Abe put Japan on back foot in global PR war with China

by Linda Sieg and Ben Blanchard


Japan risks losing a global PR battle with China after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial shrine for war dead and comments by other prominent figures on the wartime past helped Beijing try to paint Tokyo as the villain of Asia.

Sino-Japanese ties have long been plagued by territorial rows, regional rivalry and disputes stemming from China’s bitter memories of Japan’s occupation of parts of the country before and during World War II.

Relations chilled markedly after a feud over disputed East China Sea isles flared in 2012.

Beijing, however, has stepped up its campaign to sway international public opinion since Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism because it honors leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals with millions of war dead.

That strategy has helped China shift some of the debate away from its growing military assertiveness in Asia, including double-digit defense spending increases and the recent creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that was condemned by Tokyo and Washington, experts said.

“Right now, this is a real war,” said Shin Tanaka, president of the FleishmanHillard Japan Group in Tokyo, a communications consultancy.

“Japan and China are using missiles called ‘messages’ and the reality is that a lot of damage is already happening in both countries,” he added, warning of a mutual backlash of nationalist emotions and potential harm to business ties.

Abe has repeatedly said he did not visit the shrine to honor war criminals but to pay his respects to those who died for their country and pledge Japan would never again go to war.

Getting that message across is not easy, communications and political experts said. Abe’s Yasukuni visit “gave China the opportunity . . . to attack Japan and send the message that China is the good guy and Japan is the bad guy,” Tanaka said.

Some Japanese diplomats and officials dismissed any suggestion they were worried, saying Tokyo’s rebuttals and the country’s postwar record of peace would win the day.

“Their Goebbelsian PR binge — repeat it 100 times then it becomes true, ungrounded or not — shows all the symptoms of a Leninist regime still remaining in the 21st century,” Tomohiko Taniguchi, a councilor in the Cabinet secretariat of the prime minister’s office, said in an email.

He was referring to Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda from 1933 to 1945.

“Yes we feel annoyed, but the next moment we relax for we have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Still, experts said Abe’s shrine visit had made it easier for Beijing to try to link Abe’s plans to bolster the military and loosen limits on the pacifist Constitution to Japan’s militarist past.

“The most fundamental thing they say is to assert that Japan is going on a path of militarism a la the 1930s. That’s just nonsense,” said Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. “But the problem is the Chinese are able to blur a lot of this stuff because of what Abe did.”

Recent remarks about Japan’s wartime past by the chairman of NHK and members of its board of governors have added grist to China’s PR mill.

Among those remarks were comments by new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii, who told a news conference last month that the “comfort women” — a euphemism for the vast number of females forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels — had counterparts in every country at war at that time. He later apologized.

NHK’s chief is selected by a board of governors that includes four Abe appointees.

Since the start of the year, Chinese ambassadors and other officials have targeted Japan 69 times in media around the world, the Foreign Ministry said in Tokyo. The campaign includes interviews, written commentaries and news conferences.

As of Feb. 10, Japan had issued rebuttals in 67 cases with the other two under review, Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said.

Asked if China had won over international opinion, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said countries such as South Korea — where memories of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule run deep — had also criticized Tokyo.

“The mistaken ways of the Japanese leader have incurred the strong opposition of the international community,” Hua told reporters. “China is willing to work with other victims of the war and the international community to uphold historical justice.”

The verbal jousting has spanned the globe from capitals such as London and Washington to remote Fiji and South Sudan.

The best known exchanges are the “Voldemort attacks” in which China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, last month compared Japan to the villain in the Harry Potter children’s book series. In reply, Japan’s envoy, Keiichi Hayashi, said China risked becoming “Asia’s Voldemort.”

“We try to explain that Japan faces its history squarely and has expressed remorse . . . (and that) Japan will continue to pursue the path of a peace-loving country,” Sato said.

“Sometimes they try to link the visit to the shrine to security policy. That is a totally unrelated matter.”

Still, some in Japan fear that China’s PR blitz is having an impact on world opinion.

“A lie is repeated so that people are brainwashed and start to believe it,” Akira Sato, head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on defense policy, told Reuters.

Echoed a Western diplomat in Beijing: “China is being successful at getting its message across while Japan keeps saying stupid things like questioning the existence of comfort women. I think (China) has changed opinions.”

Tokyo’s mostly reactive approach, some PR experts said, was not enough to sway international public opinion, a worry some Japanese diplomats share privately.

“Japan is very worried that China is winning this propaganda war,” said an Asian diplomat based in Beijing. “Their diplomats have been asking how they can better put their side of the story and win people over in the West.”

