Japan Warns US To Back
Off Or Face New Nationalism
Global Intelligence Update
In a surprisingly blunt speech, Japan's outgoing ambassador to the U.S. warned Washington to cease criticizing Japan, lest the criticism spark a revival in Japan of the militant nationalism of 60 years ago. This frank use of the specter of World War II is a reversal for Japan, which has tried to downplay its history, and will likely color Japanese foreign relations for some time.
In a surprisingly blunt speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on March 16, outgoing Japanese Ambassador to the United States Kunihiko Saito warned the U.S. to reduce its criticism of Japan, or risk reviving militant nationalist sentiment in Japan. Saito said that Japan appreciates the frank advice that the U.S. has offered, and is carrying out many of the reforms that Washington has advocated. However, Saito insisted that the U.S. frankness, and particularly the public manner in which U.S. views are expressed, "may cause some unintended emotional reactions." "We naturally resent such criticism, even when the content of such criticism is totally justified," he said.
And while he said continued U.S. pressure could hurt the Japanese economy and Japanese-U.S. relations, Saito warned that the biggest threat may be the revival of Japanese nationalism. "Memories of the 1930s and 40s are still fresh in our minds. We should always be careful about the revival of nationalism," said Saito. "I'm not worried about a problem yet, but I don't think we should forget that only 50 or 60 years ago we made some big mistakes, and one of the reasons, in my view, was excessive nationalism," he added.
Saito singled out the U.S. Trade Representative's Office as a major source of the unwelcome criticism. He also warned of rising protectionist sentiment among U.S. companies and in Congress. "Tensions surrounding trade between our two countries have... increased in recent months," he said. "Our trade surplus with the United States has been increasing rather sharply and has become a political issue, at least in Washington," said Saito. He added, "If the United States economy starts to have problems, the issue of trade imbalance will surely become a very serious political issue between our two countries." Saito said Japanese officials hope to quell the growing trade dispute between Japan and the U.S. before Prime Minister Obuchi visits the U.S. in May.
How Saito set about to quell the dispute is what is so striking, and thus reflects the magnitude of the crisis in U.S.-Japanese relations. Japan has long sought to put the legacy of World War II behind it. Every Japanese foreign endeavor since 1945 has been overshadowed by the memory of Japan's biggest foreign endeavor, and Tokyo has been very sensitive about making the memory any fresher than necessary. Raising the specter of Japanese militant nationalism to induce - more precisely to threaten - the U.S. into being more diplomatic in its criticism goes completely against this policy. Moreover, while made in the context of U.S.- Japanese economic relations, Saito's comments feed into several other heated policy debates as well.
The most prominent debate, and the one that has, understandably, been the most affected by Japan's wartime legacy, is over the role of Japan's military. Japan's Diet is scheduled to address new legislation in its upcoming session that is required to enable the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to take effect. Central to this debate is the planned expansion of the roles Japan's "Self Defense Forces" can play and the geographic reach of Japanese military operations. Under proposed laws, armed Japanese troops would be allowed to deploy abroad for the evacuation of Japanese and other foreign nationals from trouble spots, and to return fire in self defense if fired upon. Additionally, while still vaguely defined, the area in which Japan can operate in support of U.S. forces will apparently be extended to cover Taiwan, something China vehemently opposes.
On March 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi warned that, "Japan should take concrete steps... to limit its defense to its own territory and adjacent waters, and not embark on the road of becoming a military power." China has also criticized Japan's planned participation in a U.S.-led theater missile defense system development program, as well as the potential extension of that system to include Taiwan. Japan is immediately concerned about North Korea's missile program and, adopting the policy that the best defense is a good offense, has reserved the right to take preemptive strikes against North Korean launchers in self defense if it perceives a threat. But as in Taiwan, a Japanese missile defense system is clearly aimed at the existing missile threat from China.
Saito's warning of growing Japanese nationalism is not merely a negotiating ploy. The country's economic troubles have been scarcely addressed and are far from over. As a result, relations with the U.S. can only be expected to deteriorate. Japan is locked in a high-profile dispute with Russia over sovereignty over the Kuriles. The country is in the midst of a fundamental reevaluation of the Japanese military's roles. And in the midst of this, Tokyo is facing calls from Southeast Asia for it to take a leadership role in Asia. Sovereignty, leadership, defense, foreign economic pressure - all push nationalism to the core of Japan's domestic political debate.
Evidence of this can be seen in the dispute over official recognition of Japan's Hinomaru (rising sun) flag and Kimigayo (His Majesty's Reign) national anthem. While widely used, the flag and anthem are not officially recognized in Japan, as they are considered to be linked to Japan's military and imperial past. The suicide in February of a high school principal in Hiroshima, due to a dispute over the use of the symbols at a graduation, has pushed the question of official recognition of the flag and anthem to the top of the Diet's agenda for the upcoming session.
That Saito would raise the specter of revived nationalism, considering the sensitivity of the subject and its potential impact on a range of foreign and domestic policies, not only demonstrates the dire state to which U.S.-Japan relations are sinking, but also the very reality of Saito's threat. However, with Japan still slow to alter its export dependent recovery plan, there is little to suggest that the U.S. will quiet its criticism of Japan any time soon. The question is, with Japan no longer shy about depositing the nationalism threat smack in the middle of the negotiating table, and the U.S. likely to be unresponsive, has Japan set off on an irreversible course?
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