Country Report: Japan (December 2013)

In 2013 attitudes toward other countries did not substantially change in contrast to the tectonic changes of 2012, when Japanese awakened to a dangerous region. In the annual survey, Yoron chosa, issued in November, one reads of further improvement in relations with and friendly feelings toward the United States, already at record high levels, and slight improvement in these measures with Russia, starting from a low level and still leaving a ratio of 2:1 thinking relations are not good. Yet, one gets a sense that Japan is almost friendless: while 37 percent unambiguously feel friendly (shitashimi o kanjiru) to the United States, the figure is 16 percent for ASEAN, 8 percent for India and South Korea, 4 percent for China, and 3 percent for Russia. Clearly, the bloom is still off in relations with South Korea, amid comments about the end of the “Korea wave” and a drop-off in tourists after forty years when Japan had been No. 1 only to lose that ranking to China in 2012 and then to see Park Geun-hye’s popularity lead to a 48 percent jump in Chinese tourism to South Korea in the first nine months of 2013. The Tokyo-Seoul-Beijing triangle looms large this fall.

The obsessive newspaper coverage of South Korea can be divided into three schools. Asahi shimbun grasped for kernels of hope, suggesting with scant evidence that the two countries could reach a compromise on disputed issues and get back to where they had been in relations. Yomiuri shimbun appeared to give up hope, delving intensely into the sources of “anti-Japan” thinking in South Korea. Finally, Sankei shimbun went on the attack, calling for an offensive to change the way the international community, notably the United States, thinks about history. Painting Park Geun-hye and Koreans with a dark brush, Japanese sources had little to say about what could be done to improve relations.

On November 1, Yomiuri shimbun explained how relations between Tokyo and Seoul had turned sour. The Korean Constitutional Court on November 8, 2011 ruled that the government had not pressed for resolution of compensation for comfort women, and Lee Myung-bak with his popularity plunging decided to play the “anti-Japan card,” taking most of the time at the December 2011 Kyoto summit with Noda Yoshihiko on this. Despite Japanese diplomacy seeking a way forward without one-sided concessions that were inconsistent with Japan’s understanding of the 1965 normalization deal, pressure from NG0s was too great for Lee to stick to his 2008 call to forge forward-looking bilateral relations. This led to Lee’s visit to the disputed island and a shift in South Korea’s approach to Japan due entirely to new Korean calculations. Two years after the court ruling, when only 56 of these women are alive after 12 more had died in the interim, resolution of the dispute looks doubtful, but Asahi shimbun still sees hope in its October 17 editorial for finding a compromise on compensating the women. In contrast, Sankei shimbun charges that Kono Yohei’s 1993 statement, which became the root of “apology diplomacy,” invited misinterpretation not only in South Korea but also in the United States, and that Abe should correct the dishonorable history that prior Japanese leaders had perpetuated, making a “factual” case to the international community. This is an appeal to more aggressively press Japan’s revisionist history to the world. In contrast, other newspapers put the emphasis on security in the face of danger and not allowing history issues to become the focus.

The November issue of Bungei shunju carried an exchange on how to cope with the new security danger facing Japan. In regard to the severity of the danger, one author argued that the next target is Okinawa following the Senkaku Islands. Alarm was expressed over South Korea leaving the United States, as conservatives joined progressives in opting for China as the way to control North Korea. Criticism was directed at interference in the internal affairs of Japan by South Korea; it should just get over differences about history and recognize that Yasukuni is a matter of Japan’s religion. In response to accusations by China that Japan does not recognize the postwar order and that it was on the losing side in the war, we read that postwar Japan is a peaceful state, contributing to the international community and standing for the rule of law, unlike China. As for China’s softer approach to ASEAN from September, to the United States and, especially, South Korea in comparison to Japan, the focus is on Japan rethinking its security policy, focusing on the US alliance, but also recognizing that ASEAN is striving to keep Japan in reserve.

If in 2008-2012 Chinese sources demonized South Korea for cultural arrogance, it was Japan’s turn to do so in 2013, as in a Yomiuri shimbun article on November 16 about how Koreans were appropriating as their own what had been transmitted from Japan, in sports and cuisine, such as sushi. Noting that in 1965 at the time of normalization, 25 percent of South Korea’s exports and 38 percent of its imports came from Japan, the fact that these numbers had fallen to 7 percent and 12 percent and that the gap in GDP had been largely closed is mentioned as a reason that Koreans have switched from catching up to competing with Japan, reflected in the notion that there is a “Japan discount.” Yet, talk of intensely competitive attitudes toward economics and culture was eclipsed by stress on competition for public opinion in international society. This was brought home in the alarm over the efforts to construct comfort women statues by Koreans in the United States, and the belated attempts to block these “anti-Japan” actions at the local level. On November 10 Sankei shimbun reported on a new initiative by Korean consuls on the west coast to appeal to American society on this issue. A month earlier on October 6, Sankei had carried an article that the United States has become a battleground, as South Korea and China are intent on drawing a parallel with the Holocaust in Japan’s behavior. This is a fight some on the Japanese right are eager to pursue, even as other Japanese are seeking to shift the struggle to the security front.

Nishihara Masashi in Sankei on October 7 made it clear that stains on the honor of pre-1945 Japan are stains on Japan today. The Kono statement is one such stain. Accusing Park Geun-hye of hypocrisy for visiting Vietnam without apologizing for South Korea’s cruel deeds during the Vietnam War and noting that the United States was guilty of inhumanity in dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, he calls on other countries, especially South Korea, to join Japan in separating historical consciousness from political relations. The fact that Japan and the United States can do so allows them to have a strong alliance, he indicates. In short, to be critical of Japan for its history is to have an anti-Japan ideology today. As Abe leads Japan toward renewed historical pride, it is not his fault that other countries respond in an anti-Japan manner. This outlook, antithetical to humanist ideals and aspirations for historical justice, interferes with Japan’s urgent security priorities.

