Country Report: Japan (February 2014)

This has been one of the richest periods for Japanese media coverage in memory. In covering Biden’s early December travel through the region at a time of renewed concern about a threat from China, the establishment of Japan’s National Security Council with attendant clarification of security guidelines, delayed negotiations over TPP, the backlash from Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit, the significance of Jang Song-thaek’s purge and execution, and the Sino-Japanese public relations battle that was intensifying in January, the media raised fundamental questions about international relations. As the foundation for understanding what has followed, we start with Yachi Shotaro’s article in the January Toa, based on remarks of November 19 by the man appointed in December as Japan’s first national security advisor.

Yachi paints a grim picture of Japanese foreign policy in 2012 prior to Abe. Lee Myung-bak and Dmitry Medvedev were emboldened to ignore Japanese feelings and visit disputed islands, Japan’s economy and politics were widely disparaged in line with thinking that its overall international position had fallen since the collapse of the bubble economy, and it was expected that by 2050 as Asia regained 50 percent of the world’s GDP for the first time in 300 years, Japan alone would lag, falling to under 2 percent of the global total. He credits Abe with political stabilization, economic revival (now to be boosted with the stimulus of the coming Tokyo Olympics), firm leadership as in pressing for entry into the TPP and a solution to the Futenma base issue despite strong public opposition, and consistency in supporting the increase in the consumption tax to 8 percent, as earlier agreed. TPP, he explains, is needed in support of Japan’s market opening and the opening of other markets to Japan as well as the US rebalance to Asia. Yachi explains the structure of the NSC and its importance, following the model of the United States and Great Britain in structure, while bringing together five top officials to address world disputes as they realize Abe’s slogan to pursue a foreign policy of “more proactive contributions to peace.”

Yachi proceeds to contrast the “China Dream,” promising the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through strong nationalism, with Japan’s values, accentuating such freedoms as navigation (Japan is sixth in the world in the length of its shorelines). It is Japan that seeks rules of the sea that do not exclude other countries. It supports universal values based on the European Enlightenment. He explains that instead of responding emotionally to China’s rhetoric, it pursues a patient strategy, and as the nuclear program of North Korea advances, it views the gap with South Korea as a problem. Moreover, as Russian relations with the United States and Europe remain troubled and it has many latent reasons for opposition to China, its relatively good relations with Japan create an atmosphere that should be explored with the utmost effort. Yachi’s article is the closest thing we have to an official overview of thinking.

In the January Voice, Kitaoka Shinichi asks why South Korea is afraid of Japan’s collective defense. Pacifism failed. As the security environment has deteriorated and China’s military budget has skyrocketed, Japan needs a balance of power approach, he adds. Kitaoka explores the difference between self-defense for one country and collective defense, explaining why the former is insufficient and wondering why some think of the latter as more dangerous. He notes that if trouble arises on the Korean Peninsula and American ships are attacked Japan must assist its ally. If South Korea does not ask for Japan to send forces in such a contingency, there is no chance that Japan would. Moreover, if a US ship were attacked in Korean waters, Japan would not act without Korean permission. There is no possibility of sending troops in regard to a territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima. China’s opposition to Japan’s collective defense role is understandable given its national strategy, but what is South Korea’s reasoning? After all, Japan has not caused even one conflict since 1945. This note of incomprehension came along with many others, such as a January Sapio article on Park’s insistence in her November meeting with Putin on a joint tongue-lashing of Japan, which is seen as making Putin uncomfortable. Her “overkill” and choice of China and Russia as partners in demarcating historical justice failed as a strategy to influence Japan.

The February issue of Chuo koron captured the spirit of newly aroused discussions. One article detailed various scenarios for how China would seize the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, asking if the Self-Defense Forces and Japan-US alliance could defend them. Another outlined the overall US offshore control system for containing China, and it explained Japan’s role. A third pointed to China as the force behind a new movement for the independence of Okinawa. An additional two articles interpreted what the “China Dream” means and how the Sino-Japanese “propaganda war” is proceeding at the frontline in Washington. They break new ground in grasping today’s struggle.

