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Politics, Nos.13-15  Mar. 5, 2013

(RIGHT TILT?) The Twisted Truth About Tokyo

Photo : Yokoda Takashi (L) J. Berkshire Miller (R)

Yokoda Takashi (L)
J. Berkshire Miller (R)

Interest overseas in Japan’s foreign policy – once a dormant topic – has gained steam over the past year as Tokyo sparred with old rivals over its territory and history. Add to that the return of the conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the international media is rife with “analysis” speculating that pacifist Japan wants to rewrite wartime history, change its Self-Defense Forces into a trigger-happy fighting machine and turn East Asia into a powder keg–all under the scary regime of Shinzo Abe. The Korea Times ran a panicky editorial just prior to last year’s election that Abe’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office would be so disastrous that the “international community should join together to put the brakes on Japan’s race toward the extreme right.” It’s not just observers in Seoul and Beijing that are petrified about Japan’s supposed “rightward shift;” Western journalists and observers have also chimed into this story line. For one, a scribe at The Economist, behind the security of its tradition of anonymity, asserted last month that Abe’s “scarily right-wing” government “bodes ill for the region” because it is full of “radical nationalists.”

Of course, all of this is simply nonsense. These labels are easily dismissed by those who understand the realities of diplomacy and governance in Japan. Japan isn’t making a shift to the far-right, nor is the Abe government intent on wreaking havoc in the region. Abe may have made some tough remarks on the campaign trail, but those have been replaced by more moderate, sensible policies since taking office. Just like his first tenure back in 2006, Abe started his second tenure by sending signals to both Seoul and Beijing that Japan is sincerely interested in repairing ties. It is important to remember that it was Abe, not South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun-hye, who was first to extend the olive branch by sending a special envoy to Seoul last month to repair the frayed relationship. Just last week, Abe told Parliament that Tokyo’s relations with Beijing is “one of the most important bilateral relationships for Japan.”

And yet, there is also the reality that shallow observations that pass as “analysis” among many abroad have already propagated the false image of Japan being run by a bunch of fanatic nationalists. This raises the question: why do such misconceptions about Japan permeate the views of so many foreigners–even among avid observers of Asian politics? Why, all of a sudden, is Japan casted as a revisionist and hawkish society?

It’s easy to point out media sensationalism as the culprit. After all, the practice of cherry-picking facts and quotes by members of the international press is nothing new. What’s making matters worse is that even respected scholars and so-called experts at universities and think-tanks are also complicit in propagating false images of Japan’s foreign policy trajectory. Many “experts” and pundits have made simplistic assessments on Japan that overly focused on Abe’s campaign rhetoric while failing to take note the realities of governance and diplomacy. Such opinions have made these sweeping conclusions by erroneously focusing their analysis only on Tokyo’s tumultuous relations with Seoul and Beijing, while disregarding Japan’s regional approach to diplomacy. For example, trade with ASEAN is booming and Japan’s strategic relations with India and Australia are also evolving. This is not all a “China-story” either or about encirclement and containment. Rather, this is Tokyo’s approach to a diverse continent with varied interests.

Still, media sensationalism and erroneous analysis are only aggravating factors. The deeper problem is the world’s inability to overcome the indoctrination of history. In spite of nearly 70 years of pacifism, the world just can’t seem to stop seeing Japan through the lens of World War II. While Japan’s imperial past is undeniable, the problem here is that history has a tendency to get muddied through erroneous analogies and narrow silos. Confusion over history has permeated the politics of the region, and subsequently influenced popular thought on Japan. Controversial examples from the “comfort women” in South Korea to the “Nanking incident” in China have prompted some leaders in these countries to wrongfully equate wartime Japan with Nazi Germany.

It has become a familiar story in Japan that both China and South Korea are exploiting this unfortunate history to the maximum extent–a trend that many Japanese are increasingly growing tired of. Both rivals point to alleged Japanese intransigence on a contrite admission of guilt for acts committed during the war. As China seeks to acquire superpower status while keeping its fragile society intact, it brands Japan – due to history, politics and power – as the problem that needs to change for the betterment of Asia. This has provided ammunition to South Korea to free-ride China’s PR blitz against Japanese nationalism. Seoul does not do this because it agrees with China on all points, but rather because it provides a convenient road to pursue its own goals to keep Japan contained, as well as using Tokyo as a convenient political scapegoat on occasion.

The cacophony from Seoul and Beijing about the history problem is so loud that many in the West still believe that Japan has never apologized for its acts during the war. Even those who are aware of Japan’s apologies point to Japanese textbooks or Abe’s plan to revise the Kono statement as evidence that Tokyo is unrepentant and that it is machinating to “whitewash” history. In reality, what Japanese conservatives want is the acknowledgment of their apologies, and setting the facts straight about disputable allegations. Yet all of this gets lost in translation, muddied by the perception that Japan is unapologetic.

Japan’s regional rivals exploit these narratives on history to justify their claims regarding territorial disputes. Both Beijing and Seoul claim that the Senkakus and Takeshima, respectively, were “snatched” from them by Japan’s past imperial ambitions. The legal and historical basis for this argument is highly debatable. And yet, many in the foreign media buy into such claims. Chief among them is Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who recently opined that “it seems pretty clear from Meiji-era documents that Japan effectively stole the islands (Senkaku) as spoils of war,” without elaborating any hard evidence.

