Country Report: Japan (October 2017)

The October issue of Bungei Shunju traced Abe’s trajectory as prime minister. It noted his persistent interest in Japan playing a leading global role, keeping US ties as the foundation of foreign policy while strengthening relations with other countries including China and Russia. In 2014, China was the target, as Abe sought a first meeting with Xi at APEC in Beijing. The tricky war anniversary year of 2015 was navigated well, and preparations for an eventful 2016 began: hosting the G7, strengthening ties with Obama at Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, and, unexpectedly, hurrying to set relations with Trump on a positive course, while also aiming for a breakthrough with Putin. If the year ended with ominous clouds hanging over Abe’s foreign policy—Trump being an uncertain force, Putin taking a tougher posture, and North Korea emerging as a greater danger—Abe doubled down on realist policies in 2017. He sought to keep Trump close—to coordinate on China and Russia—sustain ties with Putin, and improve those with Xi with promise of cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The August issue of Sentaku was less charitable to Abe, charging that his foreign policy is isolating Japan—that his “panoramic perspective of the world map” has failed. As he wildly chases after Trump, the Western alliances are collapsing and Trump is only appealing to China to constrain North Korea. Policies toward Russia and China are not going forward. The July G20 was notable for the brevity of the Abe-Putin meeting as Obama-Putin summit took longer, and for the vacuum in US-Japan consultations about Trump’s talk with Putin. The US establishment is not keeping Trump in check, as Japan had hoped. The article is also pessimistic about Japan-ROK ties as Moon Jae-in keeps bringing up the “comfort women” issue and seeks dialogue with the North at odds with the coordination needed. Further, the prospects of Sino-Japanese relations appear doubtful despite the Yachi-Yang Jiechi channel reactivated in May. While a short time earlier there was praise for “foreign policy Abe,” the article asserted his diplomacy is now at a dead-end.  

Japan continued to seek a “honeymoon” atmosphere with Donald Trump. On September 14, Asahi Shimbun used this term in detailing plans for Trump’s visit to Japan on November 4-6. Having played 5 hours of golf together when Abe went to Florida in February, the two leaders are preparing for another round of “golf diplomacy.” Although Abe restrained his golf outings in August in the face of low poll numbers and the rising North Korean threat, playing with Trump serves an alliance reassurance purpose at a vital time.  

While there were voices calling for Japan to go nuclear, former UN ambassador
Sato Yukio disagreed in Yomiuri Shimbun on October 13. It was the sole victim of a nuclear attack, and the size of Japanese territory leaves little capacity for retaliation. Sato argues for sticking with the US nuclear umbrella as the only realistic course for Japan’s protection.


On September 15 Asahi Shimbun reported on Abe’s summit with Modi, highlighting both security and economic cooperation. Noted were deepening Indian tensions with China and trilateral maritime exercises with the United States with talk of land-based exercises ahead. It observed that the “Japan-India new era” has leaped ahead, boosted too by the planned construction of a 500km-long high-speed railroad between Ahmedabad and Mumbai as well as other infrastructure projects. Yet the article finds less progress on nuclear reactors as Toshiba has been stymied by dependence on Westinghouse, now bankrupt, and India has not given permission for 6 other high-speed railroad proposals. Word has spread that India is a tough negotiator.

On the same day, Yomiuri was more effusive in its praise for the summit in India. It stressed that the interests of Japan and India are the same in maritime security and focused more on countering China. The article urged strong Japan-Indian relations for the foundation for regional security, and introduced the word “honeymoon” for Abe-Modi ties. India is described as being surrounded by China’s port construction. One difference noted regards the BRI: India rejected it while Japan took a limited cooperative stance even though no concrete arrangements were reached. The article also mentioned cooperation on an economic corridor of their own reaching to Africa, with India including Afghanistan and Iran. On September 17, the paper followed with an editorial calling for deepening strategic cooperation on maritime security and support for freedom of navigation. In Abe’s tenth meeting with Modi, Japan’s “Indian Ocean Strategy” and India’s “Act East” were linked, including cooperation with states in Southeast Asia. Mention is made of Indian fears that BRI is connected to China expanding its military activity in the Indian Ocean. The editorial is optimistic about technology transfer to India for nuclear reactors, the prospect of meeting India’s vast infrastructure needs, training 1,000 Indian Japanese language teachers over five years, and grass roots mutual understanding.


