Country Report: Japan (February 2019)

The winter brought disappointing news regarding Japanese foreign policy on many fronts, but at least the worst-case scenario at the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit was avoided. The hopes for a breakthrough with Russia with accelerated diplomacy were dashed in three high-level meetings in January and February. The momentum built with the October Abe-Xi summit was scarcely sustained amidst nervousness of where the trade war between Washington and Beijing could lead. Ties with South Korea went from bad to worse. Strains in Japan-US relations could hardly be ignored as warnings mounted over US demands when Japan-US trade talks commenced and over host-nation support. Below, I concentrate on China and Russia, while planning coverage on the Korean Peninsula for the next country report and starting with glimpses of the big picture.

On December 17 Yomiuri reviewed recent journal articles, concluding that there is no reason for optimism about the coming year. It cited Sato Masaru calling for a fresh look at the postwar settlements with China, South Korea, and the Soviet Union, as foreign policy is changing, and Kim Jong-un has won the game. In a debate over whether there is a new Acheson line, as in 1950, it was argued that the new battlefield for the US is China with North Korea as well as the Sino-US trade war part of the new “great game.” A new cold war is coming, not because of Trump, but due to shared US thinking on security with ideology becoming a focus too. This shift in the US poses the biggest shock to Japanese diplomacy since Nixon’s shock of 1971, readers are told, forcing it into an irresolvable choice between the alliance and Japan’s ties to China.

What bothers Japanese the most: Trump’s pressure on their country and the alliance’s sudden unreliability; fear that the North Korean situation will revert to the showdown of 2017; or the long-term implications of a Sino-US cold war? While Abe’s continuity at the top and perceived success in raising Japan’s profile (images of personal summitry in the forefront as diplomats are now pushed to the periphery) are lauded, as in Sankei on December 22, the notion that his focus on abductions and territory could drive policy was fading. Yet, Abe had gained credit as the champion of free trade multilateralism and as the sole leader deepening ties to the US, China, and Russia simultaneously. There was no sense in Japan that a different leader could turn Japan’s troubles around, especially with concerns centering increasingly on the growing Sino-US split and Japanese feeling so pessimistic about China separate from Trump’s impact.

Kawashima Shin in the December 14 Yomiuri offers an opinion piece on the postwar treaty system at a crossroads, emphasizing the need for more historical research. He refers to a symposium at JIIA on what was the San Francisco Treaty system, adding bilateral treaties including the one with Korea to the overall treaty system that took shape under the Cold War security system centered on the US. Japan did not owe compensation, and the focus was the Sino-Japanese War and WWII rather than Japan’s colonial occupation. What has shaken this system? Kawashima mentions: 1) new understandings of human rights and war crimes, as more raise questions of Japan’s responsibility beyond treaties dealing with compensation; 2) Japan’s historical responsibility is being linked to revisiting domestic historical arrangements; and 3) views of history are being shaken by the rise of China and the unsettling of arrangements for the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait made during the Cold War. Japan’s insistence that all issues were settled by a series of treaties is insufficient to reach an understanding with the victim countries. In the face of diplomatic talks at an impasse, more historical research is now urgently needed, concludes Kawashima, hoping that records will prove effective in diplomacy.

Kitaoka Shinichi in Yomiuri on December 17 applauded freedom and the rule of law with the US joining in the call for a free and open Indo-Pacific. While many see this containing China’s BRI, he does not. His reasoning is that FOIP is a vision, not a strategy. For Japan, FOIP is a lifeline more than for other great powers, and its ties to India have become paramount. Kitaoka adds that Japan seeks to become a permanent member of the Security Council along with India, and the US has shifted from welcoming only Japan in this role to agreeing on India as well.  

Sankei on December 28 devoted a lot of space to the new cold war in Northeast Asia and how Japan should respond. It argued that there would be no progress in Japan-Russia ties, China is under great pressure from the US in a new cold war and opposes new Japan-Russia ties, China is exerting a bad influence on North Korea, South Korea is increasingly anti-Japan, and Japan will be under pressure in any outcome in North Korean talks, the article pessimistically warned. Recommendations centered on sticking even more closely to the United States in trying times. Yomiuri also stressed growing ties with the EU in defense of free trade, with France on security ties in the Indo-Pacific, and with Great Britain on infrastructure in third countries to constrain China. In January Sankei repeatedly called for strengthening Japan’s relationship with Taiwan.