The article on the “China Dream” consists of an exchange between Iokibe Makoto and Funabashi Yoichi, for decades two of Japan’s most eminent figures in debates on geopolitics. Iokibe started with the comment that in 2010 China overtook Japan in GDP and perhaps in military power too, leading many to conclude that the time had come to cast aside Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of biding its time, which was specifically linked to the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. In September 2010, China’s aggressive handling of the fishing boat ramming proved to be a shock. Funabashi responded that China’s shift can be traced to December 2008 when a cruiser spent nine hours in the waters by the islands, as a challenge to Japan’s control, suggesting that the US tailspin in the global financial crisis was a watershed for China. He equated the second half of the 20th century US-Soviet battle for hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe with the first half of the 21st century Sino-US struggle for dominance in the Pacific Ocean, adding that a new stage has begun after the 30 years of Deng’s peaceful line. Funabashi and Iokibe see the “China Dream” as the establishment of a new order in the Asia-Pacific, projecting a long struggle ahead. Iokibe draws a parallel with Germany’s rise from the late 19th century. He argues that if China had been clever it would have taken advantage of Hatoyama Yukio’s 2009 push for equality with the United States and an East Asian community, taking a fraternal approach as Japan may have decided it did not need US bases on Okinawa. Instead, the importance of Okinawa as the frontline of the US forces has been shown. Funabashi sees the Senkaku thrust as a link in the challenge to the United States, noting one scenario where its loss would mean the loss of Okinawa. Despite the fact that 2012 was a bad year for relations and overall FDI in China fell, Japan’s FDI rose 17 percent, he adds, rejecting a theory of peace through interdependence. For Iokibe, to stabilize relations in the region priority should be given to improving Japan-ROK ties. Charging that Park Geun-hye very much values relations with China, he proposes that efforts center on non-governmental relations.

The article on the propaganda battle emphasizes the importance of persuading international society, the front line of which is Washington, DC. Japan gained an edge when China declared its ADIZ, argues Iizuke Keiko. It is battling over the name used for the islands, finding double names undesirable, but better than just using Diaoyu or giving Diaoyu before Senkaku. China is staging a fierce public relations battle, and Abe has invigorated Japan’s response, focusing on Washington, taking the Taiwan lobby as a model. Iizuke warns, however, that Japan’s past efforts centered on the Republican Party, but now the Democratic Party is the key too, and the death of Daniel Inoue and the departure of Kurt Campbell make rebuilding ties necessary.

The Jan. issue of Toa likewise covers a range of relevant themes, beginning with an effort to understand what is meant by China’s quest for a “new type of great power relations.” The answer offered is that it is China’s effort to avoid a traditional clash between a rising and a declining power and achieve a power transition instead, in which criticisms of US hegemonism, alliance strengthening, and missile defense are combined with defense of China’s core interests and an appeal for accepting mutual spheres in the Asia-Pacific region. While the same concept has been applied to other great power relations by China’s leaders, Wang Jisi writing in Asahi shimbun is said to have indicated that Deng’s lying low advice now only applies to US relations. Of late, Chinese sources have stopped in regard to Japan repeating the slogan still used for others of “no conflict, no confrontation.” The January 1 issue of Yomiuri shimbun was also focused on lessons drawn from Chinese strategic thinking in 2013, concluding that Xi Jinping seeks a G2 with China and the United States dividing up the Pacific and controlling the world. This puts Japan on the front line at a time when its ally is inward looking. Given China’s goal of making the East China Sea and the South China Sea Chinese seas and its dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation and wiping away humiliation through a strong military, the article warns of a strong possibility of escalation in its actions toward Japan. It follows that the United States, as in the visit by Obama to Japan in April, needs to send a clear message to China and to North Korea, Russia, Iran, and others of unity among allies and balance in facing threats. A related message to Park Geun-hye should be to abandon confrontation over history.

On January 20 Fujiwara Kiichi criticized Abe’s “stupid” decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. By doing so, he confirmed doubts in the United States and Europe on his view of World War II, weakened Japan’s pledge to not start another war, and raised the danger of a loss of trust in current-day Japan. With the United States and ASEAN states strengthening cooperation with Japan in the face of aggressive Chinese policy, Abe has taken a position on which Japan has no allies and exacerbates the views in China and South Korea of victimization. The Japanese people in light of the atomic bombings and other factors also see themselves as victims, and Chinese actions in the Korean War should be seen as victimizing too. Fujiwara proposes that the issue of who is right be set aside for pledges on no more war and joint agreement on the lessons of war. Instead of calling for the other side to change, as if compromise is not possible, attention should turn to territorial and other issues and to compromises.

Another expression of doubt about Abe’s actions, despite agreement that China’s aim is to drive the United States out of two seas and divide the vast Pacific, as if it is big enough for two spheres of influence, is Takahara Akio’s January 7 Yomiuri shimbun article. Noting the formation in October in Japan of an academic association, which already has 250 members and will hold its first symposium in March inviting participants from the United States and China, Takahara proposes a new civilian initiative not based on the emotional response to China in Japan or Abe’s doomed effort to cordon China off through economic ties to neighboring states. Given that Japan was still the leading investor in China in 2013 and other factors, he proposes new efforts to change China through economic and cultural interaction.

Asahi shimbun was critical of Abe too, noting on January 14 that China called Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine the most troubling event of 2013, a mortal blow to bilateral relations, and has mobilized many of its ambassadors to write op-eds in a public relations war. Writing on January 17 in Tokyo shimbun, Sato Masaru regrets the effect of Abe’s visit on relations with Russia, which has responded with a hard line, linking its control over the disputed islands with its just actions in 1945 after agreeing with the allies to enter the war against Japan. This linkage reduces the chances for a deal, but Sato argues that Putin is more eager than the Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations to improve relations with Japan and when Abe meets him at Sochi (he plans to go for the figure skating exhibition on February 22 and the closing ceremony on February 23), one can hope for progress on the territorial issue and agreement that Putin will visit Japan by year end. Sato suggests that Japan propose a summit on one of the two big islands in dispute, with Abe attending through a visa-free program. While Sato says that such a meeting would show a high level of trust and be a constraining influence on China and South Korea, Sankei shimbun on January 12 focused even more on the islands as it suggested that Abe’s visit when other foreign leaders, such as Obama, are staying away from Sochi, sends a message that Russia should reciprocate.

On January 23 Tsumori Shigeru in Yomiuri shimbun sought to refute Russia’s response to Abe’s Yasukuni visit, in which it had charged that Japan has no right to regard itself as a victim, while faulting Japan’s historical consciousness. Rejecting Russian claims that its seizure of the islands was approved by the allies as part of the price for it to join the war against Japan, he finds proof in Dulles’ statements or the San Francisco Peace Treaty that this was not so and insists that Russia must return all four islands. The very fact that the debate over the territorial issue is becoming mired in Russian reaffirmation of the sacrosanct nature of the war ending in 1945 and Japan’s moves to rekindle pride in history rather than to further recognize war guilt means that the chances of success in their negotiations seen just months ago are quickly fading.

As an example of the vehemence of the internal Japanese criticism of Abe after the Yasukuni Shrine visit, a December 27 editorial in Mainichi shimbun called it a mistake, which cast doubt on Abe’s outlook on history and war responsibility, had a bad influence on foreign policy, caused the United States to lose trust, and even posed a challenge to the postwar international order centered on the United States. It shows no vision of the East Asian region, and it isolates Japan from international society. In Tokyo shimbun and Nihon keizai shimbun, the responses were critical, warning of the economic consequences, as in a December 27 Tokyo shimbun article fearing that Koreans and Chinese would stop buying Japan-made products or not come as tourists. Asahi shimbun suggested that Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio is in an uncomfortable position, having served as mayor of Hiroshima and coming from the former Ohira and Miyazawa dovish faction of the LDP while having tried to revive South Korean ties prior to Abe’s Yasukuni visit, when he had the awkward task of transmitting Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s expression of US disappointment. Two days later on January 14 it drove home the point of US disappointment by reporting that Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell in the summer of 2012 had been concerned about Noda’s plan to nationalize the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, distrustful of Japan’s moves.

