Country Report: Japan (July 2013)

Country Report: Japan (with the assistance of Iwaki Shigeyuki)

After Prime Minister Abe’s visit in February to the United States, Japanese sources have flitted from one problem to another in the surrounding region, but with one abiding concern: Is there a way to overcome a feeling that their country is under siege? Writings continue to confirm the seriousness of the siege, as they give somewhat different accounts of who is at fault and how to break out. They convey the impression that Japan is at the center of the region, targeted by some, active in diplomacy under Abe to resolve dilemmas in dealing with neighboring states, or in a state of denial as narrow fixations substitute for building bridges to these states.

Despite the static from many international diversions, one source of anxiety stands out in Japanese newspapers and journals in the spring of 2013. It is fear of an approaching train wreck in relations with South Korea. To be sure, ups and downs in this relationship have been so common that they might not draw much attention in the midst of multiple regional problems. Yet, what is happening with the South is now perceived in a strikingly different light. This relationship merits closer scrutiny, especially as it could easily be overlooked in the absence of high-level talks in 2013.

If in 2011 and part of 2012 the date 3/11 was etched in people’s minds as the disaster that would change Japan’s future in some still unclear manner, the focus in 2013 has been the “crisis of August 2012,” when Lee Myung-bak visited what Japan calls Takeshima (Dokdo in Korea) and anti-Japanese demonstrations in China both turned violent and signaled a change in China’s policy to sending military ships and aircraft into what Japan has long regarded as its territorial waters and airspace.

The maximalist view of the siege is that bilateral relations are conspiring to isolate Japan. The Obama-Xi summit in early June and Park-Xi summit a few weeks later raised alarm in some quarters with scant compensation from news of closer ties to Myanmar from Abe’s May visit or slightly hopeful commentary on Abe’s trip a month earlier to Russia. Gloomy stories prevailed despite overall confidence in the United States as a reliable ally and some satisfaction that Abe’s more energetic style of leadership was boosting Japan’s economic image and informing its foreign policy.

Articles indicated that Japan was becoming even more of a target than before. Naturally, China was in the forefront. The May issue of Gaiko warned about China’s maritime advance, intensive coverage centers on a Chinese article arguing that the status of Okinawa is undetermined, scrutiny of Chinese dramas exposes their anti-Japanese nature, Sankei Shimbun sustains a drumbeat of warnings such as that China is encircling Japan, and even the progressive Sekai can do little but appeal for ways to avoid a military conflict. The sense keeps growing that Japan is now under duress.

In the daily newspapers and weekly and monthly journals, the struggle over national identity continues unabated, even intensifying through awareness that Abe returned as prime minister impatient to resolve it. The main thrust of late favors realism. With near unanimity that China is aggressively encroaching on Japan’s sovereignty and threatening it militarily, the media and public have swung strongly behind the idea of national security. Abe’s May call to establish a national security council drew praise from a variety of newspapers. Progressives resistant to the idea continue to lose ground in the debate. Realism largely means a closer US alliance, not the development of nuclear weapons or a sharp rise in defense spending. This fails to satisfy the quest for a response highlighting Japan’s great power identity.

The vocal right-wing press is emboldened to press harder for revisionism as a natural accompaniment of realism. After all, amending the Constitution in Japan is the long-term focus of realists, frustrated by Article 9, and also revisionists, who see an opportunity to bring back elements of state-centered identity lost after 1945. In 2013 the revisionists are emboldened by Abe’s return in a more unfettered cabinet, but their media statements suggest a degree of patience as long as the goal is clear.

As usual, Sankei shimbun led the charge for revisionism, as in its defense of Osaka Governor Hashimoto in his comments on comfort women that elicited a sharp backlash while vilifying Japanese who accepted South Korea’s claim that Takeshima is Korea’s. Although its circulation does not match that of Yomiuri shimbun, a more cautious voice of the conservative cause, it inundates the public with coverage of regional relations and the history issue, driving discourse in an extreme direction.

The struggle between realism and revisionism played out in publications on how to respond to Japan’s beleaguered status, some stressing that the public was increasingly supportive of strengthening the Self-Defense Forces as if that would be critical, while others warned against submitting to “peace illusions,” as if Japan were responsible for its own isolation, and plunging ahead with invigorated efforts to amend the Constitution by making Japan stronger in security and national identity.

Rounding out the “3 R’s” is regionalism, which has suffered a severe blow in the wake of its brief spike under Hatoyama Yukio in late 2009. Idealism about China no longer fuels this thinking, but that does not mean it is dead. Yet, it is now couched as compatible with a degree of realism. The main theme is ideas for bridging the gap with China. Setting China aside, there is also a streak of regionalism prioritizing the states around China that appear to be eager for improved relations with Japan.

We would be remiss if in reviewing Japan’s press and journals we omitted regionalism on the right with elements of the old idealism of the left. The drive for a breakthrough with Russia is one example. Another is an initiative to North Korea that is seen as a way to make headway on the abductions impasse while reactivating Japan’s role in troubled diplomacy. In place of past idealism, expectations for Russia or North Korea are tempered by sober awareness that warm ties are beyond reach. At most, Tokyo would position itself in triangular relations with Beijing and Seoul that allows its voice to be magnified in the region, while securely retaining US ties.

The two boldest international moves by Abe in 2013—his summit with Putin and his emissary to Pyongyang—elicited some of the most divided commentary, if still a trickle compared to a flood of writings on China and South Korea. In the right-wing journal Will readers were introduced to Dmitri Trenin’s proposal, seen as returning all four islands to Japan, suggesting that Japan need not make concessions. In contrast, Togo Kazuhiko, whose article appears in this issue, was making the case for a compromise consistent with a realist policy and for accelerating the territorial talks even before Abe met Putin. Yet, neither of these themes captured the spotlight.

