Judging by the frequent overheated rhetoric coming out of parts of the Japanese media, you’d think Japan and China were heading toward war.
Of course, none of those now beating the drums for war will ever be drafted to fight. They are confident that, whatever happens, they’re part of the privileged class that will still be alive, and prospering, when the shooting is over.
This is not to imply the warmongers are correct. However, given the rise in alarmist rhetoric of late, it’s clearer than ever that relations with China are far too important to be left to the likes of the Foreign and Defense ministries, let alone politicians or the media.
For historical and cultural reasons, this is something Osaka understands. Anyone who deals with official Osaka will notice that the kind of crude, intense hatred toward China one finds in other parts of the country is often muted, or lacking entirely. Indeed, it’s more likely that opinions in Kansai on China and the Chinese people are more nuanced and subtle.
Given China’s economic importance to the Kansai region as a whole, this is not surprising. It’s the destination of nearly a quarter of Kansai’s exports, and the source of nearly a third of its imports. One-third of Kansai International Airport’s 900-plus international flights this past summer went to China, whereas a mere 5 percent headed to the United States and Europe. Rule No. 1 in business is that you do not antagonize your best customers.
Politically, local leaders have always had an “Asia first” policy, and you don’t get elected without the support of the China-centric, or at least Asia-centric, business community. Both the Kansai Economic Federation and the Kansai Association of Corporate Executives regularly send trade missions to all corners of China.
Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto have made numerous trips to China and hosted senior leaders at home. New Komeito, which is quite strong in Osaka, has long pushed for good relations with China. Liberal Democratic Party politicians and their supporters in the region are often silent or accent the positive aspects of China. There is not, it seems, much political advantage in being seen as rabidly anti-China.
What this means is that, despite the media rhetoric, Kansai leaders remain committed to better relations through trade, negotiation and compromise. They usually avoid provocative political statements and actions, instead engaging in behind-the-scenes discussions among Japanese and Chinese business partners who can then pressure their political leaders to tone things down.
Yes, Hashimoto may at times make insensitive remarks about historical issues. But, compared with the more extreme members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, Hashimoto’s record shows he is not instinctively anti-China. Given that many of his supporters are upper-middle-class Japanese in their 30s and 40s who are frustrated with the old men who run the nation and look upon the success of young Chinese entrepreneurs with envy, this is hardly surprising.
Is this “Osaka method” of China diplomacy doomed to failure, a victim of its own naivety, an amateur production of merchants who think that because they sell products to China they can run the Japan-China relationship better than the