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Japan Divided on Neighborly Ties
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Three recent incidents indicate an internal angst and division within Japanese society on how best to contend with the rising perception of the "China threat." They could be significant as major trends for Japan and Sino-Japanese ties in 2006.


In an interview marking his 72nd birthday on December 23, Japan's Emperor Akhito called on Japan to "accurately understand" its own history at the end of a year which has been marked by severe criticisms abroad for having failed to atone for its militaristic past. This gesture may seem strangely to be at odds with the general trend of public and governmental opinion emerging in Japan.


Akhito's message to the Japanese is significant, as the Emperor recalled that "there were rarely peaceful times" in the 20 years from 1927 to 1945, when Japan eventually surrendered to Allied Forces. He continued, "I believe it is extremely important for the Japanese people to strive to accurately understand this past history along with the ensuing era...I hope that knowledge about past facts will continue to be passed in a proper manner...and will be used for future benefit."


Coming at a time as Japan struggles with its legacy of its imperialistic past and its own interpretation of World War II history, which appear to be completely out of sync with its immediate neighbors, China and Republic of Korea (ROK), the Emperor's remarks seem as significant as those he had made on ROK some years ago. He had then admitted for the first time within Japan's Royal Family the possibility of its "Korean lineage," a taboo subject for the Japanese royalty and people.


Is this latest interview message an indication of Akhito playing the mediator peace role with China and ROK, at a time when the Koizumi government appears to be clashing diplomatically headlong with Beijing, Seoul and even Pyongyang? Even more importantly, are his interview remarks made to signal the Royal Family's concerns with the rising nationalism in Japan and "a shift to the right" (as Chinese diplomats and academics have pointed out repeatedly), as government and public opinion shift towards a tougher line vis-a-vis China and ROK?


In fact, the Cabinet Office had coincidentally published alarming opinion surveys, just as anti-Chinese and ROK "manga" have been appearing on comic shelves in Tokyo. In a poll, published over the same weekend, the number of Japanese having good feelings towards both China and ROK has fallen to a record low since 1978, when the annual survey first began. The poll of 1,756 people, conducted in October, showed a record 63.4 percent not feeling good about China, up from 58.2 percent; a record 71.2 percent felt that Sino-Japanese ties were not in good shape, up 10.2 percent.


Similarly, the survey found that the number of Japanese with positive feelings about ROK has dropped 5.6 percent to 51.1 percent, the first drop in four years; some 50.9 percent felt that relations between their two countries were not in good condition, an increase of 16 percent. In contrast, it found that the "good feeling" vis-a-vis the US rose by 1.4 percent to 73.2 percent; and 80.9 percent considered ties with Washington as good, up 4.2 percent.


This confirms the clear shift of the Japanese Government and public opinion away from Asia and towards the US, as was epitomized by Japanese foreign minister's maiden "US first, Asia second" foreign policy speech in November. It was borne out by Tokyo's dismal role at the recent East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The Koizumi administration's US-centric policy is thus reflecting a public opinion shift, though the media and popular culture may have also much contributed to this trend.


The "China threat" has surfaced widely in the Japanese media, in parallel with Foreign Minister Taro Aso's December 22 branding of Beijing's military built-up as a threat, plunging Sino-Japanese relations downwards further.


Emperoro Akhito's remarks and interview have thus come at a significant juncture as Japanese public opinion on China deteriorates, after the Yasukuni, textbooks and diplomatic (UN Security Council permanent seat debate) episodes that now plague Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.


As Koizumi seals his own political legacy in the last nine months of his premiership, would it then be Akhito's legacy to cement Tokyo's good ties with its immediate neighbors in 2006 as he attempts to turn back Japanese public opinion, like what he had done with the ROK some years back?


The author is a council member of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.


(China Daily January 9, 2006)


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