Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Prime Minister Abe takes the top job in Japan at a very crucial time. In addition to himself, his whole cabinet is being carefully watched to gauge Japan's policy, both national and international, direction. There have been initial positive signs such as Abe's visit to China and Japan on immediately taking office. However, a friendly handshake does not mean agreement on how to deal with long-term regional spats, let alone the whole nuclear North Korea issue. Of course, Japanese officials are busy assuring the world that there is nothing to fear and a recent speech by the spokesman for the Foreign Minister is a good example.
We are happy to hear that Abe is not a nationalist or a scary neo-con but rather a modern, international-savvy man-about-the-world. The nuclear debate is not a debate about whether to get nukes or not, but rather a debate about whether there should be a debate about that topic. And as for Abe's wife, she loves Korea, speaks Korean fairly well and enjoys Korean soaps. Ahhh, we can all sigh with relief....
Except for the fact that some of his words did not fully dispel concern. For example, his defnintion of 'nationalist' was far too narrow. His definition describes more a racist fanatical than a politician. But more disconcerting is the continuing disjunct between how Japanese see themselves and how other Asian countries see them.
The thinker-cum-bureaucrat made a fascinating argument of "what-if-Japan-was-in-Europe" in his thought-provoking book, The Breaking of Nations.The impression I got is that Japan feels that it should be a normal country (sans nukes) and part of regional happy family if it weren't for the long-held anger that other nations hold against it - unlike Germany. But we should note that a) Japan cannot expect to be as well reconciled with former war opponents as Germany without making the same efforts and steps that Germany has made and b) Japan would not be a welcome member of the EU because all EU nations MUST abolish the death penalty and Japan refuses to do so.
It is true that as the second richest nation on earth and strong democracy, it is geographically isolated from other rich democratic nations, but it is not geography which keeps Japan isolated in the region. Indeed, as a rich democracy you would think it could make friends more easily than other nations, especially with the also-rich and democratic South Koreans. The trips to China and Korea were a positive sign but it will take more than that trip and a few political speeches before Japan is viewed differently in the region.