Mindy L. Kotler

Asia Policy Point

August 28, 2006 

Animosities between China and Japan have grown deeper as Washington has strengthened its ties with Tokyo. Central to the Bush Administration’s security policy in Asia is expanding the US-Japan alliance. As the United States works more closely with Japan it has become increasingly affected by and accountable to political decisions made in Tokyo. This symbiosis played out recently in the censorship of a think tank supervised by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

In August, shortly before Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 6th visit to the Yasukuni Shine, the Sankei Shimbun criticized a new English-language commentary series by the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). The conservative newspaper’s Washington-based editorial writer Yoshihisa Komori castigated the Institute’s director and the series’ editor as being leftist and out of touch with Japanese government policy. Komori took offense at some of the commentaries that suggested that Japan may also hold some blame for the recent deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations. He was alarmed that the series’ editor Masaru Tamamoto thought that foreigners might describe Japan’s China policies as “mindless and provocative, self-righteous and gratuitous” and the country, itself, as being nationalistic, militaristic, or hawkish.” The last essayist in the JIIA series even questioned the sincerity of Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits as intended to generate controversy in order for Japan to finally debate its history issues. 

Interestingly, the JIIA commentaries were viewed in the West as the first sensible, balanced, and thoughtful opinion pieces on Japanese foreign policy to come out of official Japan. Unlike most Japanese essays, they were not only readable, but were actually read and discussed. YaleGlobal, a respected online foreign policy journal republished every one of the four essays released. The commentaries did what so many in Japan wanted: they impressed Westerners with their reason. 

Nevertheless, Komori’s attack was successful. It was not the first time that he used his pen to end projects, especially in Washington, toward reconciliation and understanding between Japan and its neighbors. Indeed, he has done this many times against academics. His identification of scholars and writers in Japan and the West as “anti-Japan” has lead to death threats and intimidation from Japanese Rightists and the cut off of research funding.  

In the JIIA case, retribution was swift. Within hours of the publication of Komori’s Sankei condemnation, the Commentary articles were removed from the JIIA website, the editor suspended, and a letter drafted to the newspaper by JIIA’s president apologizing for his lack of oversight. An editorial board is to be established to ensure that JIIA stays on message in the future. 

For Americans, it is significant that the “message” that Komori wanted to ensure projected by JIIA is one popularized by the Bush Administration managers of US-Japan policy. This message is composed of the “China threat” to regional stability and of portraying Japan as a leader in the international community. Supporters of the message routinely cite a February 2006 BBC survey measuring international opinion as to which country has the “most positive influence” on the world.

The BBC poll, however, is questionable. The previous year’s effort found that Japan was far from having the most positive global influence--France was and Japan was so statistically insignificant that it was not noted. The poll mainly focused on countries that had a “negative influence in the world” and only took a sample of 1000 respondents from 33 countries. Of countries viewed as having a “positive influence on the world” only 53% noted this was Japan and 55% said it was Europe. Japan’s average was tipped by very high ratings from its major aid recipients Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Also, no control question was asked to probe deeper into the answers. One wonders if this year’s positive rating reflects more of a “Cool Japan” effect than an actual understanding of Japan’s political role.  

Komori also dismisses the possibility that anyone serious might see Japanese policies toward China as “foolish, provocative, self-righteous and unjust” as suggested in one of the JIIA commentaries. Instead, he defends Tokyo by noting that a “majority of Japan-watchers in [Washington] DC who are also knowledgeable about China attribute the reason for current tension between Japan and China to “Confrontational Stance of the Chinese,” “Collision between the strategic interests of Japan and China,” or to “China’s national policy of Anti-Japan.” Komori, sets himself apart from his JIIA protagonist, by citing, confirming, and supporting the Bush Administration’s world view. 

What makes today’s intimidation by the Right in Japan important is that it is working. What makes it important to Americans is that it appears to be justified in the name of the alliance with the United States. To be sure, the Japan-savvy in Washington are well aware of the how effective and pervasive politics by innuendo and intimidation work in Tokyo. Although it is good to have allies that support us in word and deed, it should not be at the cost of fundamental American values. 

The Bush White House bases the US alliance with Japan on America’s shared values with Japan such as democracy and freedom of expression. To be sure, Vice President Cheney’s office admits that this maybe premature. The values are believed, they say, “co-terminous”—meaning that they will eventually be similar. This outcome, however, seems remote as Japan’s Right gathers strength and stifles debate in America’s name. For the Japan Institute for International Affairs that is supposed to advise the Foreign Ministry, it is already too late. 

For more details on the BBC Poll, See Global Poll Finds Iran Viewed Negatively: