Country Report: Japan (April 2014)

February and March 2014 saw Japan much more isolated than at any point since the US occupation, but the shallowness and myopia of Japan’s media coverage stood out beyond earlier periods. Larger-than-life international personages were caricatured in ways that, at times, only faintly resembled analysis in other countries. The most negative coverage was devoted to Park Geun-hye, portrayed as emotional rather than strategic—if only she could recognize that North Korea and China are the problem, not Japan. Disappointment with a US leader exceeded anything visible in a long time; Barack Obama’s serial weakness was perceived as standing in the way of a genuine commitment to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a red line drawn against China—if only a Republican were president. Xi Jinping was determined to encircle Japan, proving that China never again would be willing to live in peace with its neighbor—if only other states were willing to stand strongly against his bullying. The two glimmers of hope defied belief elsewhere. In the case of Kim Jong-un, it was not that he was described with any redeeming qualities, but the idea that in extreme isolation he was showing interest in Japan and raising some hope on the abduction issue by allowing the deceased abductee Yokota Megumi’s daughter to meet with her parents in Mongolia was reason to intensify talks. If only Kim would come clean on this problem and prioritize Japan, bilateral diplomacy could showcase Japan’s special role where other states were failing. Finally, the world’s new villain, Vladimir Putin, may be an imperialist and a pariah in the West for human rights as well, but he needs Japan for balance and for economic objectives and may be inclined to reach a deal on the disputed islands defiant of his foreign ministry and public opinion—if only he reciprocated Abe’s pursuit of him.

In the shadow of territorial symbolism, historical memories, and abductees, analysis of the larger geopolitical forces at work rarely pops to the surface. The strength of the Park-Obama and Putin-Xi relationships and the firm footing on which both rest is difficult to detect in Japanese writings. Proposals for Japan to take the diplomatic initiative to limit its isolation are rarely couched in realist terms. Conservatives are too obsessed with Park as a villain and too reluctant to credit Obama with restarting Japanese-ROK relations via a multi-month strategy that Abe almost wrecked and with strategic patience toward South Korea’s relations with China while keeping the focus on the imminent danger from North Korea. Progressives are too hostile to collective self-defense and secrecy laws to accept the urgency of bolstering Obama’s rebalance to Asia. The conservative side has drifted to the extreme, seeking once again to demonize Asahi shimbun and others protective of the civil society against the real danger of a state, whose secrecy laws and management of the news show exceptional distrust of the public right to know. The progressive side likewise has drifted toward the extreme after a period when it appeared to be moving to the center. In this period confronting big questions was proving more and more unavoidable, but the quality of debate about them led to little anticipation of what Japan could do. A collective sigh of relief in late March with the trilateral summit failed to be put in a broader context.

The January issue of Gaiko set the tone for discussions about Japan’s diplomacy for the first months of the year, raising questions from a wide-ranging perspective: How should the postwar international order be reassessed? What should Japan do to avoid the crisis it has entered and how is its strategic environment changing? What should it do in pursuit of Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace?” How should Japanese interpret the US strategy? Why is South Korea drawing closer to China? What are China’s real intentions? And how should the new National Security Council respond to the challenge of China? These and other publications in February and March conveyed much soul-searching rethinking of the fundamentals of East Asian security. Alarmed about China, uncertain about Barack Obama, suspicious of South Korea, Japanese took the establishment of their NSC as reason to strategize beyond anything seen in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Yet, recognition of the need to strategize did not lead to far-reaching strategic analysis.

Strategic thinking brought historical analogies ranging widely in modern times as well as conceptualization far removed from the narrow context customarily invoked. References to generalizations about global and regional forces became commonplace, as did strong statements about China’s ambitions, South Korean intentions, and US reliability, among other themes. Interspersed in many of the articles were remarks about forces standing in the way of realist policies, especially South Korean emotions, Chinese ambitions, and US vacillation under the influence of interest groups. In contrast to past images of Japan from in and out of the country, Japanese now assumed that Japan is guided by realist thinking. How little that assumption was buttressed by analysis that weighed various options and scrutinized the priority of Japanese national identity could be discerned in media stories.

