Country Report: Japan (April 2016)

In the late winter of 2016, the Japanese mainstream was pleased with US foreign policy, if nervous about campaign rhetoric: reassured about triangularity opposed to North Korea, but still trying to keep dialogue with the North alive for the sake of the abductions issue; exceedingly quiet on Abe’s plan to meet with Putin in Sochi in early May; and disappointed that hopes for improving ties with China were clearly dashed by the Chinese side. The biggest change was more positive coverage of South Korea. Views of South Korea noticeably improved, as attention shifted, in stages, from the lack of South Korean public support for the December agreement to a shared security outlook in the face of the North’s threat and China’s ambivalence.

After the success of Donald Trump in Republican presidential primaries on March 18, concern about where the United States was heading intensified. Asahi Shimbun on March 18 posted a piece by Watanabe Yasushi calling for reconsidering Japanese consciousness regarding the United States and the Republican Party. He argues that the party’s image, as under Ronald Reagan, has centered on just two themes—small government and free trade—, but Trump favors social welfare policy, and he opposes free trade. Ignoring the social issues in the forefront of Republican policies for some time, Watanabe considers Trump’s impact so serious that Japanese political circles need to pay close attention. Whereas since the 1990s the Armitage-Nye report has symbolized the bipartisan nature of US policy toward Japan, Trump’s accusations that Japan is both an unfair trader and a security free-rider are likely to influence millions of Americans and should not be overlooked in Japan, Watanabe says, not noting whether the traditional LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) preference for Republicans is now in doubt. He concludes that mutual dependence between Tokyo and Washington is growing, as the latter is no longer in a position to resolve world problems on its own, and that Trump may even have a point when he questions whether the United States should continue to be the world’s policeman, but he shies away from any guidance on how Japan should actually respond to the ongoing and still rather unsettled US shifts.

A Chuo Koron article in March 2016 by Yamazaki Masakazu and Kitaoka Shinichi referred to security and historical consciousness as Japan’s “Achilles heel,” while it is blessed with low unemployment, high orderliness, and a positive image abroad. Yet, the article credits Abe with important progress on its two weaknesses, noting the key advisory role Kitaoka played. Now that Kitaoka is president of JICA—the Japan International Cooperation Agency—attention is turning to additional ways Japan can make a proactive contribution to peace as a great power able to affect the destiny of the world. After decreasing for 16 years, its ODA (official development assistance) budget rose 1.8 percent, and, Kitaoka argues, since its military budget is much below the average in NATO, the Japanese people should realize that the combined burden is still only half of what others bear. For ten years it was first in the world in ODA, falling now to fifth, but the quality of its assistance for infrastructure and its careful procedures deserve praise. The article rebuts criticism that ODA to China has been a mistake, stressing that recent help for its environment and food safety is in Japan’s own interest. Note is made of Japan’s Overseas Volunteers Cooperation as a way to make friends and change the worldview of Japanese youth, who have been reluctant to study abroad and need more interest in other cultures and the importance of global coexistence. It is now over 60 percent female, readers learn. Juxtaposing the goals of economic development and democracy in East Asia, the article raises the profile of ODA.

The battle between conservatives and progressives continues. On March 19, Asahi warned that procedures for new high school textbooks in 2017 as well as those for middle school ones in place for 2016 affirm the Abe administration’s thinking on territorial issues, constitutional reinterpretations, and other issues. Not giving the views of the opposition parties and public as well as other countries, these textbooks actually are close to those of the prewar, the editorial charges. In contrast, Sankei on that day listed the number of middle schools still adopting textbooks that mention the “comfort women” issue as an apparent matter of concern and took satisfaction from a sharp rise in high schools choosing textbooks that cover territorial issues. The struggle over national identity is being fought over textbooks and in the media. For Sankei, counting the use of books with sensitive themes is an obvious priority, as it is for Asahi, which takes a diametrically opposed view of Abe’s apparent agenda.

