Country Report: Japan (June 2014)

The most important event in Japanese foreign policy during this time period was the visit of Barack Obama to Tokyo in late April. Yomiuri shimbun showcased its success as it published a long interview with Obama on April 23 and trumpeted the success for Japanese foreign policy of Obama’s decision to declare unambiguously that the Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. It credited the summit with building trust between Abe and Obama, pointing to prior concern about Hatoyama’s failure to abide by his commitment on the Futenma base, Kan’s inability to garner support from the DPJ for TPP negotiations, and the US expression of disappointment over Abe’s December Yasukuni visit. Yomiuri discerned a “honeymoon” despite the delay in agreement over TPP, emphasizing the no necktie, informal dinner at one of the finest and most intimate sushi parlors, where the two leaders sat side by side at the counter. In coverage far more positive than generally offered in foreign media, Yomiuri detected a convergence between Obama’s “rebalance” and Abe’s “proactive pacifism,” boosting the alliance and confirming overlapping national interests in reaching across to other countries in Asia. While much was said about strengthening the alliance, a great deal of the commentary touched on triangular relations as well.

Many triangles were in play in media discussions in the spring of 2014. There was the South Korean alliance triangle, only a month earlier reaffirmed through Obama’s efforts. With new momentum in Japanese talks with North Korea, Obama’s response was awaited. The triangle with China was of foremost interest, given developments of late. Finally, Russia had entered the picture due to Obama’s pressure for joint sanctions through the reactivated G7 and Abe’s continued pursuit of talks that could lead to Putin visiting Tokyo in the fall. Diverse triangles were now in sight.

Much of the discussion about TPP, for which Yomiuri shimbun expressed optimism, was concerned with its impact on China. Its establishment would leave Japan as well as the United States setting the rules for international trade, which China would be under pressure to follow. Thus, establishing TPP and strengthening and extending the alliance system stand together as two mechanisms for constraining expansionism by China. In both cases they foster an Asia-Pacific form of multilateralism, extending from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia. Coverage of the Obama visits to four states expressed optimism about both prospects. Yet, on coordination in response to the aggression of Russia in Ukraine, there were some doubts raised about whether Abe and Obama were in agreement. Asahi shimbun on April 24 contrasted Obama’s call for tougher sanctions with Abe’s softer approach to visa restrictions and continued desire to forge relations of trust with Putin in order to resolve the territorial issue and proceed with a planned autumn visit to Japan by Putin. In contrast, on April 25 Yomiuri shimbun asserted that Japan is standing with the United States and must not send the wrong signal to China on how force could be utilized to settle a territorial dispute. Whatever the triangle in question, China’s shadow was never far from view.

Asahi shimbun’s coverage of the Obama-Abe summit was more negative. It painted a picture of troubled relations over Japan’s fear of marginalization by US acceptance of Xi Jinping’s “new type of great power relations,” leaving Japan distrustful of its ally. While Obama changed course with China’s declaration of its ADIZ and then the Russian moves toward Ukraine, strengthening security ties with Japan, Asahi does not discern a successful strategy. China is not being restrained and is reacting strongly, as in criticizing this summit for reasserting an alliance that was a product of the Cold War. US plans to impose stronger sanctions against Russia will deal a blow to the world economy. Not only US policy but the summit itself draws this paper’s criticism. If on the surface it repaired a rupture in bilateral relations, the fact that there was no joint statement and TPP was left hanging cast a dark cloud on it. Also, on the one hand, Obama is pushing Japan into a US-led Asian order aimed at China’s economic and military rise and showing that China is not too big to be held to the rules small states must follow, while, on the other, he is urging Abe not to act in a provocative manner toward China, cognizant of the loss of US prestige as the sole superpower and a declining military budget. Thus, the United States now needs other countries more, above all Japan. In turn, what Obama wants from Japan faces strong opposition from the Komeito on collective self-defense and from Okinawa on the military base relocation. The summit solves little is Asahi shimbun’s message.

