Japan’s latest hostage crisis has exposed shortcomings in Japan’s public diplomacy and raises questions about the advice Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received in publicly announcing $200 million in humanitarian aid to help those displaced by conflict with the Islamic State group.
Understandably, the prime minister wants to demonstrate solidarity with anti-Islamic State forces and make clear that proactive pacifism is not just empty rhetoric, but prominently throwing Japan’s hat into the ring proved a high-risk strategy for the hostages. Japan has long earned goodwill in the Middle East by discreetly working in the background rather then grandstanding, but maybe Abe thought he might get some kudos from Washington for the gesture.
Even though he did not secure the release of either Kenji Goto or Haruna Yukawa, it is clear that Abe was trying to cut a deal, using Jordan as a convenient cover.
Washington will get over it, but given the large number of Japanese businesspeople working in the Middle East, and the many NGOs involved in a massive humanitarian aid program in Afghanistan, much is at stake for a Japan that has just abandoned four decades of “omnidirectional” diplomacy in the region and taken sides. Islamic extremists have taken note and the recent incidents in Brussels, Paris and Sydney are cause for concern: Terrorism may not remain a taigan no kaji (fire on the other side of the river).
Nancy Snow, a leading American scholar on public diplomacy now in Japan on an Abe Fellowship, is incredulous about Abe’s posturing.
“I just can’t understand why Abe made such a high-profile visit to the Middle East at this time,” Snow says. “The Middle East is not a place for Japan to go and get ensnared in the (Islamic State) field of vision. Japan was coasting along quite well outside the global ‘war on terror,’ maintaining its low profile, and then Abe had to increase the testosterone.
“How naive to think that he couldn’t be walking into a perfect trap with his $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries fighting Islamic State.”
Despite the deaths of both hostages, I expect Abe’s popularity will rise because he has been the picture of a resolute leader in crisis and Islamic State has to answer for their murders.
Drawing on a “rally around the flag” syndrome in the Diet, Abe will use the hostage crisis to push for much more in terms of bolstering Japan’s military capabilities and lifting constitutional constraints, perhaps even arguing for special commando forces that could mount a rescue operation in the future. He will encounter pushback and as he has adroitly done on many occasions, will pull back a bit, relying on his Reagan-esque Teflon to shrug off flak while letting the opprobrium die down. In doing so, he slyly stretches the envelope for his security agenda despite public misgivings.
Down the road, however, Abe will likely face some tough questions about the hostage crisis that could complicate his efforts to pass several bills related to collective self-defense, the controversial reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution he made last July that most Japanese oppose and very few support. Overall, the crisis has been an opportunity to stand tall, but it has also shown the public the risks of doing so. Most Japanese have misgivings about the wisdom of the prime minister’s proactive pacifism and now their doubts have been vindicated. Being America’s deputy sheriff is a high-stakes game-changer.
Aside from Abe’s ill-timed announcement about humanitarian aid, there have been other cringe-worthy diplomatic gaffes. Last month, government officials visited the New York offices of publisher McGraw Hill to complain about descriptions of “comfort women” and the disputed territories in one of its textbooks.
What were they thinking? The publisher responded that evidence and scholarly consensus is on its side and questioned why the Japanese government was meddling. The international media had a field day, skewering Japan for being in denial about its past and trampling on hallowed values and rights.
Surely the diplomats should understand that deft public diplomacy means understanding what battles can be fought and how to effectively fight them. Poking its nose into U.S. textbook content was a losing proposition especially over controversies involving wartime Japan. While the Japanese government may have grounds for grousing, its intervention has been a public relations disaster.
There really is no way government officials can win on touchy history issues because no matter how delicately they phrase their demands, a backlash is almost guaranteed, and Japan winds up looking like it is shirking war responsibility and encroaching on academic freedom and freedom of expression. So, quibbling about exactly how comfort women were recruited and treated, and how many there were, looks unseemly because fundamentally it was a sordid system operated at the behest and with the active participation of the Japanese military. There is no good way to spin this and no odds in minimizing it. The same holds for squabbling about the Nanking Massacre, mistreatment of POWs, Unit 731 or forced labor. Surely Germany could also gripe over some details about what is written concerning the Nazis’ record, but by not doing so it has been far more successful in overcoming the past.
The government should not be in the business of promoting self-serving views of history because it will only reinforce negative perceptions of Japan. There is no nobility in self-exoneration. Problematically, the current government is challenging the long-standing mainstream consensus in academia, here and abroad, on Japan’s wartime past with blunt propaganda and clumsy revisionism that is more embarrassing than convincing. If there is substance to the government’s arguments and revisionists’ assertions, then credible academics will have to make the case in peer-reviewed publications. Historians are constantly revising our understanding of the past based on fresh, convincing analysis and new sources, so if indeed Japan has been unfairly maligned, reputable scholars hold the key to redemption, not government propagandists.
Revisionists can get away with bullying the Asahi Shimbun and work up a sanctimonious ire about the injustice of Japan’s villainous image and the indignities of what they view as masochistic history, but surely diplomats should know this jingoistic swaggering won’t win Japan any friends overseas and will embarrass and alienate those it has.
The online version of this commentary was updated to reflect the turn of events Sunday morning.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.