As in the early winter, relations with South Korea serve as a touchstone for grasping the way thinking is evolving, as the North Korean challenge is now only rivaled by the Chinese challenge in the South China Sea as a preoccupation. Historical identity is still of concern, especially at the two ends of the political spectrum, but security has upstaged it. Polarization seems to be on people’s minds more: China’s ties to North Korea were of concern even after the Security Council agreement in early March; Russia’s delay or hesitation in supporting the agreement was not countered by evidence that it could be the security partner Abe is apparently seeking; and the new momentum for triangular missile defense was seen as arousing a backlash from China, Russia, and North Korea. Despite no sharp split in perceptions of threats, the ideological prisms of right and left with elements of national identity are still seen. Nowhere is the more the case than in writings on South Korea early in the year.

Japan-South Korea Relations

On January 13, Sankei Shimbun compared newspapers for how they viewed the December 28 agreement. It grouped Sankei and Yomiuri as focusing on an aroused response in South Korea—the former expecting Seoul to renege, showing no trust in it, and also viewing Abe as having erred in issuing an apology and recognizing the participation of the military, and the latter putting the burden on the South Korean government to change the thinking of the public and for removing the statue. In contrast, the other four main newspapers were all characterized as welcoming the agreement and hopeful, while emphasizing more things Japan could do to make it stick. In fact, they are largely trying to keep the history issue alive rather than, at last moving beyond it. Of the six papers, national identity concerns are driving five, and Yomiuri has throughout the Abe era shown little interest in finding common ground with Seoul. At least, now it welcomes the compromises that it had failed to advocate before and is eager to move beyond history as essentially the only paper so inclined.

A Yomiuri editorial on February 22 showcasing “Takeshima Day,” called for arousing public opinion to tenaciously pursue resolving territorial questions, even if that is not proving easy. On the eleventh anniversary of the declaration of a day in honor of this island, it praised efforts to publicize materials that show the territory as Japan’s, including Abe’s record of a sending an official four years running to the occasion in Shimane prefecture, while noting that the locals want a higher official, which is not happening due to diplomatic concern for South Korea. This is inherent Japanese land illegally occupied by South Korea is the refrain repeated here, plus the warning that ROK conduct on the island cannot be tolerated. The editorial notes that Japan’s territorial education has been intensified in textbooks for elementary and middle school students regarding both Senkaku and Takeshima islands, stressing the need for shared and correct consciousness. It concludes that even as Japan-ROK relations are improving with the recent agreement as well as with joint pressure on North Korea, Japan must keep firmly communicating its position on the territorial issue. A shift to focusing on shared security interests was not foremost on Yomiuri’s agenda.

On February 19, Asahi reported on its criticism of the speech by a Japanese Foreign Ministry official in Geneva on February 16 before the UN committee investigating the treatment of women by Japan that Asahi’s reporting had had a big influence on international society, arguing that South Korean media was not much influenced by it and that the criticism is baseless. This occasion saw another burst of articles on Asahi’s fault, as if this issue must not be dropped even after South Korea had made its agreement with Japan and decided not to raise the theme at the Geneva meeting. Along with Sankei, Yomiuri on February 18 blamed Asahi and highlighted Japan’s counterattack at an international forum on the issue of the “comfort women” as it emphasized the need to clear up misunderstandings in international society. This is somehow treated as acceptable when South Korea’s advocacy is no longer allowed. On February 19, the same point was made in a Yomiuri editorial, calling for stepping up Japanese efforts in this information battle and putting the revisiting of the Kono statement as a big issue that lies ahead. This coverage demonstrates that what is driving Japan’s revisionism on history is less outside criticism than an inner quest.

The fact that South Koreans are reluctant to accept the December 28 agreement with Japan drew attention in the Japanese media. On the right, this is vindication that Koreans hopelessly hate their country, the symbols of which are the “comfort women” statues. In Sankei Shimbun, which has long been obsessed with their construction in the United States as well as Seoul, talk of new statues in Busan and Jeju was showcased on January 22. There was every expectation the agreement was going to fail without the slightest recognition that it also imposed restrictions on Japan’s leaders or that they should seek common ground in order to rescue it. Only the phrase “final and irreversible” uttered by the Korean side seemed to matter. On the left, there was sympathy for the Koreans opposed to the agreement, as in Tokyo Shimbun’sJanuary 24 treatment of the statue as a symbol of insistence on Japan taking legal responsibility—Koreans are keeping alive the history issue dear to the Japanese progressive community in its opposition to Abe and a revised constitution. More supportive of South Korea was Uchida Masatoshi in the March Sekai, which credited US pressure not any reduction of Japan’s revisionism (believing that Japan had fought a “holy war” to liberate countries from the Western powers) for reaching an agreement. Due to Abe’s “honne” thinking, history will endure, the article argued, echoing views in South Korean progressive writings. Another article in the same issue by Yoshimi Yoshiaki faulted the December 28 deal for ignoring that the burden of the victimizer is far greater than that of the victim. Losing the history issue as the focus of their national identity argument was too much for the left on both sides. Striking in its support for a further apology by Abe was Wada Haruki’s article in the April issue of Sekai, which insisted, in detail, that Japan’s apologies had not ended.

