Washington was not sure how to react to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration when it was formed yet again on December 2012. Since then, the U.S. government has gained a better understanding of Abe’s directions, and it doesn’t bode well for international relations and the future of Japan, according to Akihiko Reizei, writer and journalist residing in United States.
The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Reizei less than a month after the Abe administration came to power.
In a little over a year since then, Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 and his comments about foreign relations in China and South Korea have made the West concern.
Abe is probably unaware of how much his actions and words are hurting Japan’s interest, Reizei said in a recent follow-up interview.
The following are excerpts from the latest interview.
Question: When we interviewed you last year, you said that the Barack Obama administration was having difficulty figuring out how to deal with the Abe administration. How do you think the Obama administration are doing now?
Reizei: The Japanese at large are far too nonchalant about the consequences of Prime Minister Abe’s Yasukuni visit and nationalistic comments. If you read U.S. and European media reports on Abe’s remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, you can see that his image has suffered quite a bit in the eyes of the West.
A story written by the president of Reuters news agency quoted a prominent Chinese government official who called Abe a “troublemaker.” I sensed that the writer himself had the same opinion.
And in an exclusive interview with CNN, Abe noted to the effect: “It is not just the Xi Jinping administration that is expansionist. China has been pursuing an expansionist policy for the last 20 years.” Naturally, such a comment would make one wonder if Abe has any intention of mending Japan’s ties with China.
As these overseas media reports show, a concrete image of the Abe administration is beginning to form. And I doubt that Abe is really aware of how much this must hurt Japan’s interest.
Q: Hurt Japan’s interest? Is it really that bad?
A: Prime Minister Abe blames the Democratic Party of Japan for the deterioration of Japan’s relations with the United States. But he’s got it all wrong. It is his administration that is to blame.
Broadly speaking, Washington feels tense about Abe for three reasons. One is that the extremely tense relations between Japan and South Korea are putting constraints on U.S. plans.
The inability of Japan and South Korea to form a united front in dealing with North Korea and to exchange information about the reclusive dictatorship leads to a huge risk for the United States in terms of stability in East Asia. For instance, what can Washington do if the Pyongyang regime collapses tomorrow?
The second reason has to do with the economy. The Business Section of The New York Times recently ran a story identifying Japan-China relations as the biggest risk to the Asian economy.
It is said, “When China sneezes, the rest of the world could catch pneumonia.” If deteriorating relations between Japan and China cause the Chinese economy to slow down, Prime Minister Abe may well get blamed for the ensuing global stock market slump.
Abenomics, his economic stimulus policy held together through a nationalistic ideology despite being relatively liberal in nature, has been well received in spite of its complexity.
But once the deterioration of Japan-China relations triggers this global stock market slump, the rest of the world will not forgive him.
The third reason is that Abe could jeopardize U.S.-China relations, which are complex and fragile to begin with.
The United States is not happy at all with a lot of things about China, and their values are miles apart. But since China is America’s trading partner and underwriter of its Treasury bonds, Washington knows there is no choice but to seek coexistence and co-prosperity with China.
But Prime Minister Abe’s thoughtless words and actions are disturbing the fragile balance between the United States and China, and are thereby affecting U.S. national interests.
For the United States, China is a far more difficult than the Japanese can ever imagine. Still, the United States keeps trying to overcome its “distance” with China, and the Abe administration is too unmindful of this fact.
President Obama must be thinking that the Abe administration will only delay, not facilitate, reforms in China.
Q: Did you say, “delay reforms in China”?
A: Yes, I did. By sending both tough and soft messages to Beijing, Washington is urging the Chinese to play by international rules.
America’s goal is to restrain China’s military expansion and induce China’s soft landing as a politically and structurally more open society.
But Japan, a partner of America, is provoking China and is going so far as to make the latter take advantage of the legacy of the victor nations of World War II.
Q: Would you please explain what you mean by this “legacy”?
A: A lot of American blood was shed in America’s war with Japan. But as a result of that war, Japan became a democracy, and a peaceful Pacific region was established, with Japan and the United States enjoying coexistence and co-prosperity.
By embracing defeat, to borrow John Dower’s expression, Japan became a “decent” nation. But today, nearly 70 years after World War II, Japan is exposing itself to the Chinese accusation of “violating the postwar international order.”
Since the United States took the lead in establishing this postwar international order, it must be unforgivable that China’s Communist regime, which is a latecomer to the order, is now acting judiciously as if it is the owner.