Japanese puzzled over what was driving Beijing and Seoul closer without grappling with the basic historical reality or the genuine anxiety aroused by Abe’s revisionist aspirations. Although they acknowledged that Park Geun-hye took the initiative in asking Xi Jinping to approve construction of a memorial in Harbin to An Jung-geun, the fighter for Korean independence who assassinated Ito Harubumi, they saw her falling for an orchestrated Chinese campaign of flattery aimed at restoring the old regional order of China at the center and barbarians on the periphery subject to China’s control. Xi’s real goal, according to Yomiuri shimbun on November 16 and 17 is in keeping with an historic interest in making Silla part of the Tang Dynasty and Mao’s 1958 agenda for dividing the vast Pacific Ocean into two spheres of influence, such that the United States would be excluded from China’s sphere and China would gain control over the unified Korean Peninsula. Xi’s theme of a “new type of great power relations” is considered to be a scheme for recognizing China as a superpower equal to the United States and entitled to its own sphere. Inured to skepticism about South Korean emotional nationalism, Japanese discounted the continued strength of the US-ROK alliance and other signs that their depictions of South Korea were in error.

Kitaoka Shinichi in the November 3 Yomiuri shimbun explained “active pacifism.” Contrasting the establishment of an NSC for coordinating diplomacy and defense to Japan’s failure to coordinate its army and navy as a factor leading to its defeat in 1945, Kitaoka argues that while Japan will not be a military great power, other states should be in doubt over whether it in fact is one. By the year’s end, he indicates, the NSC will be getting ready to lead Japan to play a large role in global security. While South Koreans and Chinese were putting the focus on Japan’s revisionism, the story in the Japanese media was heavily about security. As the threat from China grew, the preoccupation with national security kept increasing.

Along with the message that Japan is beleaguered, facing the worst strategic environment since it regained independence in 1952, is the message that Japan is back, regaining its confidence, ending its passivity for “active pacifism,” and making strategic thinking a priority. US rebalancing is praised as not only essential to counter China, but also as the pathway to revitalizing the alliance through collective defense with Japan doing its share. Given the “power shift” with China’s rise, Yomiuri shimbun on November 2 interpreted Abe’s “panoramic diplomacy” as drawing on a strengthened economy and entry into the TPP while linking up with India, Australia, and Southeast Asian states that together face the challenge of China through shared consciousness and cooperation with the United States. Japan appears as a status quo power, committed to the postwar international order. The assumption is that China’s rejection of the status quo, targeting Japan above all, is due to strategic objectives colored by historical memories. In turn, South Korea is aligning more with China under the weight of historical thinking coupled, some add, with views on the role of China in controlling North Korea. Security and national identity are intertwined.

With the 2+2 meetings with Russia, questions arose about its place in the “power shift.” The very fact of a meeting combining diplomacy and defense was intriguing, as seen in the November 14 Sankei shimbun overview of editorial responses to these meetings. Whereas some linked the meetings to resolution of the territorial dispute or wishfully anticipated Russian cooperation in containing China, others were content that bilateral relations were improving and that Russia showed understanding for “active pacifism.” Over half a year Abe had met Putin four times and their positions on security had drawn closer, and the idea of “hikiwake” was seen positively, as in Yomiuri shimbun on November 17. The 2+2 meetings in Tokyo had galvanized the Japanese media into taking the prospect of a breakthrough more seriously. November was proving to be a transformative month even before China announced its ADIZ, raising the danger of a confrontation in the skies.

Advisors to Abe were said to be prioritizing Sino-Japanese relations after deciding that Park is criticizing Japan so much that it is better just to put relations with her country on hold, Yomiuri shimbun reported on November 6. Yet, abandoning hope in Park did not open the door to Xi Jinping, as events over the month demonstrated, or offer a path to bypass US insistence that Japan and South Korea improve relations. When Joe Biden visited the two states in early December, in the midst of a new crisis over China’s new ADIZ that encroaches on existing Air Defense Notification Zones of both states and implies a military threat to their aircraft as well as US planes, US pressure would be resumed.

On November 29, Wedge Infinity responded to China’s new proposal to ASEAN with concern that it is exclusive, based on plans that deny a role for Japan and the United States in the South China Sea. Dragging its feet on a Code of Conduct, China is replacing it with bold new initiatives, coming at the same time as it is pressing Taiwan to shift from economics as the focus of agreements to politics. The same journal on November 27 noted that since Xi had consolidated power over half a year Sino-Japanese relations had begun to recover. Local governments in China were raising expectations for Japanese firms and exchanges, economic data indicated that the damage from Japan’s nationalization of the islands was about over, delayed civilian exchanges were being restored, and the number of sightings of Chinese naval vessels near the disputed islands was declining. In light of these signs, why did China declare an ADIZ at this time, sharply setting relations back? The article suggests that it is to get Japan to the negotiating table, not aimed to worsen relations. In contrast, other sources saw Xi Jinping’s stress on relations in the neighborhood omitting Japan as well as the Philippines. Indeed, anyone seen as pro-Japan risked being labeled a traitor in China. Thus, the minor efforts to find a way forward in Sino-Japanese relations are not given much credit, and the establishment of the ADIZ is seen as one more step in the strategy to pressure Japan and use increased tensions in the region to split Japan from other countries. If it had the opposite effect in late November, observers were waiting for Joe Biden’s three-day visit to Japan before he went to China and South Korea for clarity.