In Asahi Shimbun, Ogura Kizo on February 16 saw the December 28 agreement as the first time since 1991 when the two sides had drawn closer on the “comfort women” issue despite negative voices on each side. Given the many cases of wartime abuse of women around the world, rather than opening a Pandora’s box, the issue should now be pushed aside, he argued. Right now, he added, the most pressing demands on Japan over history are coming from North Korea, and it is also criticizing the legitimacy of South Korea over this agreement. Japan now needs to normalize relations with it, addressing history issues and, in the process, calming the South. In Japan, over half the population supports the agreement, and it is beginning to soften views of South Korea, which must be transmitted to the next generation, he urges.

The divide between the center and the left was less pronounced but still very wide. An article in Toa in February and another in Chuo Koron in March reflected broad satisfaction with the agreement in elite circles. The former cited Yachi Shotaro’s key role in reaching the December deal, indicating its strategic significance, including the commitment not to criticize each other in international society, at the United Nations, and in meetings with US leaders. The two sides had approached each other with the big picture in mind, boding well for their future relations; Seoul would no longer be “moving the goal posts.”  The Toa article also found little of concern in the way the Korean public reacted, since Park’s level of support had not fallen by much and the North Korean nuclear test had refocused attention on strategic cooperation. Chuo Koron also saw this as a strategic decision, highlighting the US role, linking it to a downturn in ROK-Chinese relations, and regarding it as an indicator of realities in the region. Abe’s satisfaction of US concerns in April and August 2015 left Park in a bind, but she had swallowed her pride and showed that South Korea is part of a team, argued Kimura Kan and Kawashima Shin in this journal, while recognizing that even if the ball is now in the Korean court, it will later be in Japan’s court.

Sankei’s February 21 Kuroda article reflected on abrupt changes in travel between Japan and South Korea. He blamed anti-Japan views in Korea on Takeshima and the “comfort women” for eroding the “Kanryu boom” of more than 60 percent of the Japanese public feeling friendly toward South Korea and turning Japanese away from travel to their neighbor, after peaking above 3.5 million visits, falling to 1.83 million last year. In contrast, Koreans are visiting Japan in large numbers, climbing above 4 million last year with another 500,000 in January 2016. The main reason for the falloff in Japanese travelers, he insists, is the image of Koreans being unfriendly and scolding Japan around the world, which is not conveyed in the Korean mass media. Japanese are even turning against Korean food, he adds, as seen in the number of restaurants in “Korea towns” closing, but Japanese restaurants in Seoul remain popular. Typical of Kuroda’s writings, the label “anti-Japan” suffices to simplify any Korean criticism of Japan’s stance on historical and territorial controversies, and this remains a staple of Sankei coverage even after the December 28 breakthrough. Kuroda ignores the shifting value of currencies as a factor in who travels where.

On March 14, Sankei traced Korean government statements on Japan since the December 28 agreement, crediting Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se with restraint. Yet, it stressed that Park was acting under duress, as Japanese travel to South Korea had fallen by 22 percent with no signs of improvement. The reason is not Abe but Park, whose three years of anti-Japanese bashing over history have left a stain not easily overcome. In contrast, a March 9 Asahi editorial called for nurturing the agreement in the face of the strong backlash in Korea but continued support for it from the Korean government by building more mutual trust. Giving the Park administration the benefit of the doubt and focusing on how both sides can strive to make the agreement work remains far from a shared objective in Japan.