That could be tough if Abe declines to say whether he will visit Yasukuni again or other prominent Japanese figures make contentious comments on wartime history, experts said.

Other matters, such as revisionist changes to Japanese textbooks to promote patriotism, could add fuel to the fire.

“Even if he doesn’t go to Yasukuni again, there are plenty of issues on their (the Japanese government’s) agenda,” Sneider said.

  • Marisa Louisa

    No matter what China says, nobody really believes them. All their statements come from the propaganda mill deep in the bowels on the Chinese Communist Party. China really has no room to complain about Japan or any other country. Just look at China: horrible pollution, a bully to its neighbors, a horrible banking system, and lots of corruption. All we have to do is look at the money outflows from China to know that not all is well there, and that is why the Chinese thugocracy is trying to blame Japan for something.

    • Wahrheitsfreund

      Keep in mind, the government ruling Beijing is responsible for some 60-80 million (and counting) deaths, through a combination of Maoist stupidity and malice, of its own people.

      To the point of the article, Japan has been losing the PR war with the PRC (and the ROC for that matter) for some time now. Beijing likes to play the role of the innocent, put-upon “victim” of the “evil Japanese imperialists,” complaining about honoring “war criminals” while keeping alive a cult of personality for the greatest direct mass murderer in human history.

      How such a regime has any moral legitimacy is beyond me, but apparently, enough people in the west believe it so that it’s a real problem for Tokyo.

      • zer0_0zor0

        One would think that Deng Xiaoping et al. deserve a little recognition for acknowledging the problems brought about by some of Mao’s misguided programs. That would seem to problematize the degree to which a “cult of personality” persists.

        Here’s a fairly recent article about the rehabilitation of Confucious in China. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/rehabilitation-of-confucius-complete/article562015/

        In short, while the Chinese government has officially recognized problems of the past and most people in China would seem to be intent on moving forward, the present administration in Japan and its ilk seem intent on tying to move backward, as demonstrated not only by their refusal to recognize mistakes of the past, but to whitewash incidents such as war crimes, etc, and spin a nationalistic fairy tale to keep their uninformed followers in tow.

    • 장훈 주

      I think that you are out of point. Chinese is talking about Japanese attitude for their historical inhuman against Asian during 2nd world war nothing to do with your mentioning. No Asian can forgive these Abe gangs.

  • zer0_0zor0

    A rather callow and shallow treatment of the topic in his article.

    This is not a PR game that is to be won or lost by spin doctors, and it is only a propaganda effort insofar as Japanese politicians whose forebears were war criminals that escaped trial because of the crass realpolitik mentality spurred by anti-Communist fanaticism in the Truman administration. They reckoned that it would be better to try and rehabilitate German and Japanese war criminals so as to be better prepared for the pending confrontation with the red menace.

    Well, looks like that plan backfired, and now Abe is trying to prove that his grandfather and his ilk weren’t war criminals after all, just died in the wool Japanese patriots faithful to the empire. But the red menace is still the enemy, just in a different gestalt. Abe et al seem to have learned a lot from the purveyors of the “red scare” in the USA, including appeals to religion.

    Spin doctors pose a danger to the emergence of truth in historical inquiry, and if the media doesn’t seek to see that its readers are as well informed as possible, then I suppose the days of representative systems of government are numbered.

    PR people masquerading as purveyors of historical truth are being afforded the chance to exert an influence in the media that fails to serve the public interest insofar as it fails to contribute to a healthy democratic process vis-a-vis stimulating public discourse in a manner such as to first facilitate the recognition of problems so that they can be resolved as well as more readily recognizable should the recur in the future.

    The failure of the media to address (or even grasp) the continuum from the Meiji era through WWII and into he present with respect to militarism in Japan is appalling. Marius Jansen must be rolling over in his grave.

    But I suppose that this is were the crux of the recent success of the Chinese lies: they have been able to educate the public around the world by putting out an intelligible message that resonates with history.

    • 장훈 주

      Mr. Abe is trying to cover war criminals and trying rearming. His last goal is nuclear armed country to convince USA with provoking Asian countries China & South Korea including Russia. He is trying to cheat world for to follow his grandfather’s blood and his oath to revenge in fornt of those ashamed war crimes.

  • Frank Schirmer

    “Their Goebbelsian PR binge — repeat it 100 times then it becomes true, ungrounded or not — shows all the symptoms of a Leninist regime still remaining in the 21st century,”

    A very bad case of a pot calling the kettle black. It seems the irony escapes the Abe government.

  • Osaka48

    The Wall Street Journal recently reported that China’s propaganda efforts against Japan have essentially failed in America. I agree. Nevertheless, Japan’s activities are not helping their cause.