Sankei Shimbun on August 24 was quick to devote much of its front page to Russia’s declaration of a special economic zone including Shikotan Island, contradicting the agreement for joint economic development with Japan. This reflected a rejection of Japan’s design to increase the Japanese presence there in order to set in motion a process that would lead to the return of the disputed islands. Give up hope, and abandon talks was apparently the message others wanted to ignore.

There was ample coverage of the visit by air of 68 persons, including 17 former residents of the islands, to ancestral graves on September 23-24, as if this somehow would improve the environment for resolving the territorial dispute. It was actually no more than a distraction, compounded by fog delays and rerouting, useful for giving Japanese the impression that hope for a deal persists.

Asahi Shimbun on September 7 discussed a surge in young Russians working in South Korea. Unable to find satisfactory jobs in the Russian Far East and able since January 2014 to travel without a visa to South Korea for 60 days—recently by a cheap and quick sea route—Russians have been flocking south and overstaying their permits. Even as South Korea tightens its border screening—last year rejecting 5,000 entrants, the Russian Internet has nearly 100 sites listing illegal job opportunities. Cluster of 1000 Russians have formed, pick-up points for day laborers abound, Russians who come on study or work visas overstay their limits, Russian women come for three months at a time to be hostesses at karaoke stores, and Russian-speaking shopping areas have formed.

On September 7 Yomiuri reported that Putin’s program to repopulate the Russian Far East through land giveaways since June is experiencing a slowdown as 28,000 of about 100,000 applications were accepted—far from the goal of 1 million—and people are dissatisfied with the poor quality of the land. The paper makes clear that infrastructure is the key to population and economic growth. 

On October 12 Sankei covered the death of a North Korean worker building the World Cup soccer arena in St. Petersburg. He was among about 100 North Koreans working in the worst possible conditions in the fall of 2016—12-14 hours a day, no rest days, no freedom of movement, low wages, where funds were squeezed by Russian corruption as well as North Korean wage diversions. Disregarding calls to limit use of North Korean labor, Russia was also providing the North with Internet access through Russia beginning in October, asserted Tokyo Shimbun on October 13.
This gives it an alternative to China and broadens the routes for North Korean cyber attacks, and helps North Korea bypass sanctions. The article concludes that Russia is using the North as a “diplomatic card.”

North Korea

Japanese media coverage of North Korean provocations and international responses was intense, but its arguments did not differ much from those in the United States. A clear exception was the treatment of the triangle with South Korea. In September, there was much on the new sanctions resolution, overcoming Chinese and Russian resistance and demanding vigorous implementation. Articles cast doubt on enforcement, for instance Asahi Shimbun on September 13, which noted smuggling activities across the Chinese and Russian borders, the rapid tightening of Russo-DPRK relations including 30,000 North Korean workers in Russia, and the fact that nine Security Council sanctions resolutions for over a decade have not sufficed. Yet, the new pressure along with much welcomed US secondary sanctions drew copious attention. Japan-US agreement left little room to criticize Trump’s bombast.

Confusion reigned in coverage of options in dealing with Pyongyang. The August issue of Sentaku discussed fear of US abandonment, such as if Congress were to accept Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state. This was seen as destroying the nuclear balance in Northeast Asia. Another fear was of entrapment for Japan, namely the possibility that there may be a “chicken race” between Trump and Kim Jong-un, leading to US use of nuclear weapons. This was discussed in an October article in Bungei Shunju. That same issue raised another possibility, citing a North Korean high official that in the near future a dramatic breakthrough in Japan-DPRK relations would occur, as communicated to Kanemaru Shingo, the son of Kanemaru Shin, who in 1990 had gone to Pyongyang in search of a breakthrough—the precursor to Kozumi’s 2002 travel in search of the same goal. No details were given on how this could proceed, however.