South Korea

Having only a month before met with Abe and Park Geun-hye, Obama managed to shift attention away from the US-ROK-Japan triangle, but concerns lingered, notably because of continued Japanese media warnings about South Korea. As usual, Sankei shimbun kept South Korea firmly within its sights. Adding its own special touch to coverage of the summit. It stressed the revival of the alliance as a success for Abe, who achieved more than expected. As for Obama, he had been under the negative influence of those who think of Abe as a dangerous nationalist—a view propounded by China, South Korea, and the leftists and liberals in Japan, which has been much repeated in the US Congress and by the mass media. Not reiterating such thinking, Obama gave Abe an opening to proclaim the revival of the alliance. Obama also refrained from repeating the much demeaned term in Japan of a “new type of great power relations,” instead standing firmly with Japan on security. Sankei gave the impression that the alliance is taking the lead in reshaping the order in the Asia-Pacific region, that the March triangular summit had set relations involving South Korea on the right course, that Japan had reassured Obama that if North Korea conducts a fourth nuclear test it will stand with its ally and South Korea despite ongoing talks on abductions, and that Abe is in agreement that Japan is joining in opposing efforts by Russia as well as China to change the international order by force despite a slight difference in dealing with Russia. In this perspective, Obama has changed course, giving Abe a diplomatic success with the only failure to finalize TPP, which has strategic importance, a lingering problem that needs to be resolved.

Coverage in Tokyo shimbun accentuated TPP and pointed to Obama’s statement on comfort women at his Seoul press conference. More than the other newspapers, it showcased the alleged deal Obama sought through giving Japan what it wanted on security—the Senkaku Islands and collective self-defense—in return for Japan’s concessions on TPP. Noting that at the sushi parlor Obama mentioned that since Abe has higher popularity ratings he is in a better position to compromise, the paper left the impression that the crux of the US strategy was this tradeoff. On April 26 Tokyo shimbun followed with detailed analysis of the high cost to Japanese agriculture of a deal opening the country to the five agricultural products under negotiation. Seeing the Obama visit to Tokyo by itself would be a mistake, these articles on the Seoul remarks by Obama suggested. Standing with Park Geun-hye, Obama went out of his way to put pressure on Abe, referring to the “forced” recruitment of these women and linking the comfort women to human rights. This demonstrated that Obama is not so preoccupied by security concerns as to set history aside, particularly since it can enflame South Korea emotions toward Japan. Obama still seeks Abe’s restraint, something that some of the ongoing Japanese press coverage appeared to overlook.

In the April Toa an article by Ishi Kenichi, Kohari Susumu, and Watanabe Satoshi compared the image of Japan—state branding—in South Korea and Japan. Noting that states compete for this, since it affects tourism, trade, foreign investment, etc., they observed that the new campaign to promote “cool Japan” is late compared to South Korea’s cultivation of a cultural image by Kim Young-sam or later Lee Myung-bak, and how Japan’s image is seen abroad has been little studied. South Korea and Taiwan provide a good comparison because they are similar in economic level and political system, and they view all countries specified in the West and in Asia apart from Japan in similar ways, but their views of Japan are diametrically opposed

In both South Korea and Taiwan the generations most positive about China in their 40s and 50s have an inverse attitude toward another country—in the former case to the United States, and in the latter to Japan. In both areas there is strong patriotism, but in South Korea it is more manifest in refusing to buy foreign products, especially those from Japan. Patriotism has long been associated with anti-Japanese emotions. Negative views on migration in Korea, however, focus on China, i.e., Chinese Koreans working in South Korea. Paradoxically, in 2013 when views of Japan were very poor, the second highest total of South Koreans visited the country—a 20 percent increase to nearly 2.5 million. This was related to the cheap yen, lowering the cost of travel, as other foreigners going to Japan in larger numbers noticed. The article is interested in receptivity to Japanese pop culture, noting that anime is rather dissociated from its point of origin, and merchandise. It is not concerned with how political actions or speech may change Japan’s image and be interpreted through the prism of different historical memories in two areas colonized by Japan under different management.

The Sino-ROK-Japan Triangle

Obama’s visit to Seoul was seen by Yomiuri shimbun through the prism of China’s new strategic viewpoint in opposition to Obama’s rebalance. Two articles on April 26 presented a side-by-side narrative. One pointed to the security conference in late May in Shanghai that would center on expanding China’s influence through a new multilateral framework, which was announced in China after being presaged by Xi in Holland at a March meeting with Nazarbayev and being reflected in the way China dealt with Malaysia over the lost Malaysian airline, at the same time as China was railing against the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance as a fossil of Cold War thinking in the past century. The other interpreted Obama’s meeting with Park as serving three purposes: jointly sending a tough message to North Korea on what would not be permitted; wiping away the Korean image that Obama was favoring Abe over Park; and warning against South Korea drawing close to China while stressing tightening the trilateral alliance with Japan as Obama’s priority in East Asia in the face of North Korean unpredictability and China’s rise. Noting Park’s concern about history, Yomiuri shimbun put more stress on security versus China. A few days later two articles in this paper juxtaposed the US-Philippines intensified warnings about China and China’s warnings about the US-Japan-South Korea effort to contain China, while adding that Xi Jinping would further try to use the “history card” to split South Korea from the group and leaving in doubt whether Seoul would really be amenable to making triangular security cooperation a concrete reality.

After an exchange program of journalists from Japan, China, and South Korea, a Tokyo shimbun reporter mentioned on May 6 that what seem to be bilateral matters reverberate in triangular settings. If Japan were to grant Seoul’s request to reopen the “comfort women” issue as a legal issue requiring compensation, then the entire postwar settlement framework followed by Japan would collapse. Instead of giving Beijing an opening of this sort, the author calls for working with Seoul to identify a humanitarian approach that revises the fund Japan had earlier established with an expanded role for the Japanese government. This is an example of the efforts being made to separate the way history issues are handled in relations with the two states. Yomiuri shimbun on April 18 had already noted that Chinese “comfort women” are demanding restitution, as are forced laborers. Conservatives are drawing a different lesson: stand tough against South Korea or else China will sweep into the breach.

Sankei shimbun articles lead the way in lumping Seoul and Beijing in the anti-Japan camp, as in an article on May 1 on an official Korean delegation to the opening ceremony for the memorial in Harbin in honor of Ahn Jung-geun. They detect no advantage to finding a compromise because they do not recognize a moral benefit. On the contrary, acknowledgment of the issue is regarded as a blow to the honor of Japan, which is seen as the aim of both Koreans and Chinese. Warning that both Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye are holding Germany up as a model for its way of handling history, a May 1 article in Yomiuri shimbun challenges this model.

For Sankei shimbun, the war between Japan on one side and China and South Korea on the other continues to be fought in the United States. On April 19, Sankei’s Komori Yoshihisa reported that Representative Mike Honda was being challenged in the June primary by an even more extreme anti-Japanese figure, Ro Khanna. Whereas Honda was known for steering a resolution critical of Japan on the “comfort women” issue through the House and for other anti-Japan stands on the “Nanjing incident” and US POW treatment, distorting Japan’s behavior in the war while besmirching postwar Japan, the anti-Japan faction has swung its weight behind his Democratic challenger in 2014, argues Komori. Explaining that the reason is Honda’s neutrality over the Senkaku Island dispute, refusing to back Japan or China’s position, Komori insists that the anti-Japan lobby expects support for China and his found in Khanna a candidate who provides that, helping him to raise three times as much money to that date than Honda had raised. Although Honda soundly defeated Khanna (50% to 26%) in the general primary with two Republican candidates combining for 24 percent, and US press coverage concentrated on a campaign about who is more tech-savvy and more favorable to Silicon Valley business interests, Komori will be able to keep covering this “anti-Japan” fraternal clash, since Khanna with the second-most votes can run in the November elections. For Sankei defense of Japan’s wartime conduct and current revisionist thinking is intermingled with realist territorial concerns.