A March 14 article in Tokyo shimbun comparing Abe with his grandfather Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke contends that they each faced the contradiction of desiring autonomy for Japan while feeling the necessity of bolstering alliance ties with the United States. Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine to challenge the postwar world order centered on the United States, while strongly backing Japan’s ally on Okinawa, TPP, and collective self-defense. Both leaders disagreed with other Japanese leaders who prioritized the economy at the expense of the military, and both found that they had to make compromises with the United States that delayed their quest for autonomy, while using US ties to strengthen Japan’s military. Yet, the comparison concludes that Abe is less strategic. Kishi was more patient in accepting dependence and gradual steps toward equal relations. He understood the importance of building trust, whereas Abe is more emotional, doing more damage to Japan’s image abroad. Two other differences are noted: 1) In the Cold War, Japan faced two potential enemies, the Soviet Union and China, both of whom were US enemies, but today Abe treats China and South Korea as potential enemies and deems the international order to be collapsing, while the United States does not share any of those views; 2) Abe is striving to divert a dissatisfied Japanese society by constructing an external enemy in contrast to Kishi’s domestic agenda. The article concludes that Abe must choose: more autonomy or continued dependency, making it clear that the latter is in Japan’s interest.

On the theme of why South Korea is cozying up to China, Takesada Hideshi in Gaiko makes a multi-dimensional argument: Economically, South Korean trade is climbing so rapidly with China that the gap with Sino-Japanese trade is closing and, as Japan’s level of investment fell 31 percent in 2013 China’s ties kept growing, even before a China-Korea FTA may be signed; in Korean consciousness, Japan’s presence is fading as China’s keeps growing, even as it requires as a precondition for better relations joint measures against Japan; in confidence, Korea is pushing ahead with more foreign tourists visiting than in Japan, big-name products in electronics and automobiles rivaling or surpassing Japan’s, an image in the West more favorable than that of Japan, and preparations for giving China a special status as the era of a strong America is ending. Takesada suggests that in Park’s eyes Japan is a country of the past, dispensable now. Somehow, he finds some basis for hope in a country filled with Japanese-style sushi parlors, suggesting that the International Court of Justice resolve the territorial dispute, the forced labor issue, and the return of the Buddha of Tsushima. Claims to find some silver lining in the gloom are not substantiated, but the March 24 trilateral summit finally did lead to a change of tone.

Japanese sources deplored the lack of “pipes” or officials able to sway thinking in South Korea as well as the United States. In a March Chuo koron article, the departure of the “shinilpa” (pro-Japan faction) in Seoul is bemoaned. In the past the head of the Northeast Asia department was from the Japan school, but now it is a person from the China school. Other articles in the same issue presented both the Japanese and Korean logic for what was transpiring. One Korean professor noted that whereas South Korea depends on foreign trade for 70 percent of its economy and much of that is with China, Japan is much more inward-looking. Also, while Seoul recognizes that Beijing has the greatest influence over North Korea and many decided that Lee Myung-bak had erred in emphasizing the United States and Japan too much, Japan has no comparable reliance on China. While contrasts were set forth, the tone was searching for a path forward in a spat, not preparing for a permanent struggle in what at a minimum will be a cold war in Sino-Japanese relations. Yet, Yomiuri shimbun Seoul correspondent, Nakagawa Takayuki, in the same issue made it clear that the villains in worsening bilateral relations are all Koreans: The media, the schools, the courts, and policies aimed at raising Korea’s status in international society by demeaning Japan’s in a public relations campaign that has spread to other countries. Also Takesada Hideshi’s article accused Park of a hardline posture of looking to a future with little need for Japan, often from the perspective that Japan’s win is Korea’s lost. Among the examples are: voting against Japan becoming a permanent member of the Security Council with the reasoning that Korea would be next in line; opposing Tokyo hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics with the thought that Busan could host the 2024 games; taking pride in the rise of Korea’s leading export companies to the point of dismissing Japan’s economy as a has-been; and relying on China’s economy and diplomacy as well as ties with the United States, while anticipating that Japan increasingly can be excluded. The anxieties of an isolated, recently declining Japan are unmistakable in such accusations.

For most of the winter the ins and outs of Japanese-ROK relations drew close scrutiny. An article in Yomiuri shimbun on February 25 traced developments over the previous weeks: John Kerry visiting Korea and strongly urging that this relationship improve by the time Obama travels to both countries; Japan’s leaders taking care to not visit Shimane Prefecture on February 22, “Takeshima Day”; Japanese officials stressing to the Koreans that relations must improve; growing concern of a North Korean military provocation; and Japanese economic circles expressing disappointment over a 40 percent drop in investment in South Korea and stagnation in talks leading to an FTA. Despite these currents, Sankei shimbun kept making the case that South Korea could not be trusted, that it was biased and anti-Japanese, and that revealing the “truth” about the comfort women is the correct response. Yet, Japan’s isolation after Abe’s Yasukuni visit, reflected in US pressure, was reflected in other publications. With Park’s specific appeal as part of the annual March 1 speech for Japan to resolve the comfort women challenges it had been posing, media coverage of bilateral relations further intensified. Blaming Park was proving inadequate.