So why does the West buy into such narratives? The underlying thinking behind all of this is that there’s a separate, albeit similar, narrative that exists in the West–that World War II was a “just war” against fascism and imperialism. Attached to this narrative is the notion that Japan and Germany should continue to “carry a cross” on their shoulders and be guilt-ridden, especially in South Korea and China. The indoctrination of this story line is so deep that any argument or suggestion that runs counter to this is viewed as a cardinal sin and denounced as “revisionism” and “whitewashing history”–regardless of the fact that some of the allegations against Japan are debatable.

Another underlying factor that tempt some observers into casting Japan in extremes is the fact that Japan did indeed undergo a dramatic shift in history–from a prewar strategy of attempting to dominate East Asia, to a postwar strategy of deferring to the leadership of an outside great power, the United States. Because of this history, “observers may fear that Japan’s strategy will shift yet again,” points out Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth University. Yet this is another form of stereotype. Just because Japan has underwent dramatic changes in the past does not mean the same dynamic will play out again. It is far-fetched to assume the possibility of democratic Japan–in this day and age– making another dramatic shift simply because the country experienced extreme makeovers in modern history after the Meiji restoration.

In spite of all this, Tokyo is doing virtually nothing to assuage these misunderstandings. There is a genuine dearth of effective communications from the Japanese Foreign Ministry. On countless occasions, Tokyo’s stance has been to take the “moral” high ground by stating that it is juvenile to engage in a mud fight with an aggressive PR campaign, and that it is more “rational” and “cool-headed” to let the facts to speak for themselves. Several Japanese diplomats, in spite of their frustrations with the misperceptions about Japan’s foreign policy, told one of the authors that under Japanese virtues of modesty and dignity, going tit-for-tat with Seoul and Beijing’s rhetoric is an “immature” thing to do. While that may be the “mature” thing to do, it allows Seoul and Beijing’s noisy PR campaign to get bigger play among international media outlets.

It also leads many Western observers to believe that Japan is aiming to resolve this problem through “radio silence.” The same point is true with regard to the territorial spats. Japan remains insistent on its position that there is no territorial issue – a policy intended to strengthen the perception of Tokyo’s sovereignty. But this policy of inaction and complacency has allowed China to step up its escalatory game regarding the Senkakus.

Such lack of effective communication from Tokyo has allowed journalists and pundits to rely on simple and convenient storylines in their attempt to explain a complex country like Japan. The result is a spate of shallow and false observations about Japan. Chief among them is the outrageous notion that Japan is a country that no longer has – or should have – the right to bear arms in an offensive manner. There appears to still be an “unwritten code” in Asia that views it as a moral affront for Japan to even talk about national security, let alone international security. Most Japanese people would probably be surprised and offended at this suggestion. After all, defense of national security and territory is not imperial overstretch; it is the staple of a modern democratic country. Unfortunately, this is often how it appears to regional rivals. For example, when the SDF realigned it force posture from the north to the south to reflect new strategic challenges, the Chinese press slammed the move as “extreme,” and one that supposedly demonstrated Japan’s belligerence.

This is precisely why Japan needs to come to terms with the constitutional makeup of its military – the Self Defense Forces. The SDF and its role are not adequately understood abroad. For example, at a recent conference one of the authors attended on Asia-Pacific security issues, a question came from the audience: “How would Japan defend Okinawa (was sure to clarify that the questioner was not referring to the Senkaku Islands) if China was to attempt an invasion?” The question was not framed in the context of military strategy, but from a constitutional angle – the man in the audience simply assumed that Japan did not have the legal right to deploy SDF even in its own territory. This anecdote is not meant to ridicule the knowledge of foreign observers, but it is meant to highlight two points. First, many assume – erroneously – that Japan does not have this capability due to constitutional restrictions. And secondly, a point that is somewhat interrelated: many, especially in South Korea and China, assume that Japan should not have this power.

In truth, all of the changes proposed by Abe and Japanese conservatives, under normal circumstances, should only prompt a yawn among the audience. Things like collective defense and expanding Japanese capabilities in UN peace-keeping operations are hardly controversial among any “normal” country. As Michael Auslin, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently stressed, such moves are part of a “more rational national security decision making process”. And yet, there is still a great deal of ignorance about Japan’s constitutional limits on the SDF. This often causes knee-jerk reactions that frame Japan’s foreign policy as “shifting to the right,” and the assumption that reform equals rearming or worse, “remilitarization.” As Cristal Pryor, a recent visiting fellow at the East-West Center warns in an analysis lamenting the Western media’s erroneous assessments about recent trends in Japanese politics: “When outsiders discuss the pro-military factions in Japan’s government, it must be recognized that Japan is working from a different baseline than its peers.”

All of these misperceptions are no laughing matter. The consequences are dangerous; such wild speculation breeds an atmosphere of mistrust among other Asian countries, and discolors views of Tokyo further afield too.


Translation of an article (pages 30-33) from Newsweek Japan Feb. 12, 2013, issue (Hankyu Communications Co., Ltd.)

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum.
Takashi Yokota is the Editor-In-Chief of Newsweek Japan.