Japan in denial faces a risky future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 May, 2008, 12:00am

Poor Yasuo Fukuda: Japan's lacklustre leader did his best to charm President Hu Jintao and to set the relationship between Asia's two great powers on a more co-operative course. He got Mr Hu to take his jacket off to play ping-pong, and to promise two new pandas to replace the recently deceased Ling Ling at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. The two leaders signed a friendly communique that, according to the Chinese, marked a 'warm spring visit'.

In Japan, no one is thanking the prime minister. Bets are being taken on when Mr Fukuda's personal popularity ratings, currently at a dismal 21 per cent, will plunge below the all-time low for a prime minister of 16 per cent (held by Junichiro Koizumi's predecessor, Yoshiro Mori). Mr Fukuda's unpopularity ratings are between 65 per cent and 70 per cent, depending on the poll.

There is open discussion inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that it needs to ditch Mr Fukuda if it hopes to win an election, so the only questions are when and with whom. Right-wing members of his own party are accusing him of being a traitor for cosying up to China. Maverick Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara called the so-called 'panda diplomacy' into doubt, questioning sardonically the 'divinity' of pandas.

Veteran television commentator Yoshiko Sakurai accused both Mr Fukuda and his father, former prime minister Takeo Fukuda, who signed the original friendship treaty with China, of 'injuring Japan's national interests and betraying the people'.

On one level, it is all just good political theatre. But, more importantly, the drama of absurd opinions means that Japan is still refusing to come to terms with its past - which means that it faces a risky future. This problem is exacerbated by this abysmal political leadership. Mr Fukuda represents the well-meaning but powerless face of Japan's politics today. All the other putative candidates would be tempted to play to the nationalist gallery.

Japanese politicians and media protest that the country has apologised many times over, officially and unofficially, for its wartime conduct and ask how many apologies are necessary.

The answer is that, as long as leading Japanese politicians claim - as they continue to do - that it was Japan that was wronged, that the Nanking Massacre was a myth and that the 'comfort women' volunteered to be sex slaves, China will have the opportunity to claim that 'the 1.3 billion Chinese people are hurt' by Japanese ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of war criminals are supposedly interred along with those of 2.5 million soldiers and civilians who died during the war.

It is wonderful political capital for Beijing to shelve discussions on the real issues dividing the two countries, while the Japanese people are the ones really hurt by their own politicians throwing away reality to pander to a world of myth and fantasy. Since it has only 10 per cent of China's population, and a rapidly ageing one - this week, it was announced that 10 per cent of Japanese are 75 or older - it ill behooves Japan to flex its muscles in China's face.

The reality is that China and Japan are linked so closely economically that it is in their best interests to sort out their political differences, to maximise their future potential. China has supplanted the US as Japan's biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade of about US$250 billion. China benefits from US$6 billion of investment by 20,000 Japanese concerns, its largest national source of foreign direct investment.

For all this, Mr Hu's 'warm spring visit' did little to get to grips with potentially dangerous differences. Disputes over the East China Sea, with its valuable natural-gas reserves, remain unsettled. China's rapid increases in military spending are causing widespread unease in Japan.

For its part, Beijing is worried that Japan could exploit its industrial, nuclear and technological skills to become a military power. The passing this week by the Diet of a law authorising Japan to use and develop space for national security, including deployment of spy satellites, drops the customary principle of 'non-military' use. Given China's demonstrated capacity in space technology, it risks sparking a space war.

The decision to pass the law on space shows that the LDP is moving to the right, even in the face of public opinion. Some leading politicians, backed by the powerful Yomiuri newspaper group, are still trying to stoke the smouldering nationalist embers of former prime minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to revise the constitution to make Japan - in their view - a more normal nation with proper armed forces, even though only 23 per cent of Japanese want to change the constitution.

An overwhelming 66 per cent prefer to keep the existing constitution with its famous Article 9, which declares: 'The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes ... Land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.'

Japan has two unique virtues: as a victim of nuclear slaughter and as Asia's first beneficiary of economic globalisation, albeit often heavily manipulated. It should show the supreme moral leadership of being a pioneer of peaceful development.

The greatest tragedy of modern Japan is that its business corporations have demonstrated superior performance in every corner of the globe, but its politicians and bureaucrats - and the media - seem to have no idea of where the rest of the world is, let alone how other people feel or how Japan impacts on the world.

How different it could have been; should have been. With the shield of the US nuclear umbrella and the memories of the horrors of war, Japanese political and intellectual leaders could have been free to explore and suggest new ways to bring the world together, to beat those swords into ploughshares and to suggest practical ways to share the fragile peace and plenty of the planet. Is it too late?

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, a study of Japan Inc and Internationalisation