Asahi Shimbun on September 24 covered Jia Qingguo’s views on North Korea, saying why China needed to take a tougher line: a big fright from a nuclear test near its border; a growing threat that Japan and South Korea will develop nuclear weapons; and the danger that North Korea would sell the weapons to international terrorists. China’s position, he added, has shifted from how far to go in assisting the North to debating whether it should help the North or not, and further, to asking how far it should go in pressuring the North, although some worry that China is turning the North into an enemy. On October 1, Park Cheol-hee asked in Tokyo Shimbun what is North Korea to China: is it a strategic asset or burden? Although there is concern about refugees and loss of an amenable neighbor, there is also concern that an end to peace on the Korean Peninsula will damage China’s economic development. The reason the North is developing nuclear weapons has been reassessed from regime and state preservation to a means to negotiate with the United States and more. The impact is no longer expected to be weakening of US alliances, but the opposite. Park suggests a new outlook based on increased concern over war and stronger alliances.

The debate over US entrapment versus abandonment resounded over the second half of the summer. Some denied both options, expecting continued tightening of US-Japan coordination and missile defense as the rush to containment intensifies, as in Okamoto Yukio’s piece in the September 16, Yomiuri. Others distrusted Trump to the degree they thought he could entrap Japan in a war, such as Murata Koji urging Abe to capitalize on relations of trust with Trump to impress upon him Japan’s position. Naturally, that raised concerns by many of abandonment of Japan. For still others, Japan had to assume an active role to avoid war, as advocated by Fujiwara Kiichi in the September 7 Asahi. Describing the widespread concern about US entrapment during the Cold War and about abandonment that followed, he points to Trump as again raising the danger of involvement in war and of destabilizing the region, alienating South Korea and straining ties to China and Russia. If Germany in 2003 could refuse US policy toward Iraq despite being a member of NATO, then Japan can make its voice heard against an unnecessary war, Fujiwara concluded.

By October amid election debates, the progressive case against Abe’s North Korea policy had gathered steam. On October 12 Tokyo Shimbun was championing the resolution of the nuclear issue through dialogue, while charging that Abe’s speech at the United Nations had excluded it and left him only following Trump or even all alone.  Other states all maintain channels with North Korea. Given the history issue, Japan already faces distrust from South Korea and China. Japan’s approach risks war, the article asserts.

The November issue of Sekai reported the results of a large roundtable on what Japan should do about the North Korean crisis, led by former prime minister Murayama Tomiichi and including North Korea specialists who had long advocated dialogue. The focus was on how to avoid war and how the North strengthened its hand. For instance, Okonogi Masao anticipated a sudden “game-changer” through Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic push aimed at changing US and Japanese policy and winning recognition as a nuclear weapons state, as China and Russia remained receptive and South Korea could not refuse North-South dialogue. He called on Japan to switch to support for a peace system in Northeast Asia to stabilize the area, pointing to missed opportunities in 1990 when Kanemaru went to Pyongyang and in 2002 took a similar initiative.

Alexander Gabuev on September 13 in Tokyo Shimbun argued that the new Security Council sanctions resolution is satisfactory to Russia and China. China wanted to avoid an all-around confrontation with the United States, fearing the impact on trade ties. Russia does not have this fear, but it deferred to China. Both continue to oppose reunification and anything that could lead to it, as threatening to bring an expansion of US alliances. Gabuev added that there is scant possibility of secret US-DPRK talks.

A detailed account of Japan’s policy shift to pressure was provided by Suga Yoshihide in Yomiuri on September 12. A new stage of threat had been reached, and the time had come to step up the pressure, as well as to strengthen the Japan-US alliance. Clearly, this posture played well with domestic opinion; as Abe’s poll numbers climbed, he decided to make an assertive appeal for pressure at the United Nations, and called for elections.