For two-and-a-half months from Abe’s Yasukuni visit to his Diet statement of March 14, stating that he would not seek any change in the Kono statement, to which Park quickly gave her approval, turmoil rocked ROK-Japan relations, spreading to US relations with both states. Through four weeks of recovery, notably following the trilateral summit, Japanese media have gradually shifted away from the troubled triangle to China. This means criticism of the United States as well as South Korea has diminished. The comfort women was Park’s obsession, she made it the “entry approach” for better relations, as Yomiuri shimbun had noted, and finally Abe had acted. In doing so, he responded to US pressure, made a move that weakened China’s pursuit of a “united front,” and changed the tone of media articles.

In the past when South Koreans criticized Japan over history, the response was usually to try to change the subject. Now it is aggressively to attack South Korea, defending views that earlier were left in the shadows while the discussion centered on whether enough apologizing had been done. Neither side is willing to leave historical issues to rest. After Abe’s concession on the comfort women, Yomiuri shimbun insisted on March 19 that the ball is now in Park’s court. Defending the reexamination of problems in the process of preparing the Kono statement, e.g. that there are no historical records justifying it, the newspaper asserted that Abe had made a big concession, given that Obama needs this for his coming trip to the region and his rebalance. Yet, rather than indicating that this bodes well for relations with Park, Yomiuri’s editorial chastises her for anti-Japanese “scolding diplomacy” and ignoring the real problems of China and North Korea as well as the real opportunity of TPP. On both sides expectations were low about the future of relations.

On March 15 the media reported on a decision by the official tourist promotion agencies in both countries, cognizant that they each would be hosting the Olympics, to cooperate on the promotion of joint tours. Each country reached a total of 10 million tourists in 2013, and both have the goal of 20 million by 2020. There seems to be recognition that as their squabbles damage bilateral relations they also make both countries less appealing. Also on the agenda is how to boost bilateral tourism, given that Japanese visitors fell by 22 percent, especially as the “Korean wave” sputtered and women stopped making a pilgrimage to its locations in Korea. Although Korean tourism did not fall, still recovering from the impact of the Fukushima disaster, its rate of growth slowed, making this a concern as well.

Japanese sources differ in their interpretation of international society, a term now widely invoked. Among progressives, this is the established order, from which Abe is isolating Japan. If Japan were more of a status quo power, it would better serve this world order is their assumption. Among conservatives, the international order is being challenged above all by China, and Japan must meet this challenge to reaffirm that order. When the United States appeals for Japan to adopt new policies on state secrets and collective defense, this serves the conservative argument. When, however, Abe “disappoints” his ally by actions such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine or by the extremist statements of his appointees and close government associates, this reinforces the progressive case. Similarly, when South Korea argues that the 1965 normalization agreement with Japan was not the final step in building trust based on shared values, Japanese counter that it brought legal resolution of all past issues and efforts to seek new agreements violate the rule of law. Each side has in mind an interpretation of international society rooted in values or law. Thus, international society is a positive standard, cited selectively, in sharp exchanges over foreign policy.

Even before there was clarity on a trilateral meeting, Japanese attention was turning to collective self-defense and its linkage to national security. On the progressive side, there was strong resistance, as Asahi shimbun insisted that this goes beyond Article 9 and is unnecessary for defending Japan. Only if it were attacked, should Japan respond. Yet, the arguments by Asahi, as on February 21, were somehow linked to the position that Japan was weakening the US position in Asia, isolating itself and serving the interests of North Korea and China. The conservative side had a more compelling case, especially when in March Abe changed gears and make the trilateral summit possible. First, however, they had to fight off those in their ranks who argued that Washington was abandoning Tokyo by prioritizing ties with Beijing or weakening Abe. Former ambassador to the United States Fujisaki Ichiro in Yomiuri shimbun on March 13 refuted doubts of US commitment and stressed the importance of collective self-defense in attaching Japan to the group of defense partners it was assembling. The media discussion was intensifying, as was debate within the LDP, with renewed emphasis on realist thinking and anticipation of year-end joint defense guidelines with the United States. On March 14 Tokyo shimbun highlighted this debate, recognizing that international society was changing, given the new balance of defense spending between China and the United States, the fate of Japan was at stake, but it also conveyed the view of those who wanted the people to decide, slowing the process.

