Foreign Policy Blogs

Japan’s Foreign Policy Under Noda: A Preliminary Survey

The recent election of Noda Yoshihiko as president of the Democratic Party of Japan, and thus Prime Minister, has set off a flurry of commentary on the foreign policy implications of the new party leadership, particularly as it relates to the reception of the leadership change in China and South Korea. Though little is available yet in the way of public polling data, a quick glance at the Chinese and Korean coverage of the election adds much texture to Corey Wallace’s recent observation that Mr. Noda will arrive to the kantei carrying some “diplomatic baggage.”

Before unpacking this baggage, a caveat. Any discussion of the future course of DPJ foreign policy under Noda should, in my opinion, begin with the proviso that diplomatic initiatives will sit on the backburner for PM Noda as he and his cabinet grapple with the far more pressing challenges of re-construction and containment in the wake of March 11, domestic economic reform, and fiscal policy and re-financing. Mr. Noda’s domestic load is indeed a weighty one, and, though much of these issues are no doubt tied to foreign policy (as will be discussed below), Mr. Noda will and should train his gaze on the political and economic challenges that dominated the debates leading up to his election.

That being said, a number of foreign policy questions are raised by his election.

Among the most obvious (and potentially pernicious) diplomatic question marks that comes with the selection of Mr. Noda as PM is his stance on the status of Japanese war criminals enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine — a group he has repeatedly suggested aren’t, in fact, war criminals at all. (Armchair Asia makes a tangential but nevertheless important point in noting that this comment, while historically insensitive, probably helped him get elected by proving his “conservative bona fides.”)

Although Mr. Noda’s position on the issue can be traced back half a decade, the most recent iteration of this line of thinking came this past August 15th — a day on which Koreans everywhere celebrate their liberation from Japanese colonial rule — when, in response to a reporters question regarding his stance on war criminals, Noda stated that “there is no fundamental change in my thinking.”  Mr. Noda first staked out his position on the issue in 2005 when he aligned himself with a group of right-wing revisionist scholars who argue, based on legal-hairsplitting and tortuous logic, that, due to the limitations of international law and the illegitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, the classification of Class A criminals is bogus. “The honor of all ‘war criminals’ has been recovered in a legal sense,” he once wrote in 2005, suggesting “those people who have been referred to as ‘Class-A war criminals’ are not war criminals.”

Of course, as a recent Economist report rightly notes, no one was really listening to Noda at the time, as he was then a relatively obscure political figure. But, as Mr. Noda’s written record makes clear, he has not dropped the issue. Far from it, in fact. Even a cursory glance at his his online writings reveals that he has engaged publicly with the issue for some years now.

(For anyone interested in his policy record and general political activities over the past five years, the kawaraban attached to his website is worth a close look. Though it is predictable that foreign policy is a secondary theme explored by Noda — whose interest lie squarely with the ins and outs of the financial world — his scant commentary on foreign policy is indeed fascinating. His detailed account of the DPJ’s seiken kotai is telling too, especially in light of the now discernible shifts in the internal political landscape of the party. When is the last time we had as rich a written record for a PM, by the way?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Noda’s position on the status of Japanese war criminals will prove a setback in Japan’s relations with South Korea and China. If recent conflicts over history in East Asia have demonstrated anything it is the speed and power with which internet forums, interest groups, and new social media can mobilize and channel nationalist energies. No holds are barred when history is at stake in East Asia — a point made all too clear by the persistent rows over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets and the Senkaku dispute. Although Noda is far from a Toshio Tamogami, the nuances and restraint of his argument really don’t matter all that much — as PM of Japan his words, though far from as twisted as Tamogami’s, will arouse the same ire among populations, especially young, internet saavy netizens, who really don’t care all that much about rhetoric and evidence to begin with. Michael Cucek’s recent question of whether or not “the blogtariat writers and the Twitterati of China and South Korea pressure their governments into cutting off high-level meetings between a Noda government and their counterparts over his comments on the Class A war criminals” is a good one. The Korean blogosphere’s response to Mr. Noda’s recent comments was certainly sharp and swift, as was the Korean Foreign Ministry’s response. If this serves as any indication, there will be little patience for and tolerance of further comments down the road.

The fact is that the last thing Noda needs on his plate right now is a high-level diplomatic dispute. That Noda will start his tenure under particularly close scrutiny by observers throughout the region adds still greater pressure to a policy load that it is already formidable. His comments on regional relations will hereafter be analyzed under a microscope in Seoul and Beijing, likely in a way that his DPJ predecessors were not. As I have argued elsewhere, the DPJ has done a comparatively good job managing historical contretemps as a part of its New Asianist policy project. Although the recent run-off has cast aspersions on any sense of party unity — let alone an over-arching consensus on lofty foreign policy goals — the DPJ’s willingness to rein in historical issues in order to build ties with its regional neighbors is nevertheless impressive, at least when compared with historical brazenness of LDP leaders. Which is precisely why Noda’s management of these issues (or, better yet, his avoidance of these questions altogether) will do much to elucidate the presence of New Asianist sensibilities within the party leadership. Perhaps more concretely, his decision regarding visitation to the Yasukuni Shrine will also reveal a great deal about his commitment to Asianism — a doctrine most attribute more to Okada and Ozawa than to Noda and his circle.

There are of course a number of other foreign policy issues that have been overshadowed by the commentary on historical matters. One such issue is what Mr. Noda’s election means for the debates surrounding the future course of Japan’s energy policy — an issue with powerful foreign policy reverberations. As Sheila Smith has recently noted, there are indeed deep divisions within DPJ ranks on energy policy, particularly as it relates to nuclear power generation on the peninsula and what a re-structuring of energy policy might do to economic growth. Although the contours of this debate haven’t really left the Japanese archipelago, Japan’s access to and exploration of energy sources throughout East Asia is an important confounding variable in the debate. This is also a likely source of consternation between Japan’s neighbors, energy-hungry China foremost among them.  Noda’s leadership on the energy question will shed some light on the potential friction in the Asia-Pacific’s waters for the resources that lie beneath it. His time in the Ministry of Finance suggests that he will likely frame this debate in larger terms of re-financing and re-structuring the Japanese economy — which is perhaps a good thing. But it does not necessarily translate to a regionally engaged and diplomatically informed approach to regional politics.

Another major question is the US-Japan Alliance. While Noda’s Alliance credentials are strong, it remains to be seen where he draws the lines on the base relocation issue in particular. His position on the matter is yet to be strongly articulated one way or another, at least as far as I can tell. This is, importantly an issue that might actually see some movement in the next few months as US budgetary constraints and an approaching deadline will force action with regards to Futenma.

Lastly, on North Korea, if history is any indicator Mr. Noda will do very little to rock the boat here. He will in all likelihood sit comfortably alongside his predecessors by continuing to condemn the regime, express reservations and regret over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by the regime in the past, and re-affirm the importance of engagement with the regime without offering any concrete vision of how to move things forward. Of course, Mr. Noda is yet to articulate a firm stance on the issue, but if his diplomatic disposition is anything like his DPJ predecessors, he will tow the line. Recent rumblings of a re-invigoration of the six-party framework will be still another interesting litmus test in Noda’s foreign policy vision and how it aligns with and departs from the foundations of the party, particularly as they are laid out in the 2009 Manifesto, the pertinence of which to today’s political landscape remains questionable at best.



David Fedman
David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Great Decisions Discussion group