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Tense times in Japan’s relationships with its neighbors

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

It’s a dangerous, unpredictable world. Twice in January Chugoku no gunkan (中国の軍艦, Chinese warships) in the Higashi Shina Kai (東シナ海, East China Sea) challenged Japan’s Kaijo Jieitai (海上自衛隊, Maritime Self Defense Forces, MSDF) patrols in a manner deemed kyōiteki (脅威的, threatening). And on Feb. 12 came North Korea’s kaku jikken (核実験, nuclear test).

Comments by Japanese leaders conveyed alarm and urgency. Of the actions taken by the Chinese 軍艦, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, “Taihen ijō na koto de ippo machigau to taihen kiken na jōkyō ni ochiiru” (「大変異常なことで一歩間違うと大変危険な状況に陥る」”This [behavior] is highly abnormal; one slight misstep can land us in an extremely dangerous situation”). Regarding North Korea’s 核実験, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “Wagakuni no anzen ni taisuru jūdai na kyōi de, kokuren anzen hoshō rijikai no ketsugi ni meikaku ni ihan suru” (「我が国の安全に対する重大な脅威で、国連安全保障理事会の決議に明確に違反する」, “This is a grave threat to our country’s security and a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions”).

The two East China Sea incidents, which Onodera kōhyō shita (公表した, made public) on Feb. 5, occurred on Jan. 19 and Jan. 30. The technical terminology common to both is shageki yō no kaki kansei rēdā wo shōsha shita koto (射撃用の火器管制レーダーを照射したこと, locking fire-control radar on a target). The first target was an MSDF helicopter, the second a goeikan (護衛艦, escort vessel). What this means precisely would require expert knowledge to grasp. The simple explanation is that the procedure is buki shiyō ni chokketsu suru (武器使用に直結する, directly linked to the use of arms). It’s an ominous gesture rendered positively isshoku sokuhatsu (一触即発, explosive) by the geographical setting — in the vicinity of the Senkaku islets possessed by Japan but claimed by China. China calls them Diaoyu.

China met Japan’s anger with anger of its own, promptly denying that anything of the sort had taken place. Japan insisted its evidence was ironclad, Onodera saying, “Nihongawa ni ochido ga aru wake wa nai” (「日本側に落ち度があるわけはない」, “Japan is definitely not mistaken”). On Feb. 5 Japan conveyed its official kōgi (抗議, protest) to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and to the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing.

Campaigning for an election his Liberal-Democratic Party won decisively on Dec. 16, Abe was often blustery, vowing at one point to station public officials on the Senkakus. Once in office, that confrontational mood seemed to pass, or at least to come under firmer control, and in late January he sent Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito, to China with a personal and apparently conciliatory letter to incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China’s ryōkai shinnyū (領海侵入, incursions into Japanese waters — or at least waters Japan unwaveringly regards as its own) continued, however, and the fire-control radar lock-ons have driven the akka suru (悪化する, deteriorating) bilateral relationship to new lows — to the point, noted an Asahi Shimbun editorial last month, where segments of Chinese official and public opinion “sensō mo jisazu” (「戦争も辞さず」 “are ready for war”). The weekly Shukan Shincho cited a yoron chōsa (世論調査, public opinion poll) showing 90 percent of Beijing residents enthusiastic about the prospect.

In North Korea the mood was jubilant. Once more this dark little corner of the Earth had set the world on edge. “San-kai-me no chika kaku jikken wo seikōri ni jisshi shita” (「三回目の地下核実験を成功裏に実施した」 “Our third underground nuclear test was carried out successfully”), declared the Chosen Chuo Tsushin (朝鮮中央通信, KCNA state news agency). The first two tests had come in 2006 and 2009. KCNA added, “Kore made yori bakuhatsuryoku ga ōkikute kogataka, keiryōka shita genshi bakudan wo tsukatta” (「これまでより爆発力が大きくて小型化、軽量化した原子爆弾を使った」, “We used an atomic bomb that was smaller, lighter and had greater explosive power than the ones used up to now”). KCNA’s view of things does not necessarily meet world standards of objectivity, but in this case the claim is regarded as substantially true, and international alarm is in proportion. If this kogataka (小型化, miniaturized) bomb can be mounted on a chōkyori dandō misairu (長距離弾道ミサイル, long-range ballistic missile) — and a purported rocket launch in December suggests that capability — then not only Japan and South Korea but even the United States would have reason to feel vulnerable.

The cry immediately went up from kokusai shakai (国際社会, the international community) for additional seisai (制裁, sanctions) against a regime many of whose citizens are already starving. What does the regime want? What does it feel it gained?

In two words: international respect. Richly despised for its thuggish totalitarianism and its hopeless economy, the North Korean dictatorship may have grasped one hard truth, at the expense of many others, about the art of governing: fear buys respect.