Japan from the inside out


Q: What is the significance of Shimane Prefecture declaring sovereignty over the “Takeshima/Dokto” islands?

A: For the people of Shimane Prefecture, it has an economic rather than a political significance. Fishing is very important for the livelihood of the prefecture’s citizens.

The prefectural government took the step because they were outraged at what they consider to be flagrant South Korean violations of an agreement reached by the fishing industries of both countries regarding fishing in the area around the islands. This agreement addresses both the access of Japanese fishermen to the Korean-held islands, as well as Korean fishing practices. Though the Korean press (or at least the English language press in South Korea) has mentioned this aspect of the dispute, much of the Korean public seems disposed to ignore it. Perhaps that’s because it deprives them of an opportunity to indulge their emotions.

Q: Is this merely posturing, or could the situation continue to escalate?

A: The government of Shimane Prefecture thought this was the only way to publicize what they consider to be Korean violations of the fishing agreement. It is posturing only to the extent that any symbolic act by a government is posturing.

The situation has deescalated over the past year. Tempers occasionally flare over the years, usually on the Korean side, and then simmer down. The periods when nothing much happens last a lot longer.

Q: Is resolution of this issue and other territorial disputes possible or even desirable for Japan and the other countries?

A: The resolution of territorial disputes is always desirable because it reduces conflict. I do not see any change in the status quo, however. The South Koreans occupy the island, and they won’t leave short of military force, which the Japanese almost certainly will not use.

But for their part, the Japanese do not forget about these disputes. They have not forgotten that the Russians occupy four small islands off the coast of Hokkaido. The return of these islands is a Japanese condition for the complete normalization of relations with Russia, from which both countries would benefit, and the Japanese will not budge.

Q: Does China pose a significant military threat to Japan?

A: I’m not a military expert, so I cannot speak to the offensive capabilities of China’s armed forces today. It has been widely reported that the Chinese are in the process of strengthening their military forces well beyond their defensive requirements, however. If that is true, China poses a significant military threat to every country in East Asia.

Q: Why do Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine provoke such strong reactions among Chinese people, Koreans and other people in Asia?

A: It allows people to indulge their emotions. The Chinese public certainly has no other outlet for political expression. Also, it’s more satisfying than watching cheap television dramas because the element of nationalism gives them a sense of belonging to something greater than their everyday lives. So much of what passes for public opinion everywhere in the world is just emotionalism in disguise.

It has nothing to do with today’s reality. Imperial Japan no longer exists. It was annihilated, and everyone in Japan knows it. With the exception of a miniscule minority, no one in Japan is interested in reviving it. The idea held by some Koreans and Chinese that Japan is ready to do it again is fatuous.

Q: Do you think Koizumi’s visits may indicate that the current Japanese government fundamentally rejects the authority of the Tokyo Trials to pass judgment on war criminals?

A: I don’t know that there is a causal connection, but the visits may be one manifestation of that belief. There are Japanese who think that way. They are also well aware that the only judge on the tribunal who was an expert on international law thought there was no legal basis for the trials. The British, by the way, were not keen on that trial or the one at Nuremburg, either. They wanted to line the ringleaders up against the wall and shoot them. I sometimes think the Japanese might have preferred that solution themselves.

Q: Polls have shown that a majority of Japanese people are opposed to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Who is Koizumi appealing to by continuing to visit the shrine?

A: It might be that he is doing it as a matter of personal principle rather than to appeal to some group, and that he means what he says. Even politicians are known to do this on occasion.

It also could be that he is trying to appeal to a group of unseen supporters that the rest of us would find extremely undesirable. Check out this story on Japundit, for example.

I would be the last to defend him if that were the case, but I suspect that politicians everywhere, throughout history, have formed alliances with unsavory types to gain and maintain a hold on power. It is in the nature of politics.

Q: What sort of effect is this having on Japanese political culture?

A: The Japanese have tended to be obsequious in their international behavior since the end of World War II. Hereafter, I think we may see more assertiveness from Japanese politicians in international affairs, though this assertiveness may not become predominant. Some influential people in the LDP are still concerned about fueling anti-Japanese sentiment in Asia.

Prime Minister Koizumi was part of an LDP faction that always called for greater international assertiveness by Japan, and his Yasukuni visits may be part of that. Just today I read that his administration is taking steps to more closely link ODA with national policy, for example.

Q: It has often been reported in the Japanese media that the anti-Japanese riots that occurred in China in spring 2005 were orchestrated by the Communist Party, in order to allow frustrated Chinese people to blow off steam. In your opinion, how much of this is true?

