Western media’s new ‘losing Japan’ narrative

Author: Tobias Harris, MIT

In different ways, two articles published in Western media outlets this week suggest the emergence of a new narrative concerning Japan in elite circles in the United States. One might call that narrative the ‘losing Japan’ narrative, reminiscent of the idea — propagated by newsman Henry Luce — that the United States, or rather, the Democratic Party ‘lost’ China when the Communists won the Chinese Civil War. This narrative suggests that the United States is ‘losing’ Japan to China, raising a call to arms that unless the US government acts expeditiously it could let the DPJ-led government lead Japan into China’s embrace.

The first is the now infamous editorial in the Washington Post on Fujita Yukihisa, the DPJ upper house member best known for his doubts about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Michael Cucek and Paul Wilson have the controversy well-covered.) However egregious Fujita’s views, Washington Post‘s editorial is revealing of the ‘losing Japan’ narrative in a number of ways. Start with the editorial’s treatment of the subject. Despite his impressive-sounding titles, Fujita has little or no role in Japanese foreign policymaking under the Hatoyama government. The international department is not a policy shop, and Diet committees are meaningless. Either the Post was ignorant of these facts — in which case the editorial writer, Lee Hockstader according to Fujita, did a poor job — or the Post was aware but wrote a misleading editorial anyway in which Fujita is ludicrously described as a ‘Brahmin in the foreign policy establishment.’

It is possible that the Washington Post made an honest mistake, but then one gets to the inferences Hockstader draws from Fujita’s thoughts about 9/11:

The only thing novel about Mr. Fujita is that a man so susceptible to the imaginings of the lunatic fringe happens to occupy a notable position in the governing apparatus of a nation that boasts the world’s second-largest economy.

We have no reason to believe that Mr. Fujita’s views are widely shared in Japan; we suspect that they are not and that many Japanese would be embarrassed by them. His proposal two years ago that Tokyo undertake an independent investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 24 Japanese citizens died, went nowhere. Nonetheless, his views, rooted as they are in profound distrust of the United States, seem to reflect a strain of anti-American thought that runs through the DPJ and the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Mr. Hatoyama, elected last summer, has called for a more ‘mature’ relationship with Washington and closer ties between Japan and China. Although he has reaffirmed longstanding doctrine that Japan’s alliance with the United States remains the cornerstone of its security, his actions and those of the DPJ-led government, raise questions about that commitment. It’s a cliché but nonetheless true that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a critical force for stability in East Asia for decades. That relationship, and its benefits for the region, will be severely tested if Mr. Hatoyama tolerates elements of his own party as reckless and fact-averse as Mr. Fujita.

Again, one can debate whether Fujita can be properly described as having a ‘notable position in the governing apparatus,’ but the leaps Hockstader takes from Fujita’s position are unjustifiable, leaps that can be detected in the slippery language Hockstader uses – ‘Fujita’s views seem to reflect a strain of anti-American thought that runs through the DPJ and the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.’

Hockstader makes this outrageous charge without providing a shred of evidence beyond Fujita’s views. Meanwhile, in the subsequent paragraph he casually dismisses the Hatoyama government’s rhetorical commitment to the alliance (and, for that matter, its sizable financial commitment to the reconstruction of Afghanistan) to speak of ‘actions’ that ‘raise questions.’ I assume here he means Futenma, although who knows. This phrasing is precisely the kind of attitude that has produced the DPJ’s approach to the alliance in the first place, the idea that there is only one way to be in favor of the alliance. Finally, Hockstader basically threatens the Hatoyama government, suggesting that if Fujita is not dispensed with, his government will suffer accordingly in the eyes of official Washington.

Note, finally, that while Hockstader questions the sincerity of the Hatoyama government’s commitment to the alliance, he says nothing more about the Hatoyama government’s approach to China. The silence is deafening. Note also the scare quotes around mature, as if the DPJ’s position that the alliance as it was conducted under the LDP is in need of changes is an absurd idea. The DPJ, he seems to be saying, has a critical approach to the alliance and an uncritical approach to the Sino-Japanese relationship. (This comparison is hardly valid: the US-Japan relationship is complex and has the thorny question of US forces in Japan at the heart of it, while the Sino-Japanese relationship is not nearly as complex and is still progressing by baby steps from the deep freeze it experienced under Koizumi.)

As I read it, the editorial can be summarised as ‘Hatoyama’s party harbors a 9/11 denier, clearly does not take the relationship with the US seriously, and is moving Japan closer to China.’

A more serious version of this argument can be found in the Financial Times, where columnist Gideon Rachman argues that the DPJ gives the impression of drifting in China’s direction.

