Japan Warns U.S. to Back Off or Face Revival of Nationalism
In a surprisingly blunt speech, Japan's outgoing ambassador to
the U.S. warned Washington to cease criticizing Japan, lest the
criticism spark a revival in Japan of the militant nationalism of
60 years ago. This frank use of the specter of World War II is a
reversal for Japan, which has tried to downplay its history, and
will likely color Japanese foreign relations for some time.
In a surprisingly blunt speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club
of Japan on March 16, outgoing Japanese Ambassador to the United
States Kunihiko Saito warned the U.S. to reduce its criticism of
Japan, or risk reviving militant nationalist sentiment in Japan.
Saito said that Japan appreciates the frank advice that the U.S.
has offered, and is carrying out many of the reforms that
Washington has advocated. However, Saito insisted that the U.S.
frankness, and particularly the public manner in which U.S. views
are expressed, "may cause some unintended emotional reactions."
"We naturally resent such criticism, even when the content of
such criticism is totally justified," he said.
And while he said continued U.S. pressure could hurt the Japanese
economy and Japanese-U.S. relations, Saito warned that the
biggest threat may be the revival of Japanese nationalism.
"Memories of the 1930s and 40s are still fresh in our minds. We
should always be careful about the revival of nationalism," said
Saito. "I'm not worried about a problem yet, but I don't think we
should forget that only 50 or 60 years ago we made some big
mistakes, and one of the reasons, in my view, was excessive
nationalism," he added.
Saito singled out the U.S. Trade Representative's Office as a
major source of the unwelcome criticism. He also warned of rising
protectionist sentiment among U.S. companies and in Congress.
"Tensions surrounding trade between our two countries have...
increased in recent months," he said. "Our trade surplus with the
United States has been increasing rather sharply and has become a
political issue, at least in Washington," said Saito. He added,
"If the United States economy starts to have problems, the issue
of trade imbalance will surely become a very serious political
issue between our two countries." Saito said Japanese officials
hope to quell the growing trade dispute between Japan and the
U.S. before Prime Minister Obuchi visits the U.S. in May.
How Saito set about to quell the dispute is what is so striking,
and thus reflects the magnitude of the crisis in U.S.-Japanese
relations. Japan has long sought to put the legacy of World War
II behind it. Every Japanese foreign endeavor since 1945 has been
overshadowed by the memory of Japan's biggest foreign endeavor,
and Tokyo has been very sensitive about making the memory any
fresher than necessary. Raising the specter of Japanese militant
nationalism to induce - more precisely to threaten - the U.S.
into being more diplomatic in its criticism goes completely
against this policy. Moreover, while made in the context of U.S.-
Japanese economic relations, Saito's comments feed into several
other heated policy debates as well.
The most prominent debate, and the one that has, understandably,
been the most affected by Japan's wartime legacy, is over the
role of Japan's military. Japan's Diet is scheduled to address
new legislation in its upcoming session that is required to
enable the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines to take effect.
Central to this debate is the planned expansion of the roles
Japan's "Self Defense Forces" can play and the geographic reach
of Japanese military operations. Under proposed laws, armed
Japanese troops would be allowed to deploy abroad for the
evacuation of Japanese and other foreign nationals from trouble
spots, and to return fire in self defense if fired upon.
Additionally, while still vaguely defined, the area in which
Japan can operate in support of U.S. forces will apparently be
extended to cover Taiwan, something China vehemently opposes.
On March 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi warned
that, "Japan should take concrete steps... to limit its defense
to its own territory and adjacent waters, and not embark on the
road of becoming a military power." China has also criticized
Japan's planned participation in a U.S.-led theater missile
defense system development program, as well as the potential
extension of that system to include Taiwan. Japan is immediately
concerned about North Korea's missile program and, adopting the
policy that the best defense is a good offense, has reserved the
right to take preemptive strikes against North Korean launchers
in self defense if it perceives a threat. But as in Taiwan, a
Japanese missile defense system is clearly aimed at the existing
missile threat from China.
Saito's warning of growing Japanese nationalism is not merely a
negotiating ploy. The country's economic troubles have been
scarcely addressed and are far from over. As a result, relations
with the U.S. can only be expected to deteriorate. Japan is
locked in a high-profile dispute with Russia over sovereignty
over the Kuriles. The country is in the midst of a fundamental
reevaluation of the Japanese military's roles. And in the midst
of this, Tokyo is facing calls from Southeast Asia for it to take
a leadership role in Asia. Sovereignty, leadership, defense,
foreign economic pressure - all push nationalism to the core of
Japan's domestic political debate.
Evidence of this can be seen in the dispute over official
recognition of Japan's Hinomaru (rising sun) flag and Kimigayo
(His Majesty's Reign) national anthem. While widely used, the
flag and anthem are not officially recognized in Japan, as they
are considered to be linked to Japan's military and imperial
past. The suicide in February of a high school principal in
Hiroshima, due to a dispute over the use of the symbols at a
graduation, has pushed the question of official recognition of
the flag and anthem to the top of the Diet's agenda for the
That Saito would raise the specter of revived nationalism,
considering the sensitivity of the subject and its potential
impact on a range of foreign and domestic policies, not only
demonstrates the dire state to which U.S.-Japan relations are
sinking, but also the very reality of Saito's threat. However,
with Japan still slow to alter its export dependent recovery
plan, there is little to suggest that the U.S. will quiet its
criticism of Japan any time soon. The question is, with Japan no
longer shy about depositing the nationalism threat smack in the
middle of the negotiating table, and the U.S. likely to be
unresponsive, has Japan set off on an irreversible course?