But Washington does not seem to think that Abe is personally bent on resisting the postwar international order. I believe Washington’s take on Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s Class-A war criminals are honored, is that it is nothing more than a thoughtless act, and not something motivated by a determination to resist the postwar international order.
Q: After Washington expressed “disappointment” with Abe for visiting the war shrine, I understand that the Facebook site of the U.S. Embassy in Japan experienced a lot of backlash.
A: This could create the impression that Abe’s supporters are anti-American. In fact, even among online right-wingers who are traditionally anti-Chinese and anti-Korean, an anti-American atmosphere is becoming notable.
These extremists are now calling for Japan’s proud isolation from the international community. Abe is allowing these people to be part of his support base, and is consequently causing damage to the Japan-U.S. relationship in a way no prime minister has ever done in the last half-century.
Q: Who do you think accounts for this xenophobic atmosphere?
A: I think there is no denying that this is partly a byproduct of globalization and internationalization. Japanese society is under pressure to adapt to international standards in language, culture and values.
One emotional reaction to this pressure, I believe, is to seek security in closing oneself off from the rest of the world and try to justify one’s inability to internationalize by claiming Japan has been unjustly treated as a “bad guy” since World War II.
I don’t think Prime Minister Abe has done any conscious self-reflection along these lines. But he does have the support of those xenophobic types, and he has done nothing to distance himself from them.
Another element contributing to the present atmosphere is a backlash against the type of liberalism embraced by members of Japan’s postwar cultural and ideological establishment. You could say that this backlash represents anti-intellectualism, or an urge to bring down people who were seen as intellectuals.
This left-right confrontation, which is very Japanese, is somehow becoming more militant in nature than any type of confrontation we have in the United States, such as between proponents of “big government” and “small government,” and between “the religious right” and “the liberals.”
Even though Japan’s left-right confrontation has few social implications, what is troubling is that it is intensifying as a personal, psychological experience.
With the nation’s population shrinking and its international competitiveness decreasing in some sectors of industry, people are feeling helpless and frustrated, and I suppose you could say that they are venting their frustration on what I might call a “game of ideology.”
Take, for instance, the recent popular overreaction against nuclear power. Nuclear power is an important issue, of course, but it is being blown out of proportion, as a result of which the issues that are of fundamental importance to Japan, such as the shrinking population and declining industrial competitiveness, are not receiving any attention.
It is a fact that the liberals of Japan have been unable to get out of the current issue. The Democratic Party of Japan is partially responsible for today’s lowered standard of intellectual discourse in Japan.
Q: If the right’s rallying point is Yasukuni Shrine and the left’s unifying agenda is to oppose nuclear power generation, what is the political agenda of the moderates?
A: The moderates actually make up the majority, but they are overwhelmingly nonpolitical. There exists a huge “blank” formed by people who don’t want to bother with making value-based judgment calls.
Japan does not have the so-called middle class capable of examining and deciding on individual issues objectively and impartially. The vast majority are nonpolitical and don’t have any real opinion.
One thing that is decidedly defective about Japan’s public education system is that students are not taught the most obvious thing they ought to be taught, such as the importance of having their own opinions on social and political issues.
It is really a serious problem that the public education systems never teach students to develop their core beliefs and form abstract principles. These determine their thinking ability and enable them to decide whether or not to support specific policies.
Q: Are you saying that the present situation in Japan owes to the public’s deep-rooted political apathy?
A: It is a fact that many people don’t feel any direct impact of specific policies on their daily lives. They also don’t feel their tax burden in relation to policy alternatives for small government or big government.
I suppose this disconnect stems from two interrelated factors. One, is that the government takes the nation’s chronic fiscal deficit for granted and does not cut spending even in times of fiscal crisis, and two, that voters at large are in the habit of passing responsibility to the “higher-ups” instead of taking matters into their own hands.
Everyone is worried about his or her own future, but individual citizens’ interest in politics remains fragmented. This fragmentation leaves them feeling insecure and as result they remain psychologically dependent on the state, finding only ephemeral pleasure in political participation.
Q: If things stay the way they are, what will happen to Japan?
A: The Japan-U.S. relation won’t collapse easily. Prime Minister Abe’s actions will not critically damage the relationship. But if the present situation is not fixed, it will continue Japan’s decline and favor more to isolationism from the international community. An acquaintance of mine, who is a financial expert, told me that Japan would decline over time instead of a sharp collapse. He said foreign investors are still investing in Japan because they believe they will be able to pull out in time.
Akihiko Reizei, a writer and journalist born in 1959, completed a graduate program at Columbia University. He has been living in the United States for about 20 years. He currently resides in Princeton, New Jersey.