Thoughts best left unsaid

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2006, 12:00am

Japan offers the world a culture of surpassing elegance, intellect, literature and political achievement, but it still remains something of an enigma. The great novelist Haruki Murakami understands, perhaps as well as anyone, this aspect of his country. His recent Kafka on the Shore conveys - as Norihiro Kato of Waseda University recently phrased it - 'the off-kilter, weird and uncertain feelings that remain in Japanese society'.

'Off-kilter and weird' describe well some unfortunate public comments by Japan's foreign minister. But Taro Aso seems anything but uncertain. He sees nothing wrong with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine, and sees no reason why Japan's emperor ought not to visit, too.

In fact, for many years no occupier of the Japanese throne has visited the controversial shrine. What is more, in this post-war era, subtle Japanese diplomacy has often emphasised constructive engagement, economic aid and the careful negotiation of differences and tensions. But it is as if Mr Aso somehow misses the old days of a tightly wound region dominated by Japanese militarism.

Perhaps that's going too far, but maybe not: in a recent interview, he went out of his way to downplay his country's tensions with China and South (not to mention North) Korea, lamely explaining that neighbouring countries cannot expect to be so friendly all the time.

Is there no central role for careful and thoughtful diplomacy in Mr Koizumi's government? Don't forget, Mr Aso is the same foreign minister who recently said that Japanese colonialism brought demonstrable benefits to Taiwan and Korea, and that ending visits to Yasukuni would not solve all outstanding regional problems. His second point is correct, but a change in direction and tone on Tokyo's part would be a helpful symbolic starting point. It would demonstrate Japanese sensitivity to the concerns of others in the region, and remind people of the country's general magnanimity since the end of the second world war. If China's leaders could take the long-term view and shun nationalism-mongering, the shrine issue could be put on the shelf. But that doesn't seem to be in Asia's immediate future, even if it is in the region's true interest.

What makes Mr Aso sound off? To be sure, he is gunning to take the top spot in his party when Mr Koizumi steps down. Appealing to core nationalistic factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party may be necessary to succeed, but it makes for terrible international relations.

Mr Aso should start heeding the sage advice of one of the greatest foreign ministers in history: 'Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts,' said Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, a French statesman born in 1754. Further, is Mr Aso really the best that Japan can produce for such a high-profile position?

The nation's apparent official drift towards rigid old thinking should alarm the United States while it provides fodder for Tokyo's sceptics and enemies in the region. After all, what Asian country is more important to Washington than Japan?

Even if the answer were, in fact, China, then the way to continually improve relations with Beijing would be to get Tokyo to understand that its future lies in making friends and isolating enemies. It does not lie in giving its harshest critics the gift of a foreign minister who reminds everyone of Japan's bad old days.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre