China relations.

Improvements in Japan-China relations: A fragile foundation

Many Japanese have valued the improving relations of Japan and China over these last few years. In the Japan-China joint public opinion survey conducted regularly by Genron NPO and China International Publishing Group,2 2013 was the year when the largest number of Chinese (90.3 percent) considered Japan-China relations to be bad, and in 2014 the Japanese figure for this (83.4 percent) reached its highest level. However, subsequently in both countries, the situation improved, to the point that in 2018 a diminished 45.1 percent of Chinese and 39.0 percent of Japanese shared this negative outlook. Few want to jeopardize this long-sought improvement.

Japan-China relations kept worsening in the period of the Koizumi administration due to his Yasukuni Shrine visits and other historical issues, and later when the Senkaku Islands issue grew more complicated, especially in 2012 when problems arose over them being nationalized. Anti-Japan demonstrations erupted in China, and Japanese feelings toward China sharply deteriorated. Relations further deteriorated when in 2013 after he took office at the end of 2012 Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. In 2014 when Abe visited China on the occasion of the APEC summit, President Xi Jinping shook his hand but, unlike his handshakes with the leaders of other countries, he was not smiling, and instead had an extremely harsh expression. Among the Japanese public, dissatisfaction was aroused over Xi’s arrogant attitude. However, afterwards bilateral relations improved, and the main reason was the 2016 election as president of Donald Trump, who had widely expressed his great dissatisfaction with the huge trade deficit the US ran with China. Through tariffs he imposed on China after taking office and his other behavior, he greatly strained bilateral relations. While Abe strove to build a personal relationship of trust with him, Trump was also greatly dissatisfied with Japan, which ran the second largest trade deficit with the US after China. He often made troubling demands of Japan; after pulling out of the TPP negotiations, he demanded bilateral FTA talks with Japan, an increase in host-nation support payments for US bases, and more. In the face of such conditions, Japan and China drew closer.

The foundation for improved relations between Japan and China was fragile, however. First, the major problems between the two could not be resolved at all. Historical problems in the past few years have not shown any particular improvement. Although today Chinese criticisms of Japan concerning this have quieted, in light of the Chinese government’s reservations toward Japan, should any issue suddenly arise, public opinion in both countries would again turn more negative. Also, there has been no progress on the Senkaku Islands issue. In 2019 the number of Chinese ships sailing through the Senkaku’s waters diminished, but in 2019 the number increased again.3

Second, neither populace’s feelings have yet turned positive. According to the above-mentioned poll, even in 2018, 86.3 percent of Japanese responded that their impression of China is bad, and while the Chinese figure was not as striking—56.1 percent gave the same answer regarding Japan. Today, amid more complicated international relations, Japan and China each desire to have good relations with the other country; however, rather than being good relations on a foundation of strong popular goodwill, they have achieved no more than pragmatic, neighborly ties, at best.

Third, the leaders of both countries embrace strong nationalist ways of thinking. Xi Jinping holds up the banner of the “great renaissance of the Chinese people,” and Abe makes his base of support the extreme right forces. Both arouse and use nationalism at home to maintain public support for themselves. At present Chinese nationalism targets the US as the enemy, while the nationalism in Japan is directed at countering South Korea, which has raised complicated issues touching on historical questions. Therefore, Japan-China relations are comparatively quiet, but if some sort of issue were to arise, suppressing nationalism would not prove easy in either country.

Fourth, the diplomatic strategies of Japan and China are in conflict. China has pursued the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to strengthen relations with countries in Asia, but its “Maritime Silk Road” in Southeast Asia overlaps with the strategic range of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” which Japan proposed and the US also joined. Although the two are not mutually exclusive (Abe has expressed his support for BRI), at a minimum they compete with each other. In this respect too, in the past few years, even as Japan-China relations have, on the surface, appeared to show improvement, their foundation remains weak. Indeed, the strategic gap only keeps widening.

Japan-Hong Kong relations: Strong economic and cultural linkages

Relations between Japan and Hong Kong mainly center on economic and social ties of citizens, the density of which is extremely thick. According to the Japanese government tourist bureau, the number of visitors to Japan from Hong Kong was 2,231,568, fourth after China’s 7,355,818, South Korea’s 7,140,438, and Taiwan’s 4,564,053, but per capita it ranked first in the world with 8 percent of the total visitors of 28,691,073.4 The Hong Kong government’s statistics show those visiting from Japan in 2018 numbered 1,287,773. Among the 14,109,325 visitors from outside the Chinese mainland, Japan trails Taiwan’s 1,925,234 and South Korea’s 1,421,411 in third place.5 Besides, there are 25,527 Japanese residing in Hong Kong in 2017, a figure higher than the 21,054 residing in Taiwan., and there are 1,404 Japanese originated enterprises on territory under the jurisdiction of Japan’s Hong Kong consulate, greater than the 1,199 in Singapore.6 Moreover Hong Kong residents have great interest in Japanese culture, trusting products made in Japan. As destination for Japan’s industrial and agricultural products, Hong Kong unwaveringly ranks first: In 2017 it comprised 23.2 percent of the total exports from Japan of agricultural and marine products.7 Japanese have a level of comfort with Hong Kong greater than with the PRC.
There are few clashing diplomatic questions between Japan and Hong Kong, one reason for which is on the economic dimension the two have few areas of conflictual, competitive relations. A mutually complementary framework exists of Hong Kong consuming the products of Japan and Japan utilizing the financial services of Hong Kong, making it hard for friction to develop.

In wartime, Japan occupied Hong Kong and perpetrated cruel behavior, which means that still the historical question exists even between these two countries. Notably, in resistance activity related to the Senkaku Islands issue Hong Kong is deeply involved. On August 15, 2012, activists from Hong Kong landed on the Senkaku Islands. Nonetheless, in a July 2018 survey conducted by a research team from Hong Kong University, on images concerning countries and areas, 32.8 percent of Hong Kong citizens had a positive attitude toward the Japanese government, and 30.8 percent a negative one.8 An improving trend in recent years is seen with 68.1 percent of those surveyed having a positive attitude toward the Japanese people, the highest level among the 14 areas covered, leaving only a meager 5.8 percent negative. The historical question has a limited negative impact on the current attitudes of Hong Kong citizens.

Both the Japanese and Hong Kong governments prioritize their mutual relationship. In March 2018, Foreign Minister Kono Taro paid the first visit of a Japanese foreign minister to Hong Kong in about 20 years. Japanese society has high expectations of Hong Kong as a destination of agricultural exports. Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, puts a lot of stress on relations with Japan in the Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangdong Greater Bay Area economic integration project. She visited Japan for five days from October to November 2018—the first such visit in roughly ten years for a Hong Kong chief executive. She and Kono issued a “Joint Statement on Deepening and Broadening of Co-operation,” covering a wide range of economic and cultural ties.9 In April 2019, Lam returned to Tokyo to participate in a symposium on the greater bay project.

Turning to democracy and human rights issues in Hong Kong, we find the government of Japan hesitating to become deeply involved. For example, even in the “umbrella movement” seeking democratization in 2014, Japan’s government did not clearly declare its support the way the US side did. On October 3 at a press conference, the government stopped with a statement on the demonstrations that “it is important for Hong Kong to maintain a free and open system under One Country, Two Systems.” A question by a reporter about whether not showing support was in consideration of the planned November summit of Xi and Abe led Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide to show dissatisfaction with “being too suspicious.”10

Japan’s response to the ongoing Hong Kong crisis

In response to the question of amending the extradition law, European countries and the United States from an early stage expressed their concern and opposition to repression of demonstrators. By comparison, the Japanese government was low-key. On June 5 in the Lower House foreign policy committee opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Diet member Sakurai Shu raised the question to Kono of how Japan, which proclaims its diplomacy value-based, should make its voice heard in regard to Hong Kong’s extradition bill. Kono responded that while Japan is observing the situation with concern, it should not publicly transmit a negative opinion to the Hong Kong government; he stated, “I think it would not be a good idea to make a lot of noise.”11

On June 28 and 29 Japan hosted the G20 summit. Anticipating talks between Xi Jinping and Trump, lots of Hong Kong residents carried out protest activities in Japan. Gathering funds from Crowd Funding, demonstrators simultaneously posted opinion advertisements around the world, including in Asahi Shimbun. While Hong Kong residents came to Japan to demonstrate, at the G20 China opposed making Hong Kong a subject of discussion. Xi met Abe on June 27, and Abe pointed out the importance of a free and open Hong Kong prospering under the continuing rubric of One Country, One System,12 but by not raising the issue at the G20, Japan was clearly trying to avoid provoking China.

In the democratic camp of Hong Kong, there are quite a few people who are fluent in Japanese. Agnes Chow, a student leader active in the Umbrella Movement has repeatedly published in Japanese media, appealing for support for Hong Kong’s demonstrations. Au Nok-hin, a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong with experience studying abroad in Japan, sent a statement in Japanese to the Japanese government, seeking cooperation with the movement to withdraw the amendment to the extradition law, insisting that the law will also be a threat for Japanese people since it will make it possible to send Japanese businessmen and tourists who visit Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland.13 However, in Japan there were almost no politicians who, similar to US and Taiwan politicians, met with powerful figures in the democratic camp.