Many articles covered Russia’s softer position than China toward North Korea. Tokyo Shimbun on September 30 emphasized China in the aftermath of the September 11 Security Council resolution, which closed Sino-DPRK joint ventures, while Russia welcomed North Korean officials and embraced closer ties. On September 4 Yomiuri had noted the doubling of Russian export of petroleum products to the North in the first half of the year, although it asserted that at the end of August Russia had stopped the shipment from Vladivostok to North Korea over non-payment of charges. On September 13, it wrote in detail about Russia’s behind-the-scenes understanding with the United States that its interests would not be affected by the new sanctions: labor imports, railroad and port operations, and low existing levels of petroleum product exports. In this way, Russia voted for the sanctions and was not isolated. In a similar vein, Asahi on September 29 explained China’s closing of joint ventures, such as North Korean restaurants, as a way to avoid imposition of US unilateral sanctions.

Asahi on September 18 looked closely at the impact to Northeast China of sanctions, e.g. He Tong, a border development zone from 2015 far from major cities that had benefitted from importing cheap labor—about 5,000 in total—and elsewhere in the region importing crabs and other marine products from North Korea. On September 24 Sankei had reported that Chinese exports to North Korea over the first 8 months of the year had climbed by 25 percent, while imports slipped by 13 percent due to a ban on coal from April. Yet, Asahi wrote on September 10 that while Russia sent congratulations the previous day on the 69th anniversary of the DPRK, China did not.

South Korea

Sankei was unrelenting in criticism of South Korean “propaganda” against Japan, as in an August 14 article accusing South Koreans of accusing Japan of a “holocaust” type activity during the war.  Yet, on October 9, it credited Moon Jae-in with becoming realistic in the face of North Korean behavior since June, especially when he agreed to complete the THAAD deployment in September. Korean media had changed too, growing less critical of Japan’s strong stand against North Korea, Sankei noted.

Yet, Yomiuri on October 5, as well as Sankei, kept accusing Seoul of stirring “hate Japan” sentiments. It pointed to: erecting comfort women statues, not informing Koreans that about 70 percent of the surviving women had accepted the funds sent from Japan, plans to construct a memorial to the women in the national cemetery led by the government, work on a law to designate August 14 a Memorial Day for them, and reverberations in Japan’s worsening attitudes toward South Korea. The editorial concluded that Seoul’s actions on the history issue are interfering with the important matter of responding in lockstep to the growing North Korean threat.

On August 15 Yomiuri Shimbun described the proliferation of “comfort women” statues in South Korea, including 80 big ones and 500 miniature ones located in places such as bus stops. An adjacent article warned of growing signs of tolerance for North Korea as a nuclear weapons state in the United States, as if deterrence would be enough to deal with this challenge, while another article commented on Moon Jae-in’s appeal for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis, fearing a war.

Park Cheol-hee called for closer Japan-ROK cooperation in the face of the revival of geopolitics in the August 27 Tokyo Shimbun. He pointed to the attitudes of Trump, Xi, Putin, and Abe as showcasing strength and intensifying strategic competition at the expense of constructive community building. Given the growing competition between South and North Korea, the South needs to recognize the possibility that the entire strategic framework of Northeast Asia is changing. Park reasoned why Seoul and Tokyo should take another look at each other.

Japanese were in the unusual situation of supporting South Korea for its backing of a tough stance toward North Korea, but that did not mean that Moon Jae-in was trusted to stay on course in trilateralism. Some remained wary about Moon’s offer to provide the North with humanitarian assistance of $8 million in the form of infant formula and items for pregnant women. At a time when Abe was fixated on ratcheting up pressure against the North, this was criticized heavily, with some calling it a betrayal, sending the wrong message to North Korea and disrupting the harmony reached in international society, Yomiuri editorialized on September 23.