In the battle for international opinion, even conservatives had to acknowledge that Japan was losing to China. On March 19 Yomiuri shimbun reported on a meeting of polling research organs in 23 countries at which Sino-Japanese relations became the focus, where the results were unexpectedly harsh toward Abe. On February 4 in the first article of the extended series on the “Japan-China cold war” the “public opinion war” was highlighted, as China was intent on painting Abe as a “militarist” and Japan as the one challenging the postwar order. The article stressed Japan’s refutations in a struggle that drew each side’s ambassadors into the fray. With Yomiuri shimbun that day also reporting on the effort by China to equate Japan with the Nazis, the later verdict that Japan was failing is notable.

As the Yomiuri shimbun series on the new cold war continued, one article focused on how the alliance was being restructured for the defense of the Senkaku Islands and another on how Washington is now flooded with anti-Japan propaganda. It intimated that Chinese propaganda is inundating the capital, while American China experts are intimidated by the threat of losing their visas to travel to China, leading to an unfair advantage to China in this struggle. At a time when other Japanese, such as Funabashi Yoichi, were warning that it was Abe who was isolating Japan, charges that the United States was letting Japan down were intensifying and being buttressed with arguments that something was going wrong in Washington: a weak president, advisors stacked against Japan, a lobbying disadvantage, an unprincipled academic community, etc. In another of the articles, the subject turned to why Japan and countries of Southeast Asia are doubtful that Obama’s “rebalance” is real. First, he is sending mixed messages, as in deepening cooperative relations with China as if the two states have the same interests, reflected in the acceptance of a “new type of great power relations” by Susan Rice and Joe Biden. Second, Kerry and Rice are not considered adequate replacements in focusing on Asia for Clinton and Campbell. Finally, as Ambassador Sasae Kenichiro said in Washington, Japan wants the United States to make clear who is a friend and who is a troublemaker.

A persistent theme, especially in Sankei shimbun, is China’s strategy to drive a wedge between both Japan and South Korea and Japan and the United States. At the low point in US-Japan relations early in the year, newspapers took different approaches to how China was interfering. In Asahi shimbun, Japan was playing into China’s hands, doing its dirty work. In contrast, in Sankei shimbun, the Obama administration was the one playing into China’s hands. More emphatically, Sankei accused the Park administration of ganging up with China against Japan, as in the March 23 Park-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the nuclear summit when Xi informed Park that the Ahn memorial had been constructed on his instructions and that it would serve to strengthen the memory of him in both nations, drawing Park’s statement of appreciation. The article on March 25, the day the trilateral summit was to be held, argued that Xi had sought to undermine the impact of the Obama-Abe-Park meeting. On March 25, Asahi put the blame on China, arguing that it intended to enlist South Korea as a “co-combatant” on history and spoil the trilateral atmosphere.

Although it was recognized that the Chinese government had yet to press Japan on the right of forced laborers in the wartime era and their descendants to demand compensation from Japanese companies, a Chinese court case on March 18 drew concern. Sankei gave the most ominous warnings of its meaning, having followed the case earlier and in paired articles on February 28 linked it to deteriorating bilateral relations and to an accelerated departure from China of Japanese firms, who saw new risks. Asahi shimbun on March 19 judged that China’s reopening of the reparations issue for individuals reflects worsening relations and also a response to policies associated with Abe’s historical consciousness. It additionally is an indication of the spillover from similar developments in South Korea that had stirred dissatisfaction from Chinese Netizens, who wondered why China’s courts were less concerned about individual claims for long-delayed justice, Asahi suggested.

Japanese coverage of Russia’s move into Crimea and Ukraine policy showed the anguish of a policy priority in deep trouble. On February 9 reporting on the Abe-Putin meeting in Sochi, Sankei shimbun led in proclaiming that the groundwork was now being laid for resolving the territorial question, although it also acknowledged the absence of concrete progress. As Yomiuri shimbun declared on the same day, noting the absence of Western leaders from Sochi over human rights reasons, Abe and Putin have further strengthened relations based on trust, even called “honeymoon relations,” as Japan aims for progress on the territorial question. This alone is Japan’s focus, if we take the coverage seriously. In response to this meeting, Asahi shimbun described a tug-of-war between Xi Jinping and Abe, both meeting with Putin and trying to pull him to their side. While it mentioned that the January 31 meeting between diplomats had gone poorly with the Russian side only repeating the old argument that the status of the four islands had been settled by the war as the two sides were proceeding on parallel tracks, the image of a tug-of-war made it seem that Putin was balancing China and Japan, even as Xi and Abe were being kept far apart from each other. Yet, the most that could be said for Putin’s even-handedness was that he was not joining in Xi’s push to encircle Japan. At the same time, Asahi was paying attention to Xi’s banner of maintaining the postwar order, raised in criticizing Abe’s Yasukuni and resonating with Russia’s claim that its possession of the islands is a symbol of that very order. Yomiuri shimbun was not remiss either in covering the Xi and Abe meetings with Putin as a competition, suggesting that the fact there was a meal with Abe’s meeting left China feeling slighted. Yet, Yomiuri left the impression that much depends on showing Putin he is a partner in developing Siberia and the Russian Far East.

On March 4, as tensions mounted over Ukraine, Tokyo shimbun reported that Japan was in the uneasy position of being caught between the United States and Russia, striving to avoid deterioration in relations with Russia and the impact that would have on its quest for the Northern Territories. Due to his personal ties to Putin, Abe is avoiding direct criticism of Russia, the paper noted. In the same paper on March 14 Sato Masaru wrote that there is no return to the Cold War; rather this is more of an imperialist confrontation. On March 12 Abe had sent Yachi Shotaro to Moscow after having introduced Yachi to Putin on February 8 and after the annexation of Crimea, hoping to avoid the worst-case scenario. As seen over the next weeks, more important for the Japanese side was whether the US lack of resolve in preventing the annexation would mean that a Chinese seizure of the Senkaku Islands would be met with similar weakness. Sustaining hope in Putin was hardly possible in the increasingly polarized atmosphere of April, as Japanese recognized an overlap in what Putin was doing and what they feared China would at their expense.

On the progressive side, among diverse academics, there was an effort to remain relevant. Mori Kazuko in the March issue of Sekai revived the hope that academics could lead the way in reestablishing good Sino-Japanese relations, joining across national boundaries to overcome exclusive nationalism. Appealing on behalf of a new academic association with a message for peaceful resolution through international rules to restore Chinese trust in Japan and allay Japanese concern about a China threat, she gave voice to idealism with a return to the past, citing the 1998 Japan-South Korea agreement as a model. While many academics found solace in doing something, they did not identify Chinese counterparts who shared their idealism or suggest concrete steps that today’s leaders would consider.

Pessimism after the trilateral summit among conservatives centered on the assumption that Park placed conditions on real bilateral improvements that Abe would not and should not meet related to Yasukuni Shrine visits and the Kono and Murayama statements. This made relations unequal, left the impression that no matter what Japan does South Korea would not be satisfied, and is attributable to Korean mentality, they charged, opposing further concessions under pressure from Obama and prioritizing their revisionist agenda.

Sankei shimbun found promise in North Korea’s willingness to allow the meeting of the Yokotas and their granddaughter, suggesting that it was trying to play the “Japan card,” while implying that it was Japan that could play the “North Korea card.” In late March commentators speculated that it was a response to the international community to disprove the UN Human Rights Committee report criticizing the North’s human rights record, a strategic signal to China that the Japan option existed if it kept allowing ties to North Korea to deteriorate, and especially a warning to Park, which might, contrary to expectations, lead her to take Japan seriously. The obsession on the right with South Korea was so great that even Kim Jong-un could raise hopes, parallel to those for Putin despite his image abroad. They feared that Abe would compromise on his revisionism.

In the April issue of Seiron, drawing its articles from Sankei shimbun, a strident attack was made on “liberal” San Francisco, America’s elite, and Americans of Chinese descent for their pro-Chinese thinking, to the point of accepting the “Chimerica” era. They look down on Japan, which is even worse than being anti-Japan. This is an extreme version of the anger being vented by Japan’s right wing toward the United States in early 2014. For some the principal concern was US pressure on Abe aligning with South Korea, but even realists were inclined to see weakness in the US response to China, at least prior to the early April barrage of comments from high US officials critical of China’s attempt to isolate Japan. Such reassurance prepared the way for Obama’s visit later in the month.