Foreign Policy Blogs

Japan's "New Asianism" and What it Means for Asia's Historical Rows

A little over three months into the Hatoyama administration and it is now clear that the new government is taking engagement with its East Asian neighbors seriously.

Major missions of DPJ lawmakers to China and high-level cabinet meetings with South Korean counterparts have signaled a newfound interest in and commitment to diplomacy and détente in the neighborhood. (Some have also, for the most part mistakenly, read the current drift between the US and Japan as further evidence of a re-vamped and re-oriented Japanese foreign policy, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball game.)

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This “New Asianism,” to borrow a phrase from APARC’s Dan Sneider, was clearly outlined in the DPJ’s pre-election Manifesto: “the DPJ will make the greatest possible effort to develop relations of mutual trust with China, South Korea and other Asian nations, and to strengthen the bonds of solidarity with Asian countries within the framework of the international community.”

Cloaked in the mantle of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s elevated yu-ai rhetoric, wherein Japan seeks to nurture fraternity and goodwill with its neighbors (those that ostensibly share similar cultures and confront similar issues), Japan has poured on the sugar with its regional relationship, especially with China.

This fact, to be sure, has not been lost on East Asia watchers: Banyan describes Japan’s love-bubbles for China; Henry Hoyle at FPA outlines the potential for a “grand rapprochement in 2010”; Joel Rathus picks apart the complexities of public opinion in both nation’s here; and Ethan Chua addresses it here.

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But what concretely has Japan done thus far to demonstrate its commitment to East Asia? Is yu-ai all fluff?

Not much, I would argue. Aside from bolstered dialogues, envoys and high level cabinet exchanges to South Korea and China, the DPJ hasn’t really shown a radically different approach. They have thus far exchanged a lot of foreign policy platitudes, and not really done much to signal real, strategic change.

But the real story here is what the Japanese government under the DPJ hasn’t done – namely, incense its neighbors with acts of historical contempt. So far, and to Mr. Hatoyama’s (read: Mr. Ozawa’s) credit, there has been no Toshio Tamogami moment. No Yasukuni hullabaloo. No gaffes and guffaws.

To the contrary, history has been addressed candidly in the intervening months since the DPJ’s ascension. The Final Report of the Joint Japan-China Historical Research Committee was just released (though, to be faur, this wasnt the DPJ’s doing), which frankly assesses the points of contention and makes shrewd recommendations for future efforts to mend historical woes.

More sensationally, there are recent whispers of a historic exchange of contrition between Japan and China: Hatoyama to Nanjing and Hu to Hiroshima. If carried out this would mark an watershed moment in high level contrition. Put in this context of the perennial historical rows that have beset the bilateral ties for years – the textbook protests in China, the Yasukuni shrine visitations of former PM Koizumi, comfort women, and so forth – this exchange is mind-blowing in scale.

In other words, the DPJ has shown an impressive commitment to rein in the historical contretemps that have long roiled ties with Japan’s neighbors, and in so doing has opened the door for unprecedented progress. It is perhaps too early to tell if this trend will continue uninterrupted, but Mr. Hatoyama has done his part to set expectations for his government and court goodwill.

Mr. Hatoyama first made this explicit in his address before the UN this past November:

“Given the historical circumstances arising from its mistaken actions in the past, Japan has hesitated to play a proactive role in this region. It is my hope that the new Japan can overcome this history and become a “bridge” among the countries of Asia.”

Notably, Mr. Hatoyama has reaffirmed his commitment to the Murayama Statement, a landmark decree issued by former Prime Minister Murayama Tomichii in 1995, made on the 50th anniversary of Japanese surrender. It states,

“During a certain period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.”

Mr. Hatoyama has also made it clear that he will avoid visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which will smooth over relations for time being. The DPJ is even playing around with the idea of a secular alternative site to Yasukuni that would surely do much to shore up support and goodwill from those frustrated with Yasukuni and the formal visitations. (I haven’t seen convincing evidence that this is really on the table, however.)

Whether or not this desire to mend ties reflects a careful, long-term strategic realignment in East Asia remains to be seen. It could very well spring from a more viscerally-driven return to a more normal status quo between Japan and its neighbors.

There is a critical mass of DPJ lawmakers that have reiterated this commitment to rapprochement in various ways. Indeed, as Dan Schneider aptly observes, “across the spectrum of the DPJ, from former socialists on the left to those who came out of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), there is broad agreement on the need to put much greater emphasis on Japan’s ties to the rest of Asia, particularly to China and South Korea.”

This springs from what some analysts see to be a repudiation of the LDP’s failed “China Containment strategy,” one which was founded on a series of strategic hedges in the Asia-Pacific that sought to box in China’s influence and growth. No longer, say many in the DPJ, capo di tutti capi Ozawa Ichiro foremost among them. “In the view of DPJ policy advisers,” writes Sneider, “this pseudo-containment strategy is doomed to failure.”

It isn’t exactly clear where this priority was born. Some point to the beleaguered Ozawa Ichiro, who has long cultivated ties between China and the DPJ, and leading trips to China on multiple occasions. Indeed, it has been a priority of Mr. Ozawa well before he defected to the DPJ. He has long considered the implications of engagement with China, and has done his part to promote them. “Sources close to Mr. Ozawa” continues Sneider, “said he initially intended to make the visit as part of a program aimed at promoting Japan-China friendship he has been involved with since the 1980s, when he was a member of the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party.”

The DPJ foreign minister, Okada Katsuya, also seems to be at the crest of the New Asianism wave, and has done his part to cultivate closer ties and move beyond the corrosive historical rows of the past. He has backed the creation of a joint history textbook by China, Japan and South Korea, based on the model followed by France and Germany

The real question is whether or not the Japanese defense establishment is on board. They are likely the greatest source of opposition and will likely raise legitimate concerns about the long-term security implications of these policies. (It’s no accident that Tamogami came from the military establishment in Japan, where revisionist thinkers are in no short supply).

Obstacles, of course, do remain: the East China Sea, North Korea, Taiwan, Japan’s bid for a seat on United Nations Security Council, to name but the most thorny. And who knows how long before another Tamogami moment springs up. Well-funded and with close ties to Japan’s media, the right-wing revisionist forces in Japan aren’t going anywhere quick – a fact evidenced by Tamogami’s surprising staying power.