On March 19, Sankei carried two articles encapsulating its views of South Korea. In one it charged that a former “comfort woman” in California is seeking to erect a new statue and to void the December 28 Japan-ROK agreement, while criticizing that the Japanese government is trying to evade responsibility. In the other item, Kuroda Katsuhiro reviewed the “political season” as the April 13 elections approach and infighting grips both the conservative and progressive forces. The high rates of turnover in the National Assembly, where holding one’s post for twenty years is a rarity and those who know Japan keep dwindling, are on Kuroda’s mind. He faults excessive centralization in a country, which lacked the decentralized domains of Japanese history and relies on centralized decisions to designate candidates. Given this situation, specialization is missing, and candidates run through “performance patriotism” centered on the “Takeshima issue” and “comfort women,” which is welcomed in the mass media. He contrasts this with Japan’s “finance system gods,” who move from the bureaucracy, having specialized knowledge and experience. If the Saenuri Party is split between the Park and anti-Park factions, as the two sides are jockeying for the upper hand in the presidential elections of December 2017, the opposition is torn between two parties, said to guarantee victory for the ruling party. Kuroda finds little hope in this infighting and quest for patriotic appeal.

Lest readers be optimistic about change in South Korea, Sankei on February 16 put under a headline stating the North’s missile had shattered the dream of a Sino-ROK honeymoon, a characterization of Hankyoreh as arguing that more than pressuring China what is needed is getting the United States to alleviate China’s unease from its return to Asia, and of Chosun Ilbo as arguing against depending on the unreliable US nuclear umbrella in favor of a debate on nuclear weapons for South Korea.

Yomiuri Shimbun on February 25 wrote of Park’s distress, as she starts her fourth year with her North Korea and China policies in shambles and the economy in grave trouble after exports fell in 2015 by eight percent and youth unemployment has kept increasing. With Japan too, she faces a challenge in setting up a foundation to use the funds for the “comfort women” promised by Japan and in removing the statue. Park is on the defensive, as she finally is taking decisions welcomed in Japan related to security and reinforcement of triangular relations including Tokyo and Washington.

North Korea

In the first three months of 2016, North Korea played a vital role in persuading the Japanese media that Japan-ROK relations and the international community under US leadership including both allies are advancing well. This message was shared by both conservative and progressive newspapers. Positive coverage of Seoul, as part of international society, became commonplace.  The importance of triangular security cooperation keeps growing, Yomiuri reported approvingly on March 19.

In the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear and later long-range missile test, remarks centered on the response of four other states, beginning with the United States. In response to Obama’s State of the Union speech, Sankei expressed disappointment that he had allowed a power vacuum to form, relied on halfway measures, and failed to respond to a worsening situation marked by the polarization of Asia. Instead of giving Obama credit for the successful Japan-ROK agreement, the sustained pressure being applied to China for tough sanctions against North Korea, and recent shows of force in the South China Sea, he was accused of not facing threats directly in Sankei of January 27. On the progressive side, there was praise that Obama did not see his country as the world’s policeman and that he was recognizing rising multipolarity. This was not, however, an endorsement of his “rebalance to Asia,” as seen in responses to the North Korean provocations throughout the winter grasping for another way out, even if there was agreement on new sanctions. Tokyo Shimbun on March 4 praised them, especially on exports of airplane fuel to the North and imports of minerals from it, but it left in doubt if China would enforce the sanctions. The three states imposing their own sanctions, one after the other, was strongly welcomed. Yomiuri Shimbun that day went further, calling for Seoul to approve the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) for intelligence sharing so that bilateral defense ties could be expanded in support of security on the Korean Peninsula.

Sankei Shimbun was quick to pick up a story from South Korea of behind the scenes trade-offs between Washington and Beijing to secure the UN agreement after two months on tougher sanctions. In accord with North Korea’s wishes, it noted on March 14, China sought US cooperation in moving from an armistice to a peace agreement. Sankei saw this strategic barter as a way to move toward removal of US forces in South Korea in return for a nuclear freeze, putting South Korea in light of Park’s hard line in a tough position. An adjacent article reported on a Chinese paper putting the responsibility on Washington and Seoul to pursue Pyongyang. Behind the image of great power unanimity on sanctions, divisions were pronounced.

