SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 63 of 80 « Previous | Next »

Ishihara and the Senkakus: The Japanese State of Mind

Shintaro Ishihara, the eighty year-old former governor of Tokyo known for his controversial style, is now aiming to make a comeback on the center-stage of Japan’s national politics. In October he suddenly resigned as governor and announced an intention to form a new political party to challenge the existing balance of political power. One must wonder why. Loss of patience may well be the answer - and that sentiment also describes the state of the nation overall.

Ishihara was on the losing team in 1945 at the age of 13, born and raised in a country that he took pride of but that had been utterly defeated.

Whilst at college, he became a national icon, having gained recognition as an accomplished novelist. He earned fame as a fearless straight talker by the young age of 25. It was as if he and his younger brother, a hugely popular actor who was the pin-up boy of every woman in 1960s Japan, were the epitome of a young, aspiring and rising nation.

He must now be a frustrated old man, because the country he loves is in decay. Its economy is shrinking, along with its population and its diplomatic clout. Given his age he cannot afford to be a long-termist and wait any longer. He must also be thinking that sooner, rather than later, his country may become even more irrelevant, ending up kowtowing more and more to its powerful neighbors. Now he must stand to make a difference before it is too late, otherwise he will end his life once again on the losing team.

In this way Ishihara is emblematic of a Japan that is increasingly frustrated, even desperate, aware that the clock is ticking until its self-marginalization becomes irreversible.

Robert Cooper hypothesized in his seminal work, The Breaking of Nations, that had Japan been located in Europe, it could have built a full-fledged "post-modern" nation with its restraint on defense build-up and stress on multilateralism. Yet, the British diplomat continued, how long a post-modern nation surrounded by a sea of "modern" nationalists in the Western Pacific can sustain itself is an open-ended question.

Events that have ensued since Cooper wrote the book in the heyday of Europe's single currency are proof that, even in the proudly post-modern Europe, nationalist sentiment is alive and kicking. For its part, Japan has never felt more keenly that it is unique in its immediate neighborhood. The mature island democracy is neighbor to Russia, the two Koreas, China and Taiwan. Of these, three are declared nuclear-armed powers, two or three are democracies that are still extremely young and volatile, and one has undergone no democratization whatsoever. Most of them are expanding their military capabilities at a rate hitherto unseen, whereas in Japan military spending has constantly been on the wane.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon but, truth be told, ten years ago when Japan's economy was as large as those of most of its neighbors' combined, Tokyo failed to recognize the serious consequences of its neighbors’ growth and its own demographic changes. It is now deprived of that luxury of economic supremacy. "Japan is no longer influential," Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean President, openly declared, justifying his intended provocation of setting foot himself on the long disputed island off Japan's Shimane prefecture. It is far from coincidence that immediately after the 3-11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power failures that hit Japan in early 2011, Russia and China both increased their forceful military surveillance in the skies above and in the seas around Japan. "When you see a dog drowning, hit it hard" holds a Chinese maxim.

This is a phenomenon rarely seen over the past decades: a Japan that feels increasingly insecure economically as well as militarily. Twice before, when it felt similarly vulnerable, Japan made an about-turn. In the late 19th century it chose to enter the Western imperial system by modernizing itself and embracing internationalization in order to escape the encroachment of colonial powers. In the 1930s global depression, Japan turned inwards again which culminated in wars against China and eventually the U.S.-led allied powers. What will happen this time round?

So far Tokyo has shown its hallmark perseverance. It could well have opted to become wholly self-occupied after the March 2011 disasters, but it did not. Tokyo instead showed its willingness to reinvest in the alliance with the United States despite the lingering stalemate―of its own making―regarding the relocation of elements of the U.S. Marine Corps that are based on Okinawa. Yoshihiko Noda's government stated that more, not less, openness toward the world is the only solution to the challenges wrought by the earthquake, though he has only kept his agenda of bringing Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) afloat and it has not yet taken any root.

That the U.S. rushed to Japan’s rescue, at its lowest point in March 2011, helped. Operation Tomodachi (meaning “friend”), launched by the U.S. military immediately after 3-11 as the biggest peacetime humanitarian disaster relief operation, was a boon for America's image in the eyes of the average Japanese. The resultant awareness that Japan was cared about, indeed embraced, by countries that ranged from Australia, Israel and even Afghanistan (from which came a memorable message: "We are poor, but are rich in our willingness to help the people in Japan when they are in need") prevented Japan from shutting its eyes toward the rest of the world. So far, so good...

Japanese didn’t have a sudden epiphany about the importance for Japan of other countries. Indeed, it had been wrestling with how to position itself internationally for most of the previous decade – in various ways and in different directions. When this author served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the late 2000s, seeking to help expand Japan's diplomatic horizons, one could take comfort from looking at these more promising developments. For in retrospect, Japan's foreign policy took an important turn toward more firmly enmeshing the country in the fabric of democracies, near and far, by the year 2006.

By that time Tokyo had chosen to seek semi-alliance relationships with two maritime democracies: Australia and India. Each country's ministers of defense and foreign affairs and their Japanese counterparts hold regular meetings, dubbed Two plus Two, of a kind previously attainable only between Tokyo and Washington. Heads of Japan's military services meet their Indian counterparts on a regular basis. For some time India has been the largest recipient of Japan's overseas developmental assistance. Shinzo Abe, then Japan's Prime Minister, delivered a speech at the Central Hall of the Indian parliament in August 2007 to the members of their both houses, who burst into applause more than thirty times during his speech, which was tellingly titled "Confluence of the Two Seas." Japan should stake its future on the confluence of the Pacific and the Indian oceans, it implied.