In the June issue of Toa, concern focused on the foreign expansion of what was now “military great power” China, as even the progressive Sekai fretted about how to avoid a military confrontation. Yet, as the June issue of centrist Chuo koron made clear, public opinion is now on the side of restrained realism, not allowing the shock of the intensified territorial dispute with South Korea to arouse more than a brief period of concern in contrast to the more sustained alarm over China.

The impact of Japanese-centered thinking was visible in the lack of attention to North Korea’s spike in belligerent rhetoric that was mostly centered on South Korea and the United States and Putin’s hostility toward the United States linked to hostility toward domestic critics. Instead, sources concentrated on victimization of Japan by China and even South Korea. There were stories about the proliferation of anti-Japanese dramas in China or South Korea trying to make Japan an international pariah, such as when Park Geunhye, speaking before the US Congress, criticized it.

With Abe in charge and revisionists emboldened, Japan has failed to separate historical justice from defense of its security. Whether in reporting on US responses to historical themes raised by Japanese politicians or South Korean opinion toward their country, Japanese are deeply aware that intertwining these themes does not serve Japan’s security. Mainichi shimbun raised doubts about Abe’s consciousness of history and Hashimoto’s comfort women gaffe, focusing especially on how they are received in the United States. Instead of shoring up the alliance at a time when the new Obama foreign policy team was preparing to recalibrate relations with China, Japanese sources pondered the fact that a sense of common cause or shared identity was in jeopardy, not least of all because of a frayed US-Japan-South Korea triangle.

Of all Japan’s bilateral disputes, that with South Korea pits revisionism versus realism most directly. Asahi shimbun, as usual, stands against acts that enflame the South, keeping the spotlight on Abe’s excesses. Yomiuri shimbun covers the problem extensively, acknowledging the negative impact, especially on Japan’s image. Yet, it remains cautious in how far it presses the realist cause of a triangular alliance.

Yomiuri shimbun led in ruminating over the state of Japan-South Korean ties. On May 8 it reported poll data, showing that 77 percent of Koreans did not have a good image of Japan, double the corresponding attitude among Japanese. On both sides the territorial issue was the primary cause, but the impact extended to views of each other as militarist (especially in South Korean views of Abe) and doubts on democracy as a positive force in the other. As Yomiuri shimbun reported on April 6, Japanese see South Korea drifting toward China even as it strives to ostracize their country, while many Koreans see Japan as a threat to regional security. In defending Abe, Sankei shimbun is intensifying demonization of South Korea. On no other issue in the region do we find such anguish, divergence of views, and a distinctive debate.

The Xi-Obama summit elicited diverse reactions. Asahi shimbun took this as an opportunity to fret about Japan’s self-induced isolation. Yomiuri shimbun noted that even as China trumpeted a new type of equal great power relations based on mutual respect, the divide remains wide, and Japan has no reason to lower its guard and must become even more conscious of the necessity of the US alliance. Sankei shimbun saw nothing but bluster in the call for a new type of relations with no cause for alarm given the unbridgeable divide in values. Japan-passing was not stressed.

In the interim between the Xi-Obama and Xi-Park summits, the domestic ado took a new twist when Abe responded to criticism by former high Foreign Ministry official Tanaka Hitoshi that his rightward tilt was giving China and South Korea an excuse to attack Japan with the charge that Tanaka does not have the qualifications to speak about diplomacy. On the right the attack against Tanaka was amplified for his willingness a decade earlier to return five Japanese who had been kidnapped by North Korea as was promised when they were allowed to visit Japan after Koizumi went to Pyongyang. In contrast, Mainichi shimbun, which had published the Tanaka interview, dwelt on the argument that the United States does not think its national interests are served by the way Japan is isolating itself from China and South Korea.

When Park met with Obama, the positive view was that she was preparing the way for trying to convince China that North Korea has become a burden rather than a strategic asset. A negative view centered on her putting US-South Korean relations on a solid footing emphasizing values that served to isolate Japan, as she referred to Japan’s rightward drift. At this summit and the Xi-Obama summit, many had a sense that the priority and substance was far greater than at Abe’s summit. In 2013 the resurgent right in Japan seemed more keen on criticizing South Korea than on renewing criticisms of Russia, despite signs of compromise in Japan’s position, which not many years earlier had aroused strong objections from right-wing critics.

The June 27 Xi-Park summit brought out conflicting sentiments in Japanese newspapers. Sankei shimbun insisted that China was feeling isolated due to battles with Japan and Southeast Asia over borders and uses the summit to find common cause on history and territory and marginalize Japan. With little likelihood of a joint posture toward North Korea, Park is in danger of falling into Xi’s trap. Even as Asahi shimbun repeated the charge that China was using the summit against Japan, it was also attentive to the need for Japan to improve relations with South Korea first as a way to achieve international understanding for its relations with China. Mainichi shimbun focused instead on Japan’s isolation and recent efforts to restart diplomacy with both Beijing and Tokyo. It held out some hope for progress in dealing with the North and expressed understanding for Park’s trip. Most critical of Abe was The Japan Times, which warned against his “rogue” diplomacy to North Korea and his dangerous fixation on narrow interests rather than building bridges with neighbors.

These responses are signs of a lively debate befitting a democratic country, but also of limited exploration of the strategic context, especially as seen from other states.