On February 13, the Japanese government was informed by Pyongyang that it had completely stopped the investigation into abductees, a process that it had kept postponing, most recently in July 2015. Some thought that this was the end of a promise that the North had never intended to honor, despite Abe’s priority for it. Others awaited a change of mind in Pyongyang. In Yomiuri on February 14 Izumi Hajime wrote that, given the North’s hopes for large-scale economic cooperation from Japan and the fact that abductions are totally separate from nuclear weapons and missiles, Pyongyang would wait for Japan’s July elections, knowing that it would be hard to extract Japanese concessions before then, and then resume cooperation.

When Pyongyang announced the disbandment of the committee investigating the abductions issue, Japan responded that it was still pursuing talks and offering humanitarian assistance. Abe’s policy combines dialogue and pressure, Sankei reported on February 14, citing unofficial meetings once or twice a month in Shenyang and elsewhere. Yomiuri’s editorial that day stressed pressure along with the US and ROK unilateral sanctions, blaming the North for only delaying over more than one and a half years even as it left the door ajar for dialogue too. In contrast, Asahi called for the United States to agree to dialogue with the North in parallel to China’s move to more sanctions. Working toward a peace agreement leading to a soft landing for North Korea and cooperating with China and Russia was Asahi’s March 4 message.

Various papers noted Japan’s pursuit of three solutions in a batch—nuclear, missile, and abductions—, with the last of these still on the agenda (indeed, Tokyo Shimbun on March 4 asserted that it is the most important for Abe) and requiring dialogue even as pressure is being applied. This left open the door for independent diplomacy with Pyongyang. While triangular pressure is in the forefront, bilateral dialogue persists.

A Sankei article on February 27 looked back to 2002 when Kim Jong-il decided to meet Koizumi Junichiro. It attributed the decision to Kim’s dissatisfaction: over George Bush’s inclusion of his country on a terror list after 9/11 and later in the “axis of evil”; to anger with South Korea’s cooperation related to this and report in April 2002 to Kim that Washington had no interest in dialogue with him; to the failure to secure what Kim considered a lifeboat from Putin when they met in the Russian Far East in August of jets, submarines, and helicopters; and to the message from Koizumi that if progress were made on the abductions issue he would improve relations and persuade the Japanese people with the expectation that substantial economic assistance would follow. In any case, Kim Jong-il would break Bush’s containment of his country. Yet, on September 17 when the leaders met, Koizumi raised US concerns about development of nuclear weapons and asked for an end to preparations for war in favor of economic development. Kim responded that the nuclear issue is between Pyongyang and Washington, not a subject for Japan. Kim failed to understand the role of public opinion and that he could not use Japan to contain the United States, the article concludes, explaining this failure in 2002.

During the many weeks when China had not agreed to tough new sanctions, the Japanese media posted many articles on its reluctance to do so, on its continued supply of goods and money to North Korea, and on its acceptance of North Korean labor earning hard currency for the regime. Yomiuri on February 20 and 23 gave details on China’s ties to the North, concluding that the containment of North Korea was incomplete and the Dandong area on the border was throbbing with traffic and money laundering at a time when a new bridge expected to open would quadruple the transport capacity. Doubts about China’s enforcement efforts continued after the UN resolution had passed, given the view of China as a challenger to the status quo.

Sankei Shimbun on March 1 warned that the Japanese public is too blasé about the nuclear and missile developments in North Korea, as if they are just intended for regime survival or as a card used for negotiations with the United States. Instead, there are real plans to attack US bases in Japan as well as South Korea. The article seeks to be a wake-up call at a time when the public needs to be most attentive.

A February 27 Yomiuri article attributed China’s change of heart on sanctions to: South Korea’s new interest in proceeding with the United States on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the domestic shift from viewing North Korea as a strategic asset in containing the US forces stationed in South Korea to what some Netizens see as a long-term liability, whose leader is increasingly criticizing the Xi regime. Yet, it pointed out that there are big loopholes in the draft sanctions resolution, allowing income from exports of coal and minerals to be used for the people’s livelihood and rejecting steps that could negatively influence their livelihood, especially given the impossibility of investigating what is happening inside North Korea. Linkages are drawn with the intensifying Sino-US clash in the South China Sea, implying that Chinese enforcement of sanctions in one area may depend on developments in the other.

