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Media sheepish over island disputes

by Philip Brasor

Last Tuesday, when Tokyo prosecutors raided the offices of YouTube in order to find the person who leaked those videos of a Chinese fishing boat ramming a Japan Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands, the Asahi Shimbun published a letter from a man who said he had worked in media for 30 years. He wrote that had the press first made those tapes public it would have been a major scoop, but implied that it probably wouldn’t have happened, since the government had said the videos were off limits.

That night on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station,” anchorman Ichiro Furutachi commented that the media had basically ceded the job of safeguarding the public’s right to know to YouTube. The fact that the videos had been posted on the website for everyone to see gave TV news shows license to show them (and show them and show them . . . ) because they were now “part of a story.” Actually, the videos are the story, but by tying them to the government’s search for the person who leaked them (a Coast Guard officer, it turns out), the media could broadcast them without taking any responsibility.

In order to answer the question of whether or not the public has a right to see these videos, one first needs to know the government’s reasons for keeping them under wraps. Though Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara stated firmly that there is no “territorial dispute” over the Senkakus, the government knew that the release of the videos — which clearly show the Chinese fisherman to be the aggressor — would only make China more angry, and Japan needs those rare-earth materials it imports from China and whose export China stopped after the Japan Coast Guard arrested the skipper of the fishing boat.

Not coincidentally, the recent flap over Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s unexpected official visit to Kunashiri, one of four northern islands that Japan lays claim to but Russia controls, is also economic in nature, but the Japanese government says it is entirely a legal matter. The Russians dismiss Japan’s claims by saying that there is no “territorial dispute.” Sound familiar?

What the Japanese government doesn’t talk about is that Japan’s influence in East Asia has declined in the past two decades, and that China and Russia are taking advantage of this power shift. (South Korea, too, which also uses the “there is no territorial dispute” line when talking about the island Japan claims as Takeshima but which Korea presently controls.)

China can afford to be childishly intransigent about the Senkaku incident, which appears to have been sparked by one man’s patriotic fervor, because China knows Japan can’t live without China. Similarly, Medvedev understands that trade with the economically emergent Russia is vital to Japan, and has no problem inviting Japan’s anger by officially acknowledging that the Northern Territories are part of Russia.

As Yoshibumi Wakamiya explained in his Asahi column, Medvedev’s predecessors would never have dared visit any of the disputed islands, mainly because the shoe used to be on the other foot. Since the end of World War II, when the Soviets invaded the Kuril archipelago and Sakhalin Island and evicted their Japanese inhabitants, the USSR and, subsequently, Russia have needed Japanese support and investment at one time or another, and while the country’s leaders weren’t willing to give up the territories, they would never have done anything to provoke or humiliate Japan, such as visiting them in an official capacity. Until Medvedev’s visit, in fact, the vast majority of Russians knew nothing about them.

Conversely, while maintaining that the four islands were historically Japan’s, previous Japanese administrations practiced an incentive type of diplomacy, always offering something in return for the territories, or, at least, in return for acknowledgment that they were historically Japan’s.

But after the Democratic Party of Japan took power last year, Maehara was made minister for Okinawa and Hokkaido and thus became the man in charge of the Northern Territories problem. He said that Russia was “illegally occupying” the four islands, effectively continuing the hard line made plain by the last Liberal Democratic Party prime minister, Taro Aso.

That sort of candor served Maehara well in his concurrent job as construction minister, since it allowed him to question wasteful public works projects, but now that he’s foreign minister it sounds like shooting from the hip. Maehara’s stubbornness, regardless of the validity of Japan’s position, is strikingly similar in tone to China’s position vis-a-vis the Senkaku controversy. Medvedev obviously believes the new administration is not interested in negotiating, so why hide the fact that Russia controls those islands?

Meanwhile, Japanese media claim that the trip to Kunashiri was made for political purposes, since there is a parliamentary election in Russia next year and a presidential vote in 2012, and the sojourn was a perfect photo op. That may be true, but it obscures the larger reality that some 17,000 Russians make their permanent homes on the islands and the Russian government plans to increase the number to 30,000 by 2015. Whatever window of opportunity remains open for negotiations is slowly closing.

Politics involves the management of differing points of view, so it’s understandable if the Japanese government does not always openly acknowledge the reality of a certain situation. Maehara has already backtracked on his hawkish pronouncements, albeit vaguely, by saying that he will take a more “long-term” view of the foreign affairs challenges facing Japan. Presumably his short-term view — “We want all four islands and we want them now!” — is meant to appease a public that can’t be expected to appreciate the vicissitudes of history.

The media, however, is supposed to tell it like it is, so if the public doesn’t understand why they’re not supposed to see those videotapes then they aren’t going to unless the press explains it to them. However, they can still enjoy watching them and getting all riled up about those infernal Chinese.