He writes:

When Mr Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan took power last August, it broke more than 50 years of almost continuous administration by the Liberal Democratic Party. The DPJ is keen to differentiate itself from the LDP in almost every respect, and foreign policy is no exception. In an interview last week, Katsuya Okada, Japan’s foreign minister, said that the LDP followed US foreign policy ‘too closely’. ‘From now onwards,’ says Mr Okada, ‘this will be the age of Asia.’ The foreign minister adds that talk of Japan choosing between China and the US is meaningless, and that Japan’s friendship with America will remain ‘qualitatively different’ from its relations with China. But some DPJ party members have called for a policy of ‘equidistance’ between China and the US.

Several things are notable about this paragraph. First, is the DPJ really acting out of a desire to differentiate itself from the LDP? Given that foreign policy plays so little a role in the calculus of voters, I have a hard time believing that the DPJ-led government’s foreign policy initiatives are driven by electoral considerations. Second, why do unnamed DPJ party members get equal billing in this paragraph with Okada, who seems to be firmly in control of foreign policy making? Okada provides a decent summary of the government’s foreign policy approach, suggesting that the DPJ is not drifting from America, but instead shifting the emphasis of Japan’s foreign policy, from a foreign policy in which Asia policy was tailored around the alliance to a foreign policy in which the alliance is tailored to fit Japan’s Asia policy. And yet the paragraph ends with unnamed backbenchers and their unspecified equidistant ‘policy.’

Rachman continues by citing Hatoyama’s controversial essay in the International Herald Tribune, and Ozawa’s grand tour in Beijing and intervention to arrange an audience with the Emperor for Xi Jinping. Rachman is at least careful to admit that ‘it is probably overdoing it to suggest that Japan is definitively shifting away from its postwar special relationship with the US.’ But the article conveys the impression that Japan is a prize in the struggle for influence between the US and China — and that the battle for Japan has begun.

There are several problems with this narrative, in both its belligerent Washington Post form and its more circumspect Rachmanite form. The fallacy both articles share is the idea that Asia is sure to be zero-sum, that a country like Japan can only be in the US camp or the China camp. Joining the former camp, Rachman concludes, would entail ‘[cultivating] warmer relations with other democratic nations in the region, such as India and Australia, in what would be an undeclared policy of ‘soft containment’ of Chinese power.’ And yet that is precisely what the Hatoyama government wants to do. Rachman might respond that the time for choosing has not yet arrived, which is true, but it also raises the possibility that another future is possible in which countries like Japan, Australia, and India maintain security ties with the US in order to keep the US engaged even while maintaining constructive political and economic relationships with China, navigating between the two superpowers in order to avoid unmitigated dependence on either one.

The Washington Post is even more unabashed in its embrace of an approach to Asia that does not allow for nuance, which it aired in another editorial on Japan published earlier this year.

The problem with this approach to the region and Japan on the op-ed pages of newspapers well read by policymakers in Washington is that this way of thinking could easily become self-fulfilling prophecy. Rachman may be warning of a possible future, but many in positions of power — with the help of the Washington Post — could come to take what he describes as a given.

A major flaw with the ‘losing Japan’ narrative is that there is remarkably little data upon which to reach firm conclusions, a point acknowledged by Rachman. Think of how little we know about the Hatoyama government’s approach to China. Interestingly, both the examples he cites as cases confirming the tilt towards China involve the activities of Ozawa Ichiro, i.e. a figure outside of the government who may not be long for politics. What data points do we have concerning Hatoyama and members of his cabinet? Not many. Hatoyama has made clear that he will not provoke China on historical issues. Beyond that? Unmentioned in both articles is that the Hatoyama government is building upon the ‘strategic, constructive partnership’ concept developed by the Abe government, right down to the continued use of the term. That doesn’t sound like a government doing whatever it can do differentiate itself from the LDP.

I’m willing to cut Rachman some slack, because his piece contains numerous caveats and notes of caution. But the Washington Post editorial is another story entirely. By picking a DPJ member whose views would obviously draw opprobrium in the US and then implying that his views represent a ‘strain’ in the DPJ, this editorial is little more than a hatchet job against Japan’s ruling party. How this editorial will help reverse what the Post believes is Japan’s drift towards China is beyond.

After all, the last time Japan was a political battleground for a cold war in Asia, the US had  considerably more invasive means at its disposal than sharply worded editorials.  Accordingly, this narrative may in fact be a product of insecurity about declining US influence, much as insecure Japanese elites fretted that the transition from Bush to Obama would mean the return of Japan passing. The reality, however, is that in the unlikely event that Japan were to reorient itself from the US to China, there would be little the US could do to stop it.

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