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Japan Ponders Options as Anti-Japanese Sentiment Escalates Among Neighbors

Japan is increasingly finding itself on the diplomatic defensive in its home region. As anti-Japanese protests mount in China, and with rising criticism from both Koreas, Tokyo is struggling to formulate a response. All this comes as Japan is seeking support for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, a bid that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Images of Chinese throwing rocks and bottles at the Japanese Embassy and attacking Japanese shops in China have been playing over and over on Japanese television this week.

Japanese watching the violent scenes say they are surprised by the outburst, and by reports of rising anti-Japanese hostility in South Korea as well. This was supposed to be an era in which Japan enjoys record trade and tourism exchanges with its Asian neighbors.

The catalyst for the protests has been recent revisions to a few Japanese textbooks, which critics say gloss over the country's early 20th century aggression against its neighbors.

Many Asians claim to detect rising nationalism in Japan, as the country becomes more assertive over disputed islands and their potentially valuable surrounding waters. Tokyo and Pyongyang also are in a dispute over Japanese kidnapped by North Korea during the Cold War. At the same time, Tokyo is lobbying for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which Beijing and Seoul oppose.

As the language from Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang becomes harsher, some Japanese are saying, enough. They contend that that Japan has spent decades kowtowing diplomatically - uttering apologies of varying depth its actions before and during World War Two and becoming one of the top donors of foreign aid to its neighbors. But the effort has gained the country little.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, in a recent address at a military camp, calls on the Japanese government to stop being so passive. He complains that the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi just keeps telling everyone to "calm down."

Japan indeed has long refrained from making harsh statements - taking its cues from cautious politicians and bureaucrats who, in answer to criticism, point out the country's pacifist constitution and its peaceful post-war record. Governor Ishihara says it is time to fight back firmly against the anti-Japanese rhetoric.

The Tokyo governor was considered until recently far more nationalist than most politicians, and the public at large. But his strong views are winning more mainstream support in Japan after the recent outbursts from China and South Korea.

Katsuei Hirasawa is a member of the lower house of Parliament from the governing Liberal Democratic Party, and a powerful player in the diplomatic and defense arenas.

"Ishihara's position is right. We are not assertive to China, North Korea and South Korea," he said. "That is the problem for many years. The politicians have to be blamed and also Japanese foreign office [Foreign Ministry] has to bear responsibility."

Mr. Hirasawa, who has been deeply involved for years in discreet troubleshooting for the government, contends China has lately been using Japan as a scapegoat to divert its people's attention from its own pressing domestic problems.

He says criticism of Japanese actions during the war is justified, and he can even understand the attitude of post-war generations of Chinese and Koreans. But modern-day Japan, he says, is a very different country.

"Please look at South Korean textbooks and Chinese textbooks, how they teach young children about Japan," he noted. "Japan is a kind of very, very evil country and Japanese soldiers during the war did very cruel acts. Of course we did wrong things. But after the war we have changed."

Rei Shiratori is the head of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan. He says one reason for the current friction is differing cultural values. He says Japan cherishes a Buddhist attitude akin to "forgive and forget," and points out how few Japanese bear hostility toward the Americans for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"We don't like to stir up any kind of conflict," he explained. "So tolerance is one of the very important values in Japanese ordinary peoples' way of thinking. So therefore the Japanese side considers that other countries' people will say the same thing."

Mr. Shiratori says Japan is viewed in the region as an economic power that aspires to become a military power again. He doubts Asians will be appeased by more apologies or reparations, and he says Japan's ability to reply to criticism is limited.

"Simply if the Japanese side criticizes and blames the Chinese and Korean governments, that will really pour oil toward the fire and we cannot get more sympathy from other Asian countries," he said.

Many Japanese believe that in the future, Japan will find itself increasingly isolated, with China becoming the region's dominant economic and military power.

The question remains in which direction Japan will move. It could act to accommodate its critics regarding its militaristic past and temper fears about resurging Japanese nationalism. Or it could confront China and the Koreas, trying to win not their sympathy but their respect by increasing its military power and saying it has made enough apologies for the past.

So far, it is not clear which way the government will move. Despite its assertiveness on disputed territory and insistence that China protect Japanese property from demonstrators, the government has said repeatedly that it wants friendly relations with its neighbors and wants to talk over disagreements.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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