Harshest in tone was Sankei, which on September 23 contrasted the rapport between Abe and Trump with the outsider position of Moon when all three gathered at the United Nations. Asahi pointed on September 16 to conservative criticism inside South Korea against such humanitarian assistance, but it also recognized Moon’s dilemma as a progressive. There was reluctance elsewhere to acknowledge how closely he was working with Japan and contributing to a trilateral front, and instead dwelling on the humanitarian rift, including Yomiuri on September 23 and Tokyo Shimbun on September 22. Yet, on September 16, Yomiuri had acknowledged that Moon’s stance had hardened that dialogue is impossible.

The gap between US and ROK responses to North Korea drew frequent attention. After the sixth nuclear test, Yomiuri on September 5 charged that Moon opposed Trump’s approach, which discounted the utility of dialogue. When for three days in a row, Trump, Abe, and Moon spoke at the United Nations, Asahi on September 22 joined other papers in stressing the shared outlook of Trump and Abe in their hardline speeches, contrasted with Moon’s persistent call for dialogue. It added that Abe and Trump have met since Trump’s election victory 4 times and spoken by phone 14 times, and that their speeches were in accord and reflected the “honeymoon” between them. Indeed, Trump’s speech was highly valued by Japan.

On that day, Yomiuri charged that Moon’s offer to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea was contrary to the sanctions being applied. Its editorial made clear that 80 percent of Abe’s 16-minute speech was devoted to North Korea, while he also noted that Security Council reform is needed since permanent membership does not reflect the international situation, even interfering with resolving the North Korean question. Asahi raised more doubts about Trump’s unusual speech on September 21, while that same day Sankei was particularly positive. Troubling for some Japanese but usually left in the margins was concern about “America first,” anti- free trade positions, and abandonment of the Iran deal. Reassuring, however, was clarity that Trump was not an isolationist, as seen in his North Korean policy.


Historical anniversaries were downplayed in China, observed Yomiuri Shimbun on August 25. Although Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in exchanged messages on the 25th anniversary of diplomatic normalization on August 24, China had rejected a public joint ceremony. In July when Xi and Moon met in Germany, Xi was cool toward improving ties over THAAD, and Xi rejected the proposal that Moon visit China. Another article covered the low-key commemoration in China of the 45th anniversary of Sino-Japanese normalization in September, although what was planned was better than the cancellation of any celebration for the 40th anniversary in 2012 just after the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue erupted.

A September 1 Yomiuri Shimbun article on the 9th BRICS summit in Amoy saw this as a time when China would make an appeal for the success of its diplomacy. Its goal for BRICS, where more than 40 percent of the world lives, is to forge a new international order opposed to the one centered on Europe and the United States. Yet the article casts doubt on BRICS by pointing to Sino-Indian divisions, as in their border military standoff and in India’s resistance to BRI.

Yomiuri Shimbun on August 21 cited an internal (neibu) Chinese conference on the military ambitions behind BRI. Held at National Defense University two years ago, this was a sign of conscious plans (honne) for an expanded military presence, e.g., twelve ports along the Indian Ocean to be used by China’s navy. China is hiding its intentions due to the opposition its plans would arouse: US military encirclement of China; military clashes at the Sino-Indian and Sino-North Korean borders; and also clashes in the Taiwan Strait.

On September 8, Yomiuri noted positive signs in Sino-Japanese relations and Abe’s strong desire for that to happen, but faulted China’s insistence on a victimizer-victim approach and on exclusive nationalism that arouses hate as shown on the Internet. Over three years, it found over 400 televised dramas on the war against Japan and much on the revival of Japanese militarism. The ideas inculcated differ from those of the estimated 7 million Chinese who will visit Japan this year and find much that is positive, leading to forward-looking attitude. At the same time, this article finds Japanese deeply concerned about Xi’s efforts to change the international order in a one-sided manner.