In contrast, Japanese society has paid close attention to the Hong Kong crisis, and the large-scale demonstrations are arousing Japan’s NGOs to take action too. The 2014 Umbrella Movement and the same year’s Taiwan Sunflower Student Movement had an impact on Japanese Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) growing active in the following year against Japan’s new security act. The young people who played a leading role in these three movements even joined forces to publish a book on their dialogues.14 Although SEALDs had already dispersed, when on June 9 in Hong Kong the “1.03 million-person demonstration” occurred, with the support of some of its original members, a demonstration in support of Hong Kong was held in Tokyo.

SEALDs was a force of the parties out of power in opposition to the Abe administration, but even the rightist camp leaning to the ruling party appealed for support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong. An editorial in the June 14 Sankei Shimbun put pressure on the government, saying “The Abe Shinzo administration has raised the banner of values-based diplomacy. This is a time not for a vague posture, but to stand in the forefront by arousing international public opinion. Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kono should express their strong concern and link up with Hong Kong citizens in seeking its [the extradition law amendment] withdrawal.

Conclusion: The limits of values-based diplomacy

While Japan-China relations can be said to have, on the whole, improved, the situation is complicated. Both need each other as economic partners, but they have conflictual security relations and popular attitudes are mutually negative. Against this backdrop, the Hong Kong crisis arose. The Japanese government’s response in comparison to the responses in Europe and the United States has been low key. Japan-Hong Kong relations are concentrated especially in the economic arena. The government’s ties to the democracy camp in Hong Kong concerning questions such as human right rights and democracy are meager. The Chinese government strongly objects to European and US interference in Hong Kong, and the Japanese government is not subjecting itself to criticism from China concerning the Hong Kong question.

This posture toward China is not something particular to the Abe administration; it is a persistent diplomatic direction of the Japanese government. After the Tiananmen “incident” occurred in 1989, in order to avoid isolating China, Prime Minister Kaifu in 1991 was the first leader of the Western bloc to visit China, and the Emperor followed in 1992 with the historically first visit of a Japanese emperor to China. As a neighbor of China, Japan seeks both to develop economic ties and to stabilize its security environment. Even when Abe raises the banner of “values-based diplomacy,” the reality is that there are limits in how far Japan will press democracy, human rights, and other values toward China. However, Japanese public opinion, both liberalist and nationalist, as a whole, is critical of the Chinese government, and it sympathizes with the Hong Kong demonstrations. A government which cannot put “values-based diplomacy” into effect in regard to Hong Kong runs the risk of being broadly criticized by the Japanese public.

1. “Policy Speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the 183rd Session of the Diet
Monday, January 28, 2013,” https://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201301/28syosin_e.html (accessed August 18, 2019).

2. The Genron NPO, Japan-China Public Opinion Survey 2018, http://www.genron-npo.net/en/archives/181011.pdf (accessed August 18, 2019).

3. Asahi Shimbun, July 30, 2019.

4. The website of Japan’s tourist agency, https://www.jnto.go.jp/jpn/statistics/tourists_2017df.pdf (accessed August 20, 2019).

5. Hong Kong Tourist Board Visitor Arrival Statistics, https://partnernet.hktb.com/filemanager/intranet/pm/VisitorArrivalStatistics/ViS_Stat_E/VisE_2018/Tourism%20Statistics%2012%202018_R1.pdf (accessed August 20, 2019).

6. Website of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, “Glance at the statistical chart of the survey of the number of Japanese companies abroad,” https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/toko/page22_000043.html (accessed August 20, 2019).

7. The website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, http://www.maff.go.jp/j/press/shokusan/kaigai/attach/pdf/180209-3.pdf (accessed July 26, 2018).

8. Public Opinion Programme, The University of Hong Kong, https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/government/datatables/datatable23.html (accessed August 18, 2019).

9. “Joint Statement on Deepening and Broadening of Co-operation between Japan and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/files/000415251.pdf (accessed August 20, 2019).

10. Hokkaido Shimbun, October 4, 2014.

11. Record of the 11th session of the 198th meeting of the Diet Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee, http://www.shugiin.go.jp/internet/itdb_kaigiroku.nsf/html/kaigiroku/000519820190605011.htm ,
(accessed August 17,2019).

12. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-China Summit Meeting and Dinner,” https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/c_m1/cn/page3e_001046.html (accessed August 18, 2019).

13. Asahi Shimbun, June 20, 2019.

14. Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), ed., Nihon x Xianggang x Taiwan: Wakamono waakiramenai (Tokyo: Ohta shuppan, 2016).