A: Well, no one knows the extent of CP involvement except the people involved in China. There doesn’t seem to be any question that the Chinese government provided support to the demonstrators and encouraged them up to a point. They couldn’t have held the demonstrations without government acquiescence.

One reason the Japanese government did not show much concern during the peak of the Chinese demonstrations is that they knew the Chinese government had a hand in fomenting them, and they also knew that the Chinese government would quickly clamp down on them once the Chinese saw the demonstrations could get out of hand and turn into Tiananmen Square Part Two.

Q: Are there still many unresolved issues between China and Japan?

A: How many are many? There are the territorial issues, which also involve offshore oil rights, and the Chinese military buildup. There are disputes over agricultural imports, but those certainly aren’t unique to China and Japan.

Q: It is often said that Japan has made amends for wartime atrocities committed in China, Korea and other Asian nations during the Second World War. Furthermore, Japan has contributed a significant amount of ODA aid to China. What is at issue here?

A: Money and power. Japan’s ODA to China, including loans, totaled JPY 3.3 trillion from 1979 to 2004. Some of this was considered to be a de facto war reparations payment. China was the largest recipient of Japanese ODA.

But the Chinese economy took off, and the Japanese decided to start reducing ODA when Prime Minister Koizumi took office. ODA reductions have continued, and China has fallen to third place in the amount of Japanese ODA received.

Prime Minister Nakasone paid an official visit to Yasukuni in the 1980s. The Japanese revise their textbooks periodically. Yet the Chinese displeasure with Japan’s actions grew more pronounced only after they started to receive smaller amounts of ODA and internal Chinese dissent grew. Perhaps this was not a coincidence.

Also, the Chinese and Korean pressure on Japan regarding events that ended more than 65 years ago is partly an effort to keep the Japanese in a position of continuously apologizing. This provides them with a means to try to gain the upper hand in bilateral relations.

Incidentally, the Japanese government reached an agreement with South Korea about reparations in 1965. Seoul wanted $US 364 million as compensation for the conscripted laborers and comfort women during the period of the Japanese colonization. The agreement instead gave South Korea $US 800 million in grants and low-interest loans as reparations. President Park agreed as part of the deal that South Koreans would relinquish the right to make individual claims against the Japanese government. However, Park paid out only about $US 251 million to families killed by the Japanese and some more to owners of destroyed property. None of the South Koreans conscripted into the Japanese military or workforce, or the comfort women, received anything. Park spent the rest of the money on the Korean infrastructure. The South Korean public just found out about this deal and Park’s use of the money in January last year, by the way.

Naturally, the Japanese think a deal’s a deal. Some Koreans don’t see it that way, however. There was a meeting last year between academics of both countries to try to resolve the textbook issue, and the Korean side insisted that the Japanese also pay individual reparations. Of course the talks went nowhere, and will go nowhere as long as the South Koreans keep asking for money.

Doesn’t the South Korean approach to negotiations remind you more than a little of the attitude of their brethren to the north?

Also, there are reports that after the normalization of relations with South Korea, Japan tended to back down and give in during bilateral negotiations whenever South Koreans played the colonization card. Prime Minister Koizumi put a stop to that after he assumed office. I have to think that is one factor behind the behavior of the Roh administration toward Japan. They’ve lost their trump card and have to deal with Japan on more equal terms.

You know, foreigners sometimes like to misquote Douglas MacArthur and say that the Japanese act like a nation of 12-year-olds. (MacArthur was talking about international politics only.) But I sometimes wonder who the 12-year-olds really are.

Q: The Tsukurukai history textbook downplays Japanese atrocities during the War, and also argues that Japan was responsible for the industrialization of Korea during the first half of the twentieth century. However, don’t all countries tend to produce textbooks that portray the nation’s history in a positive light? Or is that beside the point?

A: Reading this gives rise to a question of my own: Why focus solely on the Japanese? As I’ve noted before in Japundit, Chinese textbooks spend less than a paragraph discussing their military involvement in the Korean War, and ignore their military conflict with India in the 1960 and their invasion of Vietnam in the 70s. What do you think a Chinese textbook would say about the Tiananmen Square massacres, if it mentioned them at all? And there is no alternative to officially approved Chinese textbooks.

One poster to Japundit tried to dismiss this by saying that everyone knew the Chinese were terrible, but that’s just hypocrisy. Why hold the Japanese to different standards of behavior than the Chinese? It’s either a form of elitism on the one hand—asserting that the Chinese cannot be held responsible for their actions—or an excuse for Japan bashing on the other.