Sankei shimbun is obsessed with the “comfort women” issue, as a matter of Japan’s honor, giving intense coverage to the investigation under way and casting doubt on earlier evidence that coercion was involved. Ignoring deep differences between Seoul and Beijing, it lumps the two together in their propaganda war in using both education and the media to dishonor Japan’s history. Yomiuri shimbun covers some of the same points, as in an April 13 article on the joint battle of these two countries to bring the issue of forced wartime labor to the forefront. Yet, Yomiuri is clearer on Xi Jinping’s strategy to isolate Japan and to split it from the United States, which was thwarted when Obama chose to step away from China’s divisive trap of a “new type of great power relations” and instead give clear support to Japan on the threat to the Senkaku Islands. On May 8, a Yomiuri editorial discussed the 9-person delegation of Diet members that went to China in the hope of reversing the downturn in relations with a meeting between Abe and Xi at the APEC fall gathering—echoing Abe’s fall 2006 trip to Beijing to mend relations—, but found China’s attitude to be regrettable. It insists that Japan is the sole cause of the downturn in relations and must change. While China points to Japan’s approach to the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands and Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as what must change, Yomiuri also cites the way history is handled as a reason for worsening relations, noting on May 6 both construction of the memorial to Ahn (blaming Seoul for that too) and Xi’s speech in Germany, where he cited the “baseless” figure of 300,000 people killed in Nanjing. With a rapid drop in Japanese investments in China and China’s leaders uneasy about their economy—it is no longer possible to say that politics and economics are separate—, Japan seeks a forward-looking relationship keeping the big picture in mind, but China’s big picture appears to be starkly different, as it continues to strive to isolate Abe.

The June issue of Seiron traced the evolution of a deep linkage between China and South Korea against Japan over twenty years. It pointed to the rise in Chinese living in South Korea, to Park Geun-hye’s pro-Chinese background, to the pattern since 1995 of joint attacks on history, and finally the arousal of emotions against Japan in both countries. This is followed by a warning that Japanese misunderstand Korea, having been lured by the Korean wave and the Samsung phenomenon, even to the point of speaking of “learning from Korea.” Instead, the article explains it is Japan that has taught Korea: Japan’s existence was indispensable for Korea’s development from the 1960s as was its capital and know-how, and the legacy of the Japan era (a euphemism for Japan’s colonialism) was the infrastructure, factories, laws, system, and spirit (seishin) contributed to Korean development. This narrative explains that China makes use of South Korean attacks on Japan in its own anti-Japan crusade.

Sankei shimbun on April 5 welcomed new elementary school textbooks cultivating in fifth and sixth graders the sprouts of identity. Assertions that South Korea illegally is occupying and that China is intent on seizing inherent Japanese territory are treated as vital to cultivating the desired national identity. This is not a global identity and is not one focused on universal values. It is about using territorial consciousness to alter historical consciousness. The battle for Japanese national identity is curiously being fought over matters such as the Nanjing massacre and the sex slaves, as seen in the outpouring of articles in emboldened right-wing publications, such as the June issue of Seiron, the May issue of Bungei shunju, and the unrelenting drumbeat of updates on textbooks, Diet activities, and responses to foreign criticisms in not only Sankei shimbun, but also Yomiuri shimbun. This is why Japan can no longer look for common ground with South Korea except on defense. Yet, Yomiuri, as in its contrast of Xi and Park’s remarks in late March with Angela Merkel, at least recognized that Xi is taking a much harder line and Park has begun to show some restraint, while adding that Xi is trying to arouse Korean opinion to make Park’s effort difficult.

North Korea

Obama’s stress on triangular strategic cooperation with South Korea was contrasted with China’s goal of unconditionally restarting the Six-Party Talks. Obama’s calls for more joint pressure from Japan and South Korea against North Korea was seemingly welcomed, even as there was scant recognition that Japan should do more to win Seoul’s trust and that Japan’s offer of reduced sanctions may undercut this objective.

A new concern in the spring was how the United States and South Korea respond to Japan’s talks with North Korea, following signs that the North would offer the carrot of reopening the investigations into Japan’s abductees with the possibility that the Japanese wives of the Koreans who a half century ago had gone with their husbands from Japan to North Korea would be allowed to return home. Already on March 30 Yomiuri shimbun was warning about concern in those two countries, as talks with the North were underway and indications were clear that Japan was offering some relaxation in sanctions in stages. In the background were stories of Beijing drawing closer to Seoul as Tokyo explored a deal with Pyongyang and Washington pressed both allies to solidify triangular relations. Japanese analysis only hinted at the big geopolitical picture, while overwhelmingly approving of the effort to bring more clarity to the abductee issue. On April 26 after Obama had met with the parents of Yokota Megumi, who had just had a chance to meet their granddaughter, there was relief that despite the threat to world peace of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, Obama had given US approval to Abe’s abduction diplomacy, affirming the strength of the alliance, Sankei shimbun noted. Yet, doubts on this accord lingered.

Asahi shimbun cast doubt on whether Obama and Abe could agree on the priority Abe placed on dealing with Pyongyang on the abductions issue, but the fact that Obama did meet with the parents of Yokota Megumi and took pains to show US sympathy on the abductions lessened concern that this issue would be a problem. After all, support for triangular pressure amid doubts that China is really on board conveyed a clear message, even as it was recognized that Obama continues to seek Beijing’s cooperation without Tokyo objecting on this issue as well as on the world economy and climate change. North Korea, however, took a back seat to China even as there was some awareness of China’s large role in diplomacy or pressure.

On April 16, Yomiuri shimbun carried an article on the reorganization of the trade of North Korea with China, remarking that exports of minerals and marine products had been concentrated under one trading company, which in December 2012 before the death of Kim Jong-il under Jang Song-Thaek had managed to gain control via the party of what had been a military monopoly. Given the importance of the foreign currency earnings to both the military and to the office of the new leader, this posed a threat to both. The North also was losing revenue from new Chinese restrictions on visas to North Korean labor, tens of thousands of whom had been working in nearby Liaoning province while transferring roughly half of their wages to their government, as Asahi shimbun remarked on April 15. Another pathway to foreign currency is through Japan, In the talks over the abductees North Korea sought not only a reckoning with the past (what the Japanese never refer to as reparations), but, more immediately, access to the money of Zainichi Chosenjin (the pro-North residents of Japan) and a revival of a regular shipping link to Japan that would facilitate this. Aware of concern about reopening this spigot, Yomiuri shimbun editorialized on April 1 that Japan must proceed under the rubric of international society, putting priority on the containment of the North’s military challenge.


The principal triangular concern in Japanese coverage of Obama’s visit was China. In arguing that the summit had great significance in transforming Japan-US relations, the press linked one theme after another to controlling Chinese expansionism and the threat of Chinese behavior in opposition to the international community. This started with resistance to China’s threat in the East China Sea, while extending both north and south in dealing with North Korea and in countering aggression in the South China Sea. Agreement that Obama handled this issue well was widespread.

There was a heady mood of satisfaction after at least four months of consternation about relations with the Obama administration. The principal reason was a sense of confidence that Obama stands with Abe against China. This carried over from their summit as the focus turned in May to joint support for Southeast Asian states in the face of China’s more aggressive actions in the South China Sea. The issue was framed in conservative and progressive media alike as international law and society versus China with ASEAN largely on the former side except for Laos and Cambodia, but the fact that Brunei, this year’s host, is considered neutral, and Myanmar, next year’s host, is regarded as cautious too, means that ASEAN, despite a widespread sense of crisis over Chinese expansionism, is unlikely to respond as a unit. Asahi shimbun on May 12 added that world attention has been distracted by Ukraine, casting doubt on the US rebalance to Asia. Such concern in Japan these days never seems to go away.

Even Asahi shimbun depicted the struggle in East Asia as China versus international society. In May as Vietnam faced Chinese military pressure in support of its oilrig in disputed waters, Asahi on May 11 described Vietnam seeking balance from Russia, India, and many others. It stressed that ASEAN would have to speak as one to help Vietnam to counter China’s military edge. Of course, ASEAN would not be united, but there was no hint here or elsewhere of how Japan should both buttress ASEAN as a much valued partner and proceed bilaterally at risk to ASEAN’s consensus goals.

