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Senkaku issue falls hard from the shelf


Tanaage, which means to put something on the shelf, is a term that pops up often in the coverage of the current imbroglio over the islands that Japan calls the Senkakus. There is disagreement over when China, which calls the islands Diaoyu, started insisting they were its territory, but in any case the two countries didn’t confront each other with their respective claims until the 1970s. Japanese hardliners say the Chinese became possessive about the rocks in the East China Sea only when they determined there were valuable resources under them, while the Chinese say they’ve been visiting them before Japan was a twinkle in the goddess Amaterasu’s eye.

But around 1978 the matter was “put on the shelf” in accordance with an unspoken understanding that China would continue claiming the islands for itself while tacitly acknowledging that Japan “realistically controlled them,” to quote China-based freelance journalist Yoshiko Furumae in the Tokyo Shimbun. Japan could then assert to the void that there is no territorial problem.

Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara effectively knocked the matter off the shelf when he offered to buy the islands from its Japanese owners on behalf of Tokyo, a move that prodded the national government to make its own offer, thus not only inflating the price of the rocks from ¥500 million to a staggering ¥2 billion, but also causing China to lose face, since the deal was sealed the day after Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao held a secret meeting at the APEC conference in Vladivostok, where Noda didn’t even mention the pending purchase. Hu was furious.

Furumae calls the current impasse “diplomatic idiocy,” though a more accurate description might be “diplomatic cluelessness,” since the reporter believes that the Japanese government preempted Ishihara’s bid because it thought China would be less upset if that happened. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation. China has never had an understanding with Ishihara.

International politics is often about what isn’t said, and in the case of two countries with as delicate a relationship as China and Japan obviously the less said the better. It’s the media’s job to explain what all the indirections, deflections and hollow statements mean, but usually it plays along with the game. Much was made of the antagonistic rhetoric coming from the five candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency, all of whom were unstinting in their aggressive stance toward China. I never heard anyone ask a candidate if he would seriously go to war with China over the Senkakus, presumably because everybody assumed he wouldn’t. But considering how dull and predictable the exchanges were it might have been entertaining to see them squirm.

This caution has to do with something else unspoken: The feeling that the media has to align itself with the Japanese hardline regardless of any perceived journalistic responsibility. This is hardly a problem limited to the Japanese press. The American mainstream media, caught up in the patriotic fervor unleashed by 9/11, was complicit in the disastrous invasion of Iraq by not questioning the administration’s motives. With regard to the Senkakus, the Japanese media has been spared having to question or investigate the legitimacy of Japan’s claim by the antics of all those Chinese demonstrators who decided to exercise their own patriotic fervor by destroying and looting Japanese businesses. The fact that Chinese citizens were being violent and Japanese citizens were being “calm” said everything there was to say, though again there was a lot that wasn’t said. And it’s not just that the demonstrations were being manipulated by the police and the government they work for, a revelation that surprised no one.

They might have been surprised, however, by all the Chinese who expressed revulsion at the violence. Independent journalists such as Furumae and Kaori Fukushima had to resort to Facebook and Twitter to report on all the average citizens who, while believing that the Senkakus are China’s, nevertheless thought the matter wasn’t that serious and decried the “mobilization” of people whose disaffection made it easy for the authorities to direct their anger at a target they’d resented ever since learning about Japan’s historical duplicity in school. The Japanese media has made sure everybody knows these malcontents were really demonstrating against their own government (“see, they’re carrying pictures of Mao”) and not the Japanese, as if that’s supposed to make everyone feel better.

Just as the Chinese government can’t admit to its own people the “real situation” regarding the Senkakus — that Japan controls them and, with the U.S. on its side, probably always will — Japanese authorities can’t acknowledge just how much Japanese companies have invested in China. When those five guys were running for the LDP presidency they all made a point of saying that Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus was more important than any economic consideration, and last week during a discussion of the issue on NHK veteran journalist Yoshiko Sakurai, an outspoken nationalist, said that people “shouldn’t get emotional over economic matters.” Then somebody else on the show had to spoil the fun by pointing out that Chinese markets are worth ¥34 trillion to Japan. It’s difficult to be unemotional about such a figure when your own market is shrinking so fast.

A former foreign ministry official told the magazine Aera that the only thing Japan can do is to “try to put the Senkaku issue back up on the shelf.” That might be difficult, especially if new LDP president Shinzo Abe, who is basically Shintaro Ishihara with a gastrointestinal problem, becomes prime minister again. Putting the matter back on the shelf is like getting the proverbial genie back in the bottle. It might actually be easier to discuss the problem.