A Yomiuri January 4 editorial warned that “one’s own country first” cannot forge stability, saying that the international order has been shaken. It noted that China and Russia are posing bold challenges to the world order, and the responsibility is great for the US-EU-Japan to sustain their alliances despite domestic political unrest and social divisions. Yet US security policies are unstable amid personnel shake-ups, the gulf between pro- and anti-Trump forces, the uncertainty over North Korea, and the America-first approach shaking alliances. The thrust is to find a way to rebuild alliance trust, which is unsettling the Japanese people. On December 19 much of Yomiuri was devoted to its survey with Gallup of opinions on foreign affairs. Trust in the US had fallen to 30 percent, the lowest level since 2000. There was also a 17 percent drop in one year (to 39 percent) in responses to whether bilateral relations are good. An equal number now views relations as bad. Trump’s trade demands caused this reaction, even as 64 percent of respondents still see the security treaty as useful for regional stability. Japanese are much more likely to see China as a military threat (75 versus 60 percent in the US) and, especially, to perceive relations with China as bad (67 versus 28 percent). US sanctions on China, however, are better regarded in the US than in Japan. If support for diplomacy with North Korea is about the same, Japanese respondents are decidedly more pessimistic about the prospects of denuclearization—just 7 percent thinking it could happen versus 42 percent in the US. Consternation about how Trump is managing bilateral relations lies at the heart of the distress present in Japan today.

Miura Lully’s book on 21st century war and peace made the case for strengthening the nation state, raising the long taboo subject in Japan of conscription. A February 18 Yomiuri article was sympathetic to making state and democracy inseparable, noting that Japanese have a weak sense that the state is theirs. It hinted at reconsidering the significance of a conscription system.

Funabashi Yoichi in the March 2019 Bungei Shunju argued that what is happening in Asia puts pressure on Japan similar to the US black ships of the 1850s that forced Japan to change. Now it is innovation, which has leapfrogged Japan’s procedures, as in China’s mobile payments and bike sharing. AI, drones, robots, driverless vehicles, etc. are technical reforms, which pressure Japan to change again. India with half the GDP of Japan has ten times the venture capital, we are told. Southeast Asia also has “black ships” in lifestyle platforms. Having gone to Asia for cheap labor and then for markets, Japan must seek innovation there, concludes Funabashi.


In the final two issues of Toa in 2018 and the first two issues of 2019, China figured prominently. A special issue on the Sino-US power balance was followed by one on China’s strategy for its own economic sphere, leading to an issue showcasing varied views in Japan, the US, and China, and finally to one on China’s future as it greets the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC. These issues all followed the October 26, 2018 Abe summit with Xi Jinping, which breathed new life into the relationship. The lead article in December was so optimistic about a new era it presumed that Xi’s state visit was fixed and even anticipated a request from Xi to meet the new emperor, where Xi would invite him to visit China, leading to a turning point following the one in 1992 when the current emperor made the sole imperial visit to China. Yet, the overall tone of the bulk of articles was pessimistic, both about the prospects of Sino-Japanese relations in light of geopolitical trends and the long-term outlook for Sino-US relations after Trump’s tenure.

An article in the same issue by Tanaka Akihiko looked at the BRI within the world system. Tanaka differentiates two periods since the end of the Cold War: the 20 years when globalization was advancing along with democratization and information flows; and the decade with earlier signs too of halting globalization, spreading anti-social forces, discontent by those left behind by the forces of globalization, stifled democratization, and the return of traditional competition among great powers. With the center of the world economy shifting to the Asia-Pacific in globalization and the United States and Japan exporting low percentages of their GDPs, China emerged as the leading exporter to numerous countries and in a position to contribute greatly to changes in the world system. Having headed JICA, he finds China’s BRI wonderful as an initiative to build infrastructure on a vast scale. Yet, Tanaka points to problems, noting military benefits to China in debt-equity swaps, unrealistic promises of cheap and fast construction (as in China’s victory over Japan in securing Indonesia’s high-speed railway project after a Japanese feasibility study had anticipated the problems that would follow, and Indonesia is stuck paying higher interest rates than Japan would have charged as use of Chinese laborers has caused other problems), and lack of transparency about how much China actually provides in ODA and at what rates. Japan’s ODA is doing some of the same things that China is doing in BRI, and cooperation is possible, concludes Tanaka.              

