Mark Selden, a historian at Cornell University, has suggested that Japan look toward seeking cooperation with its neighbors on environmental issues as a way to ease tensions heightened by the territorial disputes with China and South Korea.
“At a time when Japanese politics is in massive disarray . . . when the most extreme nationalist wing has just created a powerful new party, this is the worst possible time to move in the (territorial) conflict,” Selden said in a recent interview.
He was referring to Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and now led by former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who has said Japan should conduct a simulation to assess the potential impact of the country acquiring nuclear weapons.
“After the (Lower House) election (this Sunday), it becomes more possible to talk,” Selden said. The Democratic Party of Japan is hoping to remain a ruling party while the Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader, Shinzo Abe, is a well-known hawk, is seeking to regain power.
Selden said both territorial disputes have “deep roots in Japanese colonialism.”
“Japan claimed the Senkaku Islands in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese War. Japan seized the Takeshima Islands in 1905 in the year Japan made its first major move to dominate Korea,” he said.
“If we would move toward the resolution of the territorial issues by means other than war, it’s going to take recognition on the part of Japan in the case of the Senkakus that there is an issue to discuss and resolve,” he said.
Japan maintains that the Senkaku Islands are an integral part of its territory and refuses to acknowledge that there is a territorial dispute with China over them, echoing South Korea’s stance on Takeshima in the Sea of Japan.
Selden, however, noted the importance of timing in tackling the territorial disputes and recommended that the countries involved shift their focus to the environmental agenda in trying to eliminate bad blood, instead of confronting the island issues head-on.
“The environment is the kind of issue that lends itself to cooperative solutions. Japan can’t solve them alone,” Selden said, adding that Japan has to cooperate in the field with China and South Korea, which are “each other’s major (economic) partners.”
He pointed to Japan’s achievements in this area, citing its association with the Kyoto Protocol, which he describes as “one powerful, compelling initiative of the postwar era.”
The protocol was adopted in 1997 in Kyoto with binding obligations on developed countries, including Japan, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is a kind of base from which Japanese could reclaim a kind of sanity, a kind of progressive future of some sort,” he said.
Selden is a cofounder of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, which included now renowned historians such as John W. Dower, who collaborated with Japanese antiwar activists in Japan during the Vietnam War era from the mid-1960s.
He is a coordinator of “The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus,” an electronic journal, which he claims “is reaching arguably the largest number of readers of any journal” focusing on the region.