Japan as Punching Bag

The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a career and established a national catchword from his phrase, "I get no respect." There are many in Japan who think Japan's political and diplomatic leaders are turning their country into one that lives up to Dangerfield's slogan.

"Everything is a mess," says Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security matters at Takushoku University. "I think Japanese diplomacy may be the worst in postwar history." Most lay the blame squarely with Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his inexperienced party, which took office a little more than a year ago.

In recent weeks it seems like Japan has become a punching bag between its two largest near neighbors, China and Russia. The first stems, of course, from the incident surrounding the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain in a squabble over the disputed Senkaku islands, called the Diaoyutai by the Chinese, last September and China's reaction. It is a dispute that still reverberates through Japan.

Japan's decision first to detain the captain of the fishing boat that reportedly rammed coast guard vessels, then to release him to return home in the face of unprecedented pressure from China, may have been a practical move, but it was taken as a major diplomatic defeat by the most of the Japanese people. A YouTube video of the collision was leaked and has been running daily on Japanese television and appears to show that the Chinese trawler instigated the incident.

Since then Kan has been scrambling in a rather unseemly way to meet with China's Premier Wen Jiabao to open dialogue on this and other issues. He flew to a European meeting he was planning to skip just to engage in a brief corridor meeting. His efforts to corral Wen in Hanoi made him look like a supplicant. The Chinese premier abruptly cancelled a meeting with Kan on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Hanoi, reportedly only after giving a half-hour's notice.

Meanwhile, Russia has thrown Tokyo into turmoil because of the recent visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to Kunashiri, one of the four islands in the southern Kuril chain that were occupied by Russia after World War II but are still claimed by Japan. It was the first time a Russian leader had ever visited any of the disputed islands

The Russian president's visit had been announced and was expected, but it still came as a shock to Tokyo that it would come so soon before Medvedev is scheduled to visit Japan to attend the mid-November APEC meeting in Yokohama.

The rainy windswept islands are known as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan. The Kuril chain stretches from the tip of Hokkaido to the large island of Sakhalin. Before the war, Japan occupied all of the Kurils and half of Sakhalin.

Kan described the visit as "regrettable" in a dozen different ways and ordered Japan's ambassador to Moscow, Masaharu Kono, to come back to Tokyo. Officials were careful to stress that Kono was not being "recalled" a serious diplomatic move, only asked to personally brief the premier and foreign minister Seiji Maehara.

Medvedev's visit is usually attributed to domestic posturing (though some suspect some kind of hidden Chinese-Russia pincer move). That may or may not be true, but it is also the case that the Russian president didn't seem to care what impact the visit might have on Russo-Japanese relations.

As of this writing, the issue is by no means over, as Medvedev has said he wants to visit other disputed islands in the chain. A stopover at Shitokan or the Habumai islets would put a new dimension to the dispute since these are two territories that in the past Russia has expressed a willingness to return in exchange for a peace treaty.

In a larger sense, Japanese diplomacy has been unsteady ever since the Democratic Party of Japan took over the government after winning a smashing victory in 2009. The DPJ came into power focused mainly on domestic issues and with a vague idea of pursuing a foreign policy more independent of that of its ally, the United States.

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama squandered the early months of his administration in an unproductive and futile effort to reopen the question relocating the U.S. Marine Corps airfield at Futenma outside of Okinawa. The effort only served to irritate Washington, alienate Okinawa and cost Hatoyama his job.

The Okinawa matter was given a rest following Hatoyama's announcement in May that he would honor the base realignment agreement as negotiated by the preceding government with only technical modifications. However, the issue will likely raise its head again following the Nov. 28 gubernatorial election. Both candidates oppose moving the base to another part of the island..

If nothing else, the imbroglio with China and now with Russia has sobered Tokyo and probably enhanced the value of the US alliance in the government's mind. One hears very little any more about Japan pursuing a foreign policy more independent of the US.

This past summer Tokyo acted quickly to fall in line with the more stringent sanctions against Iran that were demanded by Washington of its allies with the threat that they might be sanctioned too if they didn't stop all business dealings with Iran. This was despite the fact that Japan maintains diplomatic relations with Tehran and tries to cultivate good will because of Iran's importance as a current and future source of petroleum.

Meanwhile, it is fair to say that Beijing's ambiguous threat to embargo rare earths, on which it currently enjoys a near monopoly, has severely shaken Japan's business community and punctured the complacent idea that the large and growing economic ties between Japan and China would somehow trump diplomacy in any future crisis.

As the usually pro-China business daily the Nikkei opined: "Now is the time for Japanese

business to extricate itself from excessive reliance on China in order to be protected from the ‘China risk' of unexpected and unfathomable regulations."