Uyama Tomohiko in the same Toa issue sought a realistic understanding of Central Asian ties to China, calling attention to voices which view this area as falling into China’s economic sphere. Yet, there are not a lot of Chinese tourists, unlike in Japan, and China’s presence is not notable to the eye. There is also not the same “hate China’ attitudes heard in Japan. Building export infrastructure, China is not providing much FDI despite the hopes of these countries to reduce dependency on oil and gas and develop industries. Even so, these countries are burdened with debts to China. Meanwhile, Uyama points to signs Russia is dissatisfied with China’s growing role in Central Asia. Talk of “docking” the EEU and BRI has almost stopped, demonstrating that China and Russia have different notions of what that means. Russia sought an independent sphere of influence, but countries in the region insisted on China’s economic ties. Yet, they have not welcomed Chinese workers. The article concludes that China is facing new economic difficulties, and Japan should not be overly concerned about China’s role in Central Asia. It sees Japan cooperating with China on Kazakhstan’s oil refinery modernization project and prefers cooperation to direct confrontation, while taking a soft line in competing versus China.

One final article in that issue made clear that the Modi visit to Abe’s personal retreat in Japan right after Abe went to China was a fitting reminder of the realities of the Indo-Pacific. While the first summit commemorated 40 years since the Sino-Japanese treat, the second signified a new stage in advancing a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and exposed the Indian Ocean tug-of-war between two giants, in which China is the latent enemy. Abe meets with Modi yearly, and they treat each other to the warmest hospitality, comparable to how Nakasone welcomed Reagan in 1983 to his retreat in a honeymoon relationship. In contrast to talk of Japan cooperating with BRI, the message here was that India views it as a threat linked to building a “string of pearls.”

In the November Toa issue, Nakanishi Hiroshi assessed Japan’s role in the evolving East Asian power balance.  Finding many similarities between Trump and Nixon’s policies (shocks to Japan and claims that the US bore an excessive burden), he asks how Japan should respond. In both cases, the US was reacting to perceived losses or decline, but there is no Kissinger this time as the US maneuvers in great power politics amid declining leadership conditions. As in 1971, the prospect of a sharp shift in US policy toward China looms while China is being tested under US pressure as a world leader. 150 years after the Meiji Restoration when Japan made the right choice by choosing to be a maritime nation following the UK and 70 years later the US, its key question again is how to manage relations with China. Yet, first, it awaits negotiations with the US as well as coordination with the US across the Indo-Pacific region in the face of BRI. Abe has raised hopes too much for progress with Russia and North Korea, readers are told, while more effort is needed with South Korea, but the main challenges center on Sino-US-Japan relations.

The January Toa noted the truce reached in Buenos Aires between Trump and Xi Jinping, but it insisted that even if a trade agreement were reached, US pressure on security would persist. The distrust expressed now in the US toward China as a country damaging the world order is here to stay. Japan’s policy toward China is clearly premised on this unrelenting conclusion. The following article delved further into the dawn of the age of Sino-US strategic competition. Both Pence’s Hudson Institute speech and a November13 Renmin ribao article make clear that ahead is a prolonged struggle between the two sides. The US now views CPC rule as one source of the problem, while China equates the challenge to the battle against Japan’s army in the resist Japan war with Mao identifying many stages for that. This is not treated as Trump’s policy, but as an enduring strategic adjustment in Washington accompanying one in Beijing.