Yomiuri Shimbun on March 4 made it clear that China is the key to the enforcement of sanctions and to opposing the United States in the South China Sea. It dragged out the talks over sanctions, while Russia demanded a last-minute revision as it strives to keep its influence over the peninsula. In contrast to earlier coverage of Seoul, the paper praised Park’s strengthening of the US-ROK alliance versus the North and her push to start talks on THAAD. An increasingly polarized outlook was taking shape.

Looking back at holes in the previous sanctions regime, Asahi on March 2 cited cases of leakage through third countries, e.g., parts found in the North Korean drone that had been discovered by the South Koreans, while also raising the possibility that Chinese firms had served as the middlemen. Asahi on March 9 noted South Korea’s supplementary sanctions putting an end to the Russo-DPRK-ROK cooperation of shipping Russian Far East coal through Rason port to South Korea. Criticism of Russia as well as China in regard to North Korea was appearing even after the UN sanctions resolution. Sankei Shimbun on March 4 raised doubt about Russia’s role in the UN sanctions process. Russia has made clear that it prefers dialogue to pressure. Russia sees the United States using the North Korean threat as a pretext to get Seoul to add military hardware. It worries about suffocating the North’s economy, and it managed to get an exception for civilian aircraft in the prohibition against supplying aircraft fuel. Also, Russia is calling for the earliest possible resumption of the Six-Party Talks. The article finds Russia, in line with its traditional view of North Korea as its own backyard, against the expansion of US and South Korean influence there as well as the collapse of the system, putting Russia in support of that system.

Japan-China Relations

Late winter saw renewed skepticism about this relationship. Asahi reported on March 1 that talks of vice foreign ministers on February 29 had not advanced relations after the November 2015 meeting between Abe and Li Keqiang had set some plans for this year. In regard to sanctions on North Korea, Foreign Minister Kishida had repeatedly tried to call Foreign Minister Wang Yi to no avail, plans for high-level economic dialogue and for a mechanism for air and sea contacts were not being realized, and China’s distrust over Japan’s role in the South China Sea issue had deepened. Abe could not arrange a meeting with Xi at the Washington nuclear summit, and no time had yet been set for the China-Japan-Korean (CJK) trilateral in Japan due in 2016.

Asahi on February 19 raised the same objections as other Japanese papers about China’s militarization of the South China Sea, but it proposed that all concerned countries make a pitch to China that stabilization of the sea is their shared interest. The answer is diplomacy, it idealistically concluded, failing to understand China. In contrast, Yomiuri on the previous day issued a sterner warning, fretting that, given the split in ASEAN, pressure on China might weaken, while seeking, as part of the rebalance, strong US leadership, as Obama is expected to show in May when he plans to visit Vietnam. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China’s hegemonic economic actions would be countered, it added, especially as more ASEAN states are added to TPP connected to Japan’s trade policy becoming more active. The media clash is between hope for persuading China and more coordinated efforts to oppose China real intentions.  

On March 9, Sankei responded to Wang Yi’s speech on March 8 stressing successes in China’s diplomacy with the heading, “China’s Diplomacy Continues Miscalculations.” It found in the speech the desire for the establishment of a new international order under China’s leadership in the call for a new type of international relations. Three issues, Sankei argued, have rattled China’s environment—the South China Sea, the United States, and the Korean Peninsula—, but Wang Yi focused on dissatisfaction with Japan for its mistaken attitude toward history and repeated annoyances to China, of which Japan’s strengthened involvement in the South China Sea is noted. In a Seiron column on March 1, Inoue Kazuhiko called the South China Sea the lifeline of Japan’s people’s livelihood and its economy and warned that as the danger of an armed clash there grows, this poses a crisis of existence, as does the East China Sea, where Japanese planes are scrambling three times as much due to Chinese planes than just four years ago. Inoue urges Japan to step up its positive involvement in both seas to restrain China to the southwest of Japan. On March 14, Yomiuri again found a wide gap in Sino-Japanese relations over the South China Sea and North Korea with no meeting of Abe and Xi to take place in DC. China was closing the dialogue with Japan, it argued, noting that Kishida had proposed going to China in the spring without a response. The upbeat mood in late 2015 had clearly faded.