To further enhance its long-standing alliance with the U.S., Tokyo embarked on a path it had never followed before: an Atlantic path. In Iraq, Japan's army (Ground Self-Defense Force) worked for humanitarian assistance under the cover provided by the armies of Britain and Holland, two important members of the North Atlantic Alliance. In the Indian Ocean, Japan's navy (Maritime Self-Defense Force), joined Operation Enduring Freedom and found itself providing fuel more to the NATO warships than to the Americans. "Japan has rediscovered NATO's importance and, I hope, vice versa," then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso told the North Atlantic Council in May 2006.

Japan’s gesture of moving closer toward the Atlantic-based military alliance was rather like a friend informally knocking at the back door of its most trusted ally, the United States. Aso summed up Japan's new diplomatic direction as laying an "arc of freedom and prosperity" (or AFP as this author, then the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, called it), linking countries in Asia aspiring to democracy to central European counties where people freed from Soviet oppression and awaited Japanese involvement in assistance.

In 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power after decades of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) , new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his colleague, the DPJ heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, both argued that Japan should seek an equidistant relationship, like an equilateral triangle, involving Japan, China and the United States. The idea of an East Asian Community, with the specific implication that Pacific partner nations, notably the United States, ought to be side-lined, also gained currency. But in order to materialize the equilateral triangle, it would first be necessary to make the relationship between Washington and Tokyo more distant. To say that Japan would need the East Asian Community was hence not unlike advocating that Japan should distance itself from the U.S. and willingly fall under the extended shadow of the Sino-sphere.

With that short-lived confusion in the interval, it looks as if Japan's diplomacy has come full circle. The AFP as a slogan has disappeared. After all it was one of Japan's rare attempts at self-branding. However, its spirit remains alive, as evinced by its rapid involvement in the liberalizing Myanmar. Most notably Japan chose to deepen its relations further with India. Tokyo now holds its track-one trilateral dialogue with Delhi and Washington on a regular basis. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement Tokyo has accomplished with Delhi is a rare success among Japan's free trade agreements.

Even with South Korea, Japan attempted to reinvent the bilateral relationship, by proposing to forge the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul and Tokyo. This was to no avail as at literally the last minute Seoul backed off - reportedly for fear that any kind of military agreement with Japan could jeopardize Seoul's relationship with Beijing. Tokyo's sentiment, though, remains that as long as South Korea is a democracy, common sense and sober consideration will eventually prevail there and that the GSOMIA, which would be necessary in the event of a threat to Korean security, will eventually be signed.

Against this backdrop of international outreach from Tokyo, Chinese provocations over the Senkakus began. Despite Beijing’s assertions, Tokyo Governor Ishihara's announced intention to purchase the uninhabited islands' property rights from its individual owner, and the subsequent response of the central government to purchase the islands to prevent political grandstanding, did not rock the boat first. Beijing had already been sending a host of law enforcement vessels into and around the Senkakus' contiguous waters, sometimes even within the territorial waters near the islands, effectively seeking to establish China’s own sovereign jurisdiction. Since the massive anti-Japanese hate rallies that destroyed Japanese shops and factories in August and September 2012, Beijing has made it a daily ritual to send law enforcement boats into Japan's contiguous waters, forcing the Japanese coast guard to engage in the most prolonged patrol mission in its entire history.

The objectives of the Chinese military build-up have never been transparent and are unlikely to become so in the near future. But their actions, if not words, have gained clarity these days. When they claim the Senkakus belong to them, despite Beijing having only started to make that assertion in 1971, and try to make it a fait accompli through patrols by their law enforcement vessels in adjacent waters, and when they also make a claim that almost the entire East China Sea belongs to their exclusive economic zone (which, in China’s unique interpretation, is little different from territorial waters), it is clear that they intend to turn the East China Sea (together with the South China Sea) into something akin to Lake Beijing, effectively building an exclusive area in which the activities, and to which the access, of the naval assets of Japan and the U.S. could be denied.

Facing Chinese aggressions into its territorial and contiguous waters Japan has felt even more keenly the urgent need to anchor itself to the group of maritime democracies. Gradually a concept that Japan should form a "security diamond" (this author's term) between Hawaii, Canberra, Delhi and Tokyo has taken shape. The frequent military to military exchanges among the four apexes are proof of that emerging diamond. Beyond its traditional activities, Japan's military has a small overseas base, the first of its kind since the end of the war, in Djibouti, working alongside the Americans and the French to participate in anti-piracy operations. This is further evidence that Tokyo is willing to share responsibility with the U.S. to safeguard the maritime commons. In addition, Japan's space policy is leaving behind its traditional science-first bent to acquire a new concept that outer space is another domain where those democracies that abide by the rules should prevail as a dominant force. Now it has been established as a priority that Japan should launch quasi-zenith satellites in order to supplement the U.S.-run Global Positioning System.

At this writing, the general elections for the lower house of the Japanese Diet can take place anytime soon. The elections for the upper house are due in July 2013. It is now more likely that those elections will bring back the once ousted Liberal Democrats into a position pivotal enough to form the core of any coalition government. Ishihara will provide impetus for Japan's political discourse to lean toward the realist. The much debated, indeed long-overdue, activation of Japan's right for collective self-defense will face less opposition. Japan's defense budget, for the first time in many years, will gain more appropriation. All that, however, is indicative of the power lost, not gained, for the once mighty Japan that is now a waning and frustrated country.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 63