The February Toa included an article on China’s role in the denuclearization process in North Korea, responding to Kim Jong-un’s fourth meeting in one year with Xi Jinping on January 8 and to the anticipated Trump-Kim summit in late February. It was pessimistic about consensus being reached between the US and the DPRK and concerned about the ROK’s inclination for a “small deal.” Mostly, it focused on China’s growing role, expecting closer economic ties with the North. As the denuclearization process falters, its role is expected to grow. Moon Jae-in had sought to reduce China’s influence in the North, but he faces the dilemma that the process under way is favorable to China expanding its role.

Ambivalence was unmistakable in Japanese coverage of the Sino-US trade war. As progress in late February suggested that a deal could be reached, there was relief that Japan’s exports to China might rebound. In January they had fallen 17.4 percent versus the prior January, following a drop of 7.0 percent in December. The drop-off was particularly visible in the supply chain for high tech products, which were destined for the US market. The article in the February 26 Yomiuri noted that other countries had similar trends; for instance, the data reported a drop in South Korean exports to China in January of 11.8 percent. One factor cited were US calls for restraint in exports that China could use in cyberattacks. The article recommended that Asian states look for new supply chains. Yet, juxtaposed to articles on talk of Sino-US deal were those on the start of Japan-US trade negotiations in the spring with fear of hardening demands toward Japan, as in Sankei that same day.

Muddying the waters over trade was awareness that the struggle was over national security, as exposed in the debate over the Huawei arrest and warnings to avoid its products that could compromise security. Yet, some papers, as in a Mainichi editorial that day, called for US restraint, worrying about the impact on the stability of the global economy, while Nikkei’s editorial that day just hoped that somehow the talks would have a soft landing. In the case of Sankei, there was concern that day of Trump softening his stance with an eye to the 2020 elections, despite different views in his administration. The paper recalled the Plaza Accords of 1985, which led to a higher value of the yen and is linked to “two lost decades” of Japan’s stagnation, noting that China is resisting similar pressure aware of Japan’s lesson. For Yomiuri’s editorial the next day, it was China that needed a deal and should act, but there was concern that if Trump succeeded, he would be unreasonably tough toward Japan in their talks.

The Huawei story drew intense coverage in Japan from several angles: spying, threatening long-term security, costing Japanese companies, and bullying. China’s response—for instance in arresting Canadians—was equated to bullying in the December 13 Sankei, which also observed that day that Soft Bank in ridding its devices of parts from Soft Bank Japan would pay a price. Asahi on December 11 had reported that the Japanese government to the protest of China is joining the “five eyes,” which share intelligence, in reducing the risk from use of Huawei and ZTE products in government equipment. The issue was framed, as in Sankei on December 14, in the context of a Sino-US high-tech war, in which neither side was yielding—5G competition taking center stage in the trade war, labelled an “economic cold war.” On December 13 Yomiuri observed both that 5G in the US is seen as influencing the battle for military hegemony and that Huawei has steadily been increasing its share of Japan’s phone market, now at 13 percent; so that measures against may slow down the introduction of 5G into Japan. The handling of the case of Meng Wanzhou was interpreted as just following the “rule of law” by Sankei on December 16, while Yomiuri that day equated China’s arrests of Canadians in response as a repeat of what it did to Japanese in 2010 after a Chinese captain was arrested for ramming a Japanese ship in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. Sankei had editorialized on December 8 that Japan as a US ally had to proceed in lock-step on removing Huawei products, warning that if Japan allowed itself to be vulnerable to Chinese cyberattacks, that would weaken the alliance, while damaging the defense of Japan itself. Mentioning trade, security, ideology, and advanced technology, it refers to the “Sino-US cold war” or “second cold war,” blaming China’s 5G ambitions on December 17. On December 14 Sankei editorialized, asking when Japan too would take countermeasures. The noose around Huawei was tightening, Yomiuri reported on January 28, in response to a spy case in Poland and European states considering banning Huawei products for security reasons. It too on January 19 used to term “war” to refer to the new atmosphere, tracing it back to Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine in 2014, linking it to North Korea’s 700-strong cyberforce stealing foreign currency, and noting Japan’s exclusion of Huawei products from April in government communications. As for China, mention is made of containment through the converted Izumo carrier and F35B aircraft together with US forces in line with Japan’s December 18 defense plan.

While concern about 5G was mounting, the Japanese public was being told that Chinese public opinion toward Japan was growing more favorable. Asahi on December 13 contrasted anti-Japan sentiments engrained on the Internet to the boost to 42.2 percent favorable rating in polls attributed to Chinese tourists, who have made Japan second to Thailand with youth in the lead in visiting. Yet, it points to the similarities to reduced tourism to South Korea in response to THAAD and the drop in tourism five years earlier when China was punishing Japan and to the “resist Japan” dramas that still arouse Chinese. On December 18 Asahi posted an article by former prime minister Fukuda Yasuo, praising positive change in China and explaining that time is required for change, recalling his father’s treaty with China, whose 40th anniversary was marked when Abe went to China, as positive for both sides.

Other economic concerns were raised about China. On February 22 Yomiuri responded to the plan for a “big bay area” of Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macao, as integration that would pose a threat to “one country two systems.” It also carried an article on “Forest City” in Malaysia, where China is planning to build a city of 700,000 people, 70 percent Chinese, focusing on the negative views of Malaysians and of Mahathir as he returns to power. It warned of economic dependency on China, noting that Malaysia is an important part of the coastal BRI, whose trade is rapidly shifting away from the US and, less so, from both Japan and Singapore to China. Most critical of China is Sankei, asking the World Bank to stop treating China as a developing country in a commentary on February 26.


After hopes were raised in the final months of 2018 for a breakthrough and expedited talks on the territorial dispute and a peace treaty, as Abe used Putin’s planned visit to Osaka for the G20 as a target, they were dashed in the first months of 2019. As late as December 14 Yomiuri put the stress on how much Russia would benefit from economic cooperation with Japan, listing health, education, infrastructure, and social capital as areas where Japan would find it easy to cooperate. After all, both countries are facing the need to respond to population decline. For Japan, which relies on the Middle East for 80 percent of its energy imports, there are big merits to expanding supplies from Russia. Given great mutual interests, business should be turning to Russia, the article concluded. Yet, this last gasp of optimism, or some might say desperation, did not survive the accelerated bilateral talks in January and February. As careful as Japan was to do no harm, avoiding justifying its claim to the islands with historical justifications, such as that they are inherently Japanese territory, restraint reviewed by Yomiuri on February 14, the Russian position hardened. By the second half of February, after Abe had gone to Russia and Lavrov and Kono met in Munich, there was growing hopelessness in Japan. Already Russia’s ambassador, as reported in Sankei on February 14, had ruled out putting the return of two islands on the agenda. On February 18 Mainichi concluded that the gulf between the two sides had not narrowed, even as trade was growing and 20 percent more Japanese visited Russia than a year earlier, Japanese noted in their appeal. While Japanese downplayed the history, Russia chose to emphasize it, making Japanese recognition of the justice of Russia’s possession of the islands a precondition. Even as Japan downplayed any impact from Japanese public opinion, Russia pointed to the resistance to any transfer of territory among Russians. Security matters make a deal impossible was what was now conveyed. In response to Abe’s call for a June deadline, Russia insisted that there is no timetable. On February 20 Yomiuri editorialized for Russia to change its rigid posture in order to build trust, dropping what have become new preconditions. On March 3, the paper concluded that Russia seemed to be using the Northern Territories as bait to get Japan to say “no” to the US and making a shift in the alliance a litmus test for bilateral relations.

While Russian leaders kept saying things that in the past would have aroused Japanese anger, Japan’s leaders used maximum restraint to avoid any language Russians might have deemed provocative and any reaction to Russia’s language. This reality was most clearly exposed, as Tokyo Shimbun reported on December 13, when Foreign Minister Kono at a press conference refused four times to give any answer to his counterpart Lavrov’s insistence that Japan has to accept that Russia’s control of the island is legal, much as Abe has refused any response. Of course, Japan has always claimed that the occupation of the islands following the end of the war was not a result of the war. For it to backtrack on that would be a big retreat on an identity issue. Asahi Shimbun that day was one of the papers expressing shock at this obfuscation in what is a democratic country, keeping citizens from knowing whether Japan will accept Lavrov’s demand. While Abe had insisted that he and Putin had agreed on a new framework for accelerated talks, Tokyo Shimbun December 11 found the prospects murky given that hardliners Lavrov and Morgulov were handling them on the Russian side, Russia’s position on history was the opposite of Japan’s, Russia seeking massive investments in projects in Siberia and the Russian Far East was breaking the G7 sanctions regime, and Russia was seeking assurances that Japan in the future would not engage in “anti-Russia behavior.” This would lead to Japan losing the trust of the G7 states and harming its position in international society for just obtaining back a small part of its territorial losses. On February 2 Yomiuri reported that a survey of residents of the disputed islands found more than 90 percent against transferring them to Japan.