Sankei on September 20 was harsher in blaming China for using North Korea as a stalking horse to threaten Japan and the United States and to drive the latter from the Western Pacific. The next day it traced the history of Sino-Japanese relations from the golden age of friendship in the 1980s to anti-Japan education to create an enemy in the 1990s to distract Chinese from the Tiananmen to focus on Yasukuni. It also discussed territorial issues in the 2000s and the Senkaku Islands in the 2010s, along with Japanese militarism. On September 30, Sankei called for rethinking policy toward China, overhauling it due to increased risk instead of Japanese leaders and diplomats always trying to avoid a breakdown.

Takahara Akio in Asahi on September 13 wrote about China’s reemphasizing how Sino-US relations are the most important, while making clear its red-line with North Korea. The sixth nuclear test crossed it, eliciting a rise in Chinese articles of a sharper tone toward the North and a stance in favor of sanctions, overcoming the view that stability on the peninsula matters most. Now, war avoidance was seen as more important, along with prevention of Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons, as Chinese recognize that security in its environment has sharply deteriorated. In the process, China has reaffirmed the importance of US ties, seeking a stable foundation, and decided after the nuclear test that cooperation over North Korea is more necessary. The Japanese press took a similar view, as in Sankei on September 23 asserting that despite Wang Yi’s stress on dialogue, China was cooperating in financial sanctions in a desire to smooth the way for a successful Trump visit to China in November.

Yomiuri on September 30, a day after the 45th anniversary, focused on summitry as the path to improve relations, suggesting a three-way summit with South Korea, which had been postponed from 2016 when the South was in turmoil. The aim, it said, is for Xi to visit Japan in 2019 when Japan hosts the G20, but China is less eager for these summits, apart from improving relations in the economic arena and cultural exchanges. Yet, Abe has won praise for his limited support for BRI. Hope is expressed for progress in bilateral ties after the October political events of the 19th Congress and the Lower House elections.

On October 1 Asahi suggested that Japan in 1972 had been too much in a hurry to normalize relations with China, leaving problems to fester, and it described as the two pillars of friendship Japan’s strong reflections on history and its ODA, neither of which exists today. It criticized strong animosity toward China in Japan as well as Chinese animosity toward Japan rooted in “civilizationalism” (bunmeishugi) and China’s assertiveness as it became a great power. The paper concluded that the answer is to narrow cultural differences by deepening mutual understanding. Sankei the next day found no such hope, blaming Chinese expansionism amid charges that Japan is steeped in old Cold War thinking. The values gap is too great, as confidence in China has fallen. Sankei adds that to defend its reputation over WWII Japan should continue its counterattacks against China.

On October 7 Yomiuri Shimbun portrayed China’s foreign policy as less conciliatory and more expansionary of its sphere of influence. This is aimed at forging a new world order in which China and the United States lead, i.e., great power diplomacy (daguo waijiao). China has boosted its defense budget to three times Japan’s and is using BRI and infrastructure projects as means to expand its influence. While it does not seek to confront the United States directly, it will keep expanding its power as it views the United States as supportive of Japan. The implication is that Japan does not have much room for an independent foreign policy in this era of bipolarization.

Southeast Asia

in the September Toa, Iida Masafumi argued that the real struggle over the South China Sea is not over territory or sovereignty, but a great power competition between China and the United States over the regional order. China’s strategic aim is to weaken the US military presence there. It is pursuing the COC with ASEAN on a strictly bilateral basis, keeping the United States on the sidelines. It is taking advantage of Duterte’s rise to try to distance the Philippines’ ties to the United States. Tracing a more assertive Chinese stance in the region to 2009, Iida writes that Xi, however he may cooperate with US leaders elsewhere, has pressed to gain superiority over its rival in the South China Sea area.

In the same journal, Kaneko Yoshiki described the success of ASEAN over 50 years and its tendency to lean toward China at a time of Sino-US competition. In an age of economic globalization and in light of Obama and Trump’s policies, balancing between the powers has been shifting. In addition, there are internal political reasons, as in Malaysia, where Najib is angry about frozen funds in the United States. In some cases, however, leaders are not on the same wavelength as security elites, as in the Philippines. Iida concludes by asking how the United States, Japan, and Europe can boost ASEAN against China’s divisive policies.