Country Report: Japan (October 2013)

As opponents of “collective defense” at home and abroad warned that Japan would start on the same path that led it to war in the twentieth century, Kitaoka Shinichi gave a strong rebuttal in Yomiuri shimbun on September 22, noting differences in the postwar era and insisting that Japan is a peace state (heiwa kokka) now subjected to threats. He contrasted today’s Japan with China on five dimensions. First, while in the earlier era countries saw geographical expansion as a source of security and prosperity, including access to resources, in our era of the free market system Japan does not think this way, but China in its intense quest to acquire resources around the globe and expansive actions on the seas to guarantee security is demonstrating a different outlook on national prestige. Second, previously Japan considered its rivals weak, but today Japan does not entertain such thoughts about China, whereas China has confidence that in East Asia it has military superiority. Third, whereas in the 1930s Japan could view international society as imposing few sanctions, now it finds protection from it, but China knows that with its veto in the Security Council it does not face much pressure and with its economic clout it can silence many countries; so it ignores international law. Fourth, political control over the military was weak in prewar Japan, and it now is far-reaching; however, the impression is spreading that it is growing weaker in China. Finally, Japan lacked freedom of speech, but with controls on speech gone today it is hard to proceed on the path to war, in contrast to today’s China, where criticism of the government is quite difficult. The above factors indicate that although there is no need to be concerned about Japan, a more effective defense may help versus China, as observers scrutinize it on these five dimensions.

An article in the October Bungei shunju divides Abe’s close advisors into four groups, pointing to opposition between the ideologues and other groups, divided into the economics group, the foreign policy and security group, and the policy and crisis management group. Prior to the Upper House elections the economics group held sway. Recently, the ideologues have been overshadowed by a combination of groups with the foreign policy and security contingent warning against acting in a manner that would cause the United States to lose trust in Abe. In contrast to China and South Korea, which share US concern about visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and new interpretations of the “comfort women” issue, US confidence in Abe is linked to his advocacy of collective defense, a theme that has simmered since the Gulf War, when Japan’s response was “too little, too late.” Some also attach values to this goal as they concentrate on linkages with ASEAN in containing China. While a decade ago the pro-Japan faction led by Richard Armitage urged Japan to take such steps, there is more concern in Washington about the danger of a hawkish Abe regime allowing nationalism to interfere. Some are concerned about a blow to Japan’s economy if relations with China further deteriorate. A secret visit to China by Yachi as Abe’s emissary and a meeting with Wang Yi failed. Strenuous US efforts to keep Japan’s tensions with Seoul and Beijing from worsening play out against the backdrop of an intense struggle within the Abe administration over China policy. Meanwhile, US concern persists over the potential cost of the ideological group’s pressure on Abe to give priority to the history issue, as Abe’s balancing of groups remains uncertain.

A roundtable discussion in the October Bungei shunju took satisfaction that “apology diplomacy” is over under Abe. Refusing to consider this a cause for Chinese or South Korean criticism of Japan, it instead traces thinking in those countries to irreversible historical predilections and a drive to regain lost pride in national identity at Japan’s expense. Tracing this resort to populism back to Kim Young-sam and suggesting that a kind of fatalism has taken hold in South Korea that sees China leading the world as the United States and Japan decline, the article concludes that South Koreans do not take the threat from North Korea seriously and are falling back to the tendency of sadae toward China. In the case of China, history is always returning through a view of the outside, notably Japan, as barbarians. Such stress on history as destiny serves the goal of arousing Japanese to consider their own history as their fortunate legacy, but the article also calls for Japan to put more stress on universal values in widening its appeal, even if they appear to have no prospect of helping with South Korea.

One extremist stance reflected even more intensely than before is the argument that South Korea is growing more vehemently anti-Japan and drawing closer to China. A comment on Japan’s handling of history made in Seoul by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was criticized as unprecedented for someone in this position. Responses in South Korea as in China to Tokyo being named host for the Olympics were seen as unwelcoming. Media discussion of Japanese debates on amending the Constitution and normalizing Japan’s military are viewed as arousing increasingly heated blame. By painting South Korea with a similar brush as China, revisionists could establish that there is no point to allowing others to play the “history card” any longer. It is now time for Japan to reject “victim justice” as well as “victor’s justice,” taking pride in its “virtuous history,” which means treating South Korea as pariah, not partner.

The debate over South Korea is intensifying the longer relations remain frozen. At one extreme is Sankei shimbun, which is targeting Park for, among other things, splitting the opposition to China at a huge price to regional security. In the middle is Yomiuri shimbun, whose October 3 editorial blamed her for concentrating on the past, not the future, rattling relations with no interest in building trust. Particular alarm is shown at the joint Sino-South Korean adulation of An Jung-geun, the assassin of the Japanese leader, Ito Hirobumi, a symbol of the past for Japan as for the others. At the other end is Asahi shimbun, which calls on Abe to improve relations with China and South Korea, as it grasps at subtle signals from China toward reactivating economic exchanges. Asahi shimbun regards pacifism, along with national sovereignty and respect for basic human rights as the three main principles of both the Constitution and the postwar Japanese value system. Yet, its September 17 editorial also champions the alliance as the bulwark of Japan’s essential defense, questioning whether Abe’s historical views are not only damaging relations with South Korea and China but also threatening to split the alliance with the United States, which seeks not only a greater defensive role for Japan, but also stability in East Asia inclusive of China.