Both Yomiuri shimbun and Sankei shimbun summed up events after the Yasukuni visit with considerable satisfaction over what Abe had accomplished in 2013. The former newspaper showcased shifting from pacifism in one country to an active contributor to world peace, using ODA and positively joining in international rule making, while also moving to help in the defense of the United States as part of collective defense. The latter paper praised the historic achievement of developing a national security strategy, ending the unique and abnormal stage of having none. It responded on December 27 to critics of Abe by arguing that Article 9 of the Constitution is not pacifism, that collective defense does not lose the respect of the international community when adversaries reject diplomacy and it is based on cooperation with this community, and that Abe is not inventing the China threat to pursue his goals but taking a more confident Japan on the path to meet real challenges. Both papers leave the impression that the United States not only expects more from Japan, but needs it more, and that Abe is satisfying this appeal. Sankei on December 31 praised his 13 foreign trips, his success in bringing the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, and the end to the postwar era. It concluded that the US-Japan alliance can succeed in containing China.

Sankei was optimistic in a different manner about Japan-ROK relations, despite the fact that Japanese have been alienated by Korean emotionalism to their country, now being transmitted in Japanese through the Internet. Kuroda Katsuhiro wrote that given China’s behavior, South Korean public opinion was largely positive about the need to improve relations, to “use Japan” for the national interest, as expressed by Joongang ilbo in a January 9 editorial. Its view that China would be isolated clashes with the December 27 Mainichi shimbun view that Japan was isolating itself, challenging the postwar international order centered on the United States and lacking a vision of the East Asian region. Asahi shimbun on January 12 cited the Korean public’s interest, even after the Yasukuni visit, in improving relations, but saw Abe arousing criticism.

Japanese sources in early 2014 were showing increased alarm over North Korea, as in the February issues of Wedge and Bungei shunju. The former argued that the execution of Jang Song-thaek makes clear that North Korea has forsaken economic reform for nuclear weapons because of the threat of information about South Korea. The latter goes further to conclude that North Korea’s posture at a time of “power shift” poses great danger. It has rejected China—its economic openness and reform model, the export of coal and other natural resources and rare metals to it, and the “pipe” who was linking the two countries. As the purges continue, it is unstable politically with an immature leader and only “yes men” left around him without other “pipes” to the outside world. This raises the likelihood of military threats and actions to pressure others to make concessions and provide economic assistance. Yet, the article argues that this is only one sub-story in an increasingly dangerous East Asia. The purpose of China’s ADIZ and actions in the East and South China seas is deemed to be to drive the United States beyond the first island chain. In resolving territorial disputes with Russia, Mongolia, and others, China has prepared to concentrate on the maritime front and is fighting for hegemony with the United States. The result could be a nightmare for the United States as it simultaneously could face a need to stabilize the Middle East. The article warns that South Korea is unreliable in facing China, but it adds that South Korea’s temporary anti-Japan tactics are far less serious than China’s far-reaching anti-Japan strategy. It concludes that Japan must strengthen ties to the United States, ASEAN, Australia, and even South Korea in opposing both China and North Korea. Yet, in the same journal, Funabashi writes that China is shielding Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of Kim Jong-un who is the real danger to his leadership, and that the fact that an associate of Jang Song-Thaek had met with him in late October could have been a reason for the purge. Reporting on interviews by US intelligence with those who knew Kim Jong-un when he was in Switzerland, he says that the conclusion was that Kim is a sociopath, who is brutal, suspicious, insecure, and vindictive. Such a man, with hardline military advisors competing to prove their loyalty, is prone to make mistaken decisions is his alarming conclusion. Meanwhile, Yomiuri shimbun was tracking Kim Jong-nam, a fascinating object since he once was caught visiting Tokyo Disneyland under an assumed name, reporting on January 21 that he has entered Malaysia. A mood of alarm is continuing to intensify.

The prevailing message in conservative newspapers and journals is that East Asia has entered a new cold war, provoked by China and responded to inadequately by South Korea. Counting on the United States, Japan has become active diplomatically. If Abe draws controversy for some of his actions, this is secondary to the strategic reality of our times. Strong criticisms of him are little more than static in this period. While progressives strongly disagree, sustaining a lively exchange of contrasting opinions, the conservative camp, able to keep many realists as well as statists and ethnic nationalists on board, is confident that it is riding a wave of momentum.