An April 20 editorial in Asahi shimbun was rather upbeat on relations with China. It said that finally some signs of improvement can be discerned in contacts approved by the leaders in both countries. China seems interested in helping Japanese firms overcome new difficulties. The editorial notes that late last year there were also efforts for a breakthrough, but Abe’s Yasukuni visit stopped them. Given the gap over historical issues with Abe, the editorial calls for prioritizing economics and exchanges, but it also notes that China’s expansionism around its neighborhood—not just toward Japan—makes a defense dialogue necessary. Today, China needs Japanese technology, and Japan needs China’s market and labor, as discussion is progressing on accelerating the CJK FTA talks. Even as China and Japan are opposed, Asahi shimbun idealistically calls for striving for coexistence and co-prosperity.


After Obama’s visit to Tokyo, Japanese media discussed the impact of Russia on the summit and the prospects for Japanese diplomacy with that country. Togo Kazuhiko wrote an article in Sekai, which is summarized in Topics of the Month as a rejoinder. Sato Masaru wrote a piece in Tokyo shimbun on May 2, warning of the danger of a Sino-Russian axis forming and calling for an autonomous Japanese foreign policy. He noted that when Obama was in Japan the office of the prime minister and the foreign ministry strove in the face of pressure to make the case for continued negotiations with Russia over the disputed islands, but he leaves the impression that they failed, while adding that equality is a diplomatic principle. Curiously, Sato mentions that on April 25 when a joint declaration was issued, it appeared only in English without a Japanese version. This article suggests that a divide occurred on this regional issue.

Indeed, a rather low-key tussle seems to have occurred, with Obama hesitant to give Abe all he wanted in opposing China (although agreeing that the Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands), and Abe reluctant to acquiesce to Obama’s way of dealing with Russia. On April 30, Sankei shimbun wrote about US requests on Russia and Japan’s response, concluding that Japan still has room for Russian diplomacy.

Other Japanese articles blamed Obama and the EU for being weak toward Russia. On April 28, Yomiuri shimbun attributed this to the economic dependency of European states on Russia and to Obama’s persistent weakness in supporting international society. Yet, it concluded that given the danger from China, which could make a grab for the Senkaku Islands in line with the changing rules of international society that Russia had introduced, Japan’s strategic challenge is to prevent the nightmare of a Russo-Chinese alliance. Rather than propose concessions to Russia, however, it called for a strategy to lower international energy prices—Bungei shunju in May also advocated US shale exports to lower Russia’s gas revenue, adding to the impact of economic sanctions. Such arguments put less hope in Japan’s diplomacy to Russia.

Russia figured into analysis, especially by the right wing, of both the overall history issue and the shifting geopolitical situation in the region. In this same Bungei shunju issue there was the suggestion that China has essentially consented to Russia’s move in Crimea as a trade-off for Russia’s support for China’s hardening position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Warning that in 2015—the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II—Russia would join with China and also South Korea to renew criticism of Japan, linking territorial issues to history and to international relations, the article remarked that after Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in late December, the Russian Foreign Ministry had charged that Japan is challenging the postwar order.

A familiar cast of Japanese specialists on Russia, including former ambassador to that country Tamba Minoru, who had long rejected negotiations with Moscow that would likely lead to a compromise on the territorial dispute, took an “I told you so” attitude to Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. Tamba in Asahi shimbun saw the legacy of the Soviet Union and inherent expansionism in Putin’s conduct. Kimura Hiroshi in Sankei shimbun on March 27 traced softness to Russia back to Bill Clinton’s approval for it to join the G7, making it the G8, and the failure to learn the lesson of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, allowing the “reset” to go forward. Whereas advocates of more diplomacy with optimism about a territorial deal generally see Russia through the lens of realist power balancing, critics of diplomacy insist that treating Russia as a normal country, as in its capacity in the 1990s to develop a market economy and democracy, was a mistake, since it ignored the crux of Russia’s distinct civilization.