Japanese publications recognize a widening gap with US policies in the region. In response to US appeals for improved ties to Seoul and cautious rhetoric toward Beijing, skepticism seemed to be growing that Washington is reliable, apart from reactions to its disarray and military budget woes. There was more talk of what Japan should do to defend itself. Yet, the main tendency was historical separation of Japan from the outside world by the right-wing groups, which rekindled their attack against Asahi shimbun and others seen as paving the way for outsiders’ criticisms.

The Japanese are preoccupied with China, leaving North Korea in the shadows and ties to both the United States and South Korea in a triangular context. The September issue of Chuo koron was filled with articles questioning how powerful China is. One response is to doubt its power by stressing its domestic problems, from a shadow banking system to ghost cities, which are slowing its economy. Indeed, the argument that China will beat a retreat is linked to assertions that it is overextended from Tibet to Taiwan to the Russian border; so it will not press the territorial dispute with Japan. Another angle is that stirring anti-Japanese emotions, accompanied at times by demonstrations and boycotts, is a form of transference, either by the government eager to divert the public or by the public, who are blocked from criticizing their own leadership. Yaita Akio pointed instead to a power struggle under way in China. In the summer of 2012 Hu Jintao appeared to accept the argument by Japan’s leaders that nationalization was the way to handle Ishihara’s bold challenge, but after Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo/Takeshima on August 10 and amidst Russian pressure on Japan over their territorial dispute, Hu’s conservative critics saw a chance to give momentum to Xi Jinping’s succession, charging that China was softest in dealing with Japan, and to solidify support within the military. Pointing to parallels with Mao’s entry into the Korean War as he consolidated power. Deng’s Vietnam incursion in Vietnam in 1979, and even Jiang’s show of force in the Taiwan Strait not long after he gained real power in 1993, Yaita claims that the real issue is how authority is built in the CCP. Only Hu Jintao could not proceed in this manner due to the impending Olympics in Beijing. Yet, the conclusion is that the strategy has reached a dead-end because there is an economic cost and Xi failed in meeting with Putin and Obama to find any support.

Warnings that Park Geun-hye is gullible in the face of Xi’s strategy are reiterated by Shiozawa Eiichi. Xi praised the deep hold of Chinese culture and philosophy in South Korea, arguing for close security cooperation as well as completion of an FTA, while seeking to enlist South Korea in convincing world public opinion that Japan is guilty of denying the postwar international order, a theme China has emphasized since the UN summit gathering of September 2012. Shiozawa traces the tactic of triangulation to the 1970s when China pressed Japan to isolate the Soviet Union, while supporting Japan’s case for the Northern Territories before, more than a decade later, it opportunistically sided with Russia on the territorial issue. Along with welcoming Park as a credible voice in making the case against Japan, Xi succeeded in isolating Japan in the triangle seen as dealing with North Korea, replacing the alliance triangle with the Sino-US-ROK one. As a Chinese speaker, Park was seen as vulnerable, especially in light of the belligerence of the North and economic dependency on China. Moreover, the United States played into this strategy by boosting her self-confidence in Obama’s welcome and the invitation for her, but not Abe, to speak to Congress. Yet, Shiozawa concludes that Xi’s strategy will not work. South Korea already controls the island in dispute with Japan; so it can be quiet on the Sino-Japanese dispute, it remembers the Koguryo history dispute with China, and its security, as Japan’s, is centered on the US alliance. Ties to China will, thus, be limited.

Many conservatives in Japan see no rays of hope in Sino-Japanese relations. Recent arrests or disappearances of academics of Chinese nationality, who have returned to the PRC for research, are seen as proof China is no longer interested in boosting mutual understanding. Evidence that the PLA is assuming that Japan is the enemy is equated with treating the Soviet Union as the enemy four decades earlier. When the other papers, such as Mainichi shimbun, saw glimmers of change in China’s position in September, when its Foreign Ministry called for dialogue and the anniversary of the breakdown in relations in 2012 came with no new demonstrations, Sankei shimbun and the journals with similar outlook kept drawing extremist conclusions.

Increasingly, Japanese are expecting that there is no turning back to the relations that their country had with South Korea and China as recently as two years ago. As Hosoya Yuichi observed in on September 18, relations were normalized with South Korea in urgent need of Japan for economic modernization and security in the face of hostile communist neighbors on three sides, as a dictator disregarded public opinion. Now, as relations 1.0 are replaced by relations 2.0, democracy has matured, making diplomacy more difficult. Public feelings matter. Only by forging healthy mutual images can relations be rebuilt. He leaves unsaid how inconceivable that is when history is in the forefront. Even more intractable is the situation with China, whose unsparing criticisms have now turned to Abe’s efforts to revise Japan’s defense guidelines and make collective security possible.

Searching for a ray of hope, the September issue of Gaiko explored the possibility that a decade after China’s “new thinking” toward Japan there could be a repeat. Yet, the articles are more informative about the past than indicative of how to move ahead. The downspin is traced to the summer of 2008, intensifying in 2009-2010, as a result of changes in China. As economic rankings have been reversed, the old balance of economics and history has been lost. Moreover, changing policy toward Japan has become just part of a wider shift in Chinese foreign policy. Yet, the thrust of these articles suggests rather idealistically that many intellectuals in China are still eager for “new thinking” toward Japan, and it should be possible to find a version fit for the 2010s. Such desperate optimism is not backed by specifics on how to proceed.