Also, I doubt that South Korean textbooks mention Japan’s role in their industrialization, though Korean historians are well aware of it. It is estimated that more than 90% of the Koreans who relocated to Japan during the years of colonization did so willingly for economic reasons. They were not slave laborers. Nor are they likely to mention Korean collaboration with the Japanese, though Koreans know that former President Park served in the Japanese Imperial Army. There are photos of him in uniform. And now President Roh has decided the time has come for Koreans to discuss this collaboration more openly—after President Park’s daughter became head of the leading Korean opposition party.

Is it also a coincidence that South Korean complaints about Japan rose in conjunction with President Roh’s decline in domestic popularity? In politics, neutralizing domestic opposition by demonizing the foreigner is a very old strategy.

Speaking of the South Korean educational system, I’ll refresh your memory with this post from Japundit via another site:

These are photos taken in a South Korean subway station displaying school artwork. Children drew pictures in school of: the Japanese flag as a roll of burning toilet paper, a large pile of Korean excrement on Japan, Korea stabbing Japan, Korea stomping on Japan, a funeral service with the Japanese flag as the memorial photograph for the deceased, and Korea bombing and stabbing Japan.

It is inconceivable that this would be tolerated in the Japanese school system, and the Japanese certainly wouldn’t display these pictures in public. And if they were displayed in public in Japan, everyone around the world would have known by now. It is interesting that few people outside of South Korea know about this. Perhaps the rest of the world expects more of the Japanese than the Koreans.

Really, the South Koreans have no basis to complain about the Japanese educational system.

Q: Are there any media outlets that have a particularly skewed point of view? Has there been a voice of moderation?

A: What is “particularly skewed” in this instance? That would depend on one’s point of view. Some Koreans might consider anything other than continual Japanese self-abasement to be “particularly skewed”. What I’ve seen in the Japanese media has been temperate, and some outlets have even criticized the Japanese government, but perhaps there were some intemperate responses that I missed. Any media intemperance that may exist, however, hasn’t been on a large scale.

Q: Or, has Japan acted in a way that can be considered outside the bounds of how normal, responsible nations should act? I’m thinking here of the argument that Japan was merely acting as though it were a European colonizer.

A: Well, the Japanese did behave as badly as the Europeans, but that’s no excuse for Japanese behavior. The Europeans don’t like to talk about it, but their colonization of part of Asia and intention to colonize the rest of it was to a degree responsible for giving rise to Imperial Japanese behavior. Then again, Japan paid a much harsher price for its efforts at colonization than did the Europeans.

Perhaps those people who want the Japanese to modify the few textbooks that whitewash Japanese actions in the 20th century could show us some positive examples of coming to terms with an imperial past from the textbooks used in England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Perhaps we could even see some Russian textbooks dealing with their colonization of states in the Baltic and Central Asia during the days of the Soviet Union. And the Chinese textbooks dealing with Tibet and their other ethnic minorities.

Q: Only three school boards throughout Japan (Tochigi, Tokyo Metropolitan, Ehime) have sanctioned the use of the Tsukurukai history textbook; the Asahi Shimbun reports that “0.04%” of Japanese students are using it. Even so, what sort of message is the Japanese government sending by approving these textbooks?

A: “The Japanese government will be the final authority in determining the content of the textbooks used in Japanese schools. It is not the business of the governments of China and South Korea.”

Q: How has the Japanese media shaped public opinion over the past nine months or so in regards to Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbours? Are there any media outlets that have a particularly skewed point of view? Has there been a voice of moderation?

A: How unfortunate that people almost expect media to shape public opinion.

Actually, I think the Japanese media is rather benign in this regard. For example, whenever they mention the dispute with South Korea over Takeshima, they always mention that the Koreans call it Dokto—a journalistic practice seldom reciprocated by the Koreans. I have never seen a Japanese mainstream news media source unconditionally insist that the islands are Japanese. Op-eds by individuals expressing personal opinion cover a broader range of opinion, however–including the opinion that Dokto belongs to South Korea.

On the other side of the coin, the Chinese boycotted Asahi beer because the Chairman of the company, or the President Emeritus, is essentially an unreconstructed imperialist. I was wandering around on a Japanese website a while ago, and found some quotes from him that indicate the Chinese are right. But this is not reported in the Japanese media.

