WASHINGTON – The government has been expanding a program to win over public opinion in the United States on Japan’s foreign policy related to defense and the disputes with China and South Korea over territory and wartime history.
The program is aimed at encouraging more Americans to back Japan in the war of words with its neighbors. A pillar of the strategy is presenting Japan’s policies through events organized by U.S. think tanks that are influential in policymaking and forming public opinion.
“I found American people’s understanding of Japan is still insufficient,” scholar Yuichi Hosoya said after taking part as a panelist in one such symposium on bilateral relations in November in Washington. “There must be more opportunities like this.”
A change in Japan’s defense policy and concern about growing nationalism under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, widely viewed as a hawk, were among the key topics discussed in the event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hosoya, a law professor at Keio University and member of Abe’s panel reviewing the legal basis for national security, struggled to explain what Japan is trying to do under the administration’s motto of “proactive contribution to global peace,” which is often described as unclear.
Matake Kamiya, another panelist who is a professor at the National Defense Academy, downplayed concern about the potential rise of extreme nationalism in Japan.
Kamiya told the audience of around 200 that the Japanese public is “more level-headed” than thought when it comes to the country’s Asian neighbors.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) suffered a dramatic loss of public support after he made questionable remarks about Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Kamiya said.
The Cabinet Public Relations Office secured ¥850 million for policy PR projects abroad during the current fiscal year and is seeking significantly more next year.
The Abe administration set up a special team last summer to handle public relations overseas and chose U.S. policymakers and those close to them as its first target.
The efforts reflect a sense of crisis among Japanese officials who have seen active policy promotion in the United States by China and South Korea, in contrast with the 1980s and 1990s, when Japan had a strong voice representing Asia.
In 2007, during Abe’s previous stint as prime minister, Korean-Americans successfully lobbied the U.S. House of Representatives to adopt a resolution demanding the Japanese government apologize for sexual servitude on the Korean Peninsula before and during World War II.
Chinese and South Korean groups have bought advertising space in The New York Times and The Washington Post in the last couple of years, pressing each country’s case on their territorial disputes with Japan.
Beijing put forward its claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, while Seoul defended its control of the rocky islets in the Sea of Japan called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
The Abe administration plans to air more programs promoting the country’s stance on foreign television channels and is considering asking past participants in the government-backed Japan Exchange and Teaching Program to help.
James Schoff, an expert on Japan-U.S. relations at the Carnegie Endowment, told Kyodo News that the Japanese government needs not only to pitch its positions to U.S. policymakers but to “reach out to different age groups and different circles of people.”
Schoff also said the Japanese government should be prepared to “play the long game,” meaning such efforts must be sustained.