Through January signs of trouble in negotiations appeared one after the other. Russia called in the Japanese ambassador over remarks Abe had made in his New Year’s address about Russian island residents, considering them provocative to Russian public opinion when Abe had tried to be conciliatory. Earlier on December 20 a Putin news conference had stressed the challenge of US bases on the islands, sending a hardline message to Japan, leading Sato Masaru in the December 28 Tokyo Shimbun to call for Japan to make this assurance, proving it can proceed independently of the US. The foreign ministers’ meeting before the summit went poorly with Lavrov’s precondition for recognizing the fruits of victory in WWII. The summit went poorly in spite of the chumminess and first-name basis of Abe and Putin’s relations, as not only did it seem as if China’s message to Russia was a barrier, but Yomiuri reported on January 29 that suspicion was building in the US and EU countries about Abe’s “honeymoon with Putin.” Only Japan in the G7 had not expelled Russian diplomats after the Skripal poisoning after keeping its sanctions weak in 2014, and there were doubts that Japan would yield on missile defense, even if the article said that there was no intention of making any security concessions despite what Russia is asking. The article justifies Abe’s pursuit of Putin for its significance in keeping China and Russia from drawing closer. Japan is working on behalf of the international community, not just for bilateral aims, readers are told. Yet, instead of holding out such geopolitical hopes, the other newspapers see Russia as not yielding on that score and voicing its own such hopes, while making historical identity and sovereignty centered on territory the driving force in its narrative.

On February 2 Yomiuri carried an article by Vladimir Nelidov, explaining that Russia was in no hurry to conclude a peace treaty, not wanting to damage ties to China, not needing Japan as the economic power in Asia when trade even with South Korea is greater, when Japan cannot be trusted to keep its promises on US bases, when Japan will continue to side with the US over Russia, when Japanese investment in Russia has little to do with Russian concessions on a treaty, and when public opinion in Russia is not conducive. All-around improvement in bilateral ties is clarified here and made a precondition for a deal Japan is anxious to conclude quickly. Earlier on January 24 Dmitry Strel’tsov in Yomiuri, reacting to the lack of progress in Abe’s visit to Putin on January 22, noted the growing campaign in Russia against transferring islands and argued that there was little chance of a deal in June. He cited Japan’s sanctions over Ukraine and the need for economic results first. The paper stressed an aroused public opinion against any such deal and Putin’s insistence that public support would be required to reach one, despite on the first page headlining Abe’s claim that a deal was possible and that both sides agreed progress was made. Sankei that day was pessimistic, arguing that Putin demanded a strategic reorientation as well as economic cooperation while closing the door to a territorial agreement. On January 24 Georgy Kunadze in Asahi also insisted that the Japanese government was too optimistic, given that young Russians are taught that the victory in WWII was the most important historical event and Lavrov had clarified that Japan must accept as a precondition Russia’s view on the islands.

On February 18 Kimura Hiroshi in Sankei pointed to the switch from past February 7 Diet calls for returning the four islands illegally occupied to silence and refusal to repeat past claims. At stake is a critical matter of national identity, as Japan is on the verge of accepting that Moscow by virtue of the use of force can seize territory and agreeing, at best, to getting administrative control over islands still under Russia’s sovereignty and without the EEZ. Yomiuri that day was clear too about historical consciousness becoming more of a gulf, prolonging talks without any detail on what Kimura says is at stake. There seemed to be puzzlement as to why after Abe’s big concession in November, the response was so negative from the Russian side.