Nevertheless, I again question why Japan is being singled out in this regard. Japanese TV showed a Korean broadcast last year on V-J day (Independence Day in Korea) As I wrote in Japundit at the time: “KBS sent a crew to Takeshima/Dokto in the Sea of Japan to film and report on the ‘first rays of dawn to strike Korean territory’ on their independence day. The announcers described how moved they were as the camera panned over a very small island from a helicopter overhead. It struck me that in both tone and content, that two- or three-minute segment alone was more nationalistic than anything I have seen from Japanese television or newspapers in more than 20 years in the country.

Q: Technorati, Blog Ranking, and Livedoor list Anti-Korean blogs as the top-ranking Japanese political blogs, with (combined readership) in the millions. Are people blowing off steam, or does this point to a dark undercurrent in Japanese culture?

A: For starters, keep in mind that the Japanese blogosphere has none of the political power of its counterpart in the U.S. For example, American blogs on the left are driving the policy platform of the Democratic Party because of their fund-raising ability. Blogs on the right completely discredited Dan Rather, one of the most important television journalists, and cast serious doubt on John Kerry’s claims about his military service. None of this happens in the Japanese blogosphere.

Second, domestic political debate is at a much lower level in Japan, both in everyday life and in the media, than in the U.S. In more than 20 years in Japan, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve heard people even mention politics at a social gathering. There are very few programs on TV or radio with exclusively political content, and no call-in radio shows that I’ve heard. There seem to be a lot more onlookers than participants in public political debate.

I would be curious to see the readership figures on those blogs tracked over time. The problems with South Korea have simmered down over the last few months; has the readership of those blogs fallen as well? The Japanese are well known for developing a white-hot interest in something, quickly followed by a rapid loss of interest.

There seems to be a phenomenon at work here on both sides of the Sea of Japan that goes unnoticed. That is the split between the views of people as driven by the media, and the view of the same people as driven by reality. For example, when the news is full of anti-Japanese demonstrations in South Korea, public opinion of Koreans takes a turn for the worse—but only in the abstract. On the street, people-to-people relations between Japan and South Korea have never been better.

There is a lot of talk about the Korean Wave in Japan, but that wave has been building for more than 15 years. There are more grassroots organizations in Japan devoted to some aspect of Korean life or culture than can be easily counted. Interest in things Korean still continues to grow daily, and this interest is reciprocated from the Korean side. Every Japanese university has a significant number of Korean students who come to study for a year. One Korean student I know paid for her living expenses during her year in Japan by working at part-time jobs. She had no problem at all getting hired, or getting along well with her workers while employed. There are so many South Korean tourists to Kyushu, for example, that municipal bus stops in Fukuoka City now are written in Korean, and the recorded announcements on buses in the city are in Korean in addition to Japanese and English.

In short, life on the street is a lot different than life as pictured in the mass media. I think this phenomenon occurs everywhere in the world.

Has anti-Korean sentiment in Japan become more visible as a reaction to the increasing interest in Korean life and culture? Some perceptive observers think so, and they may be right, but I don’t think it will have much of an impact on bilateral relations over the long run. It isn’t having that much of an impact now.

Q: How would you compare the Japanese blogosphere to its more easily accessible counterpart (at least to English-speakers) in the United States? Is there a wide variety of opinion? What are people trying to say? What are they talking about?

A: See my answer above. Also, to be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs in any language. I have to make a living, and there are other things I do with my spare time.

I also try to avoid the comment sections of blogs. Most of the opinions expressed are just regurgitations of what someone has seen or heard elsewhere, mixed in with whatever emotion happens to hold the poster in thrall at the time. That is very unenlightening.

Q: I don’t follow 2-chan – can you give some comment as to what’s happening in that realm?

A: I don’t follow it either. I took one look at it and decided it wouldn’t be a profitable way to spend my time.

Q: Emperor Akihito has made several pronouncements and public gestures that seemed to be specifically aimed at calming regional tensions and promoting dialogue between Japan and other Asian nations. How much influence does he have?

A: On the one hand, he is a prominent person respected because, on a personal level, he takes pains to be non-controversial and set an example for the people through his behavior. Therefore, his opinions probably have some weight in the overall public discourse. But I think very few Japanese are personally influenced one way or another by what the Emperor specifically says. I don’t think many Japanese care very much about the Emperor or what he says other than in a general, abstract way.

Q: How are his actions being interpreted in China and the Koreas?

A: You’d have to ask Chinese or Koreans about that. I suspect, however, that they have very little impact overseas.

(September 2006)

3 Responses to “Intraview”

  1. okinawa said

    This is a very good interview. How do I contact you?

  2. N said

    This interview seems incredibly biased. What are your sources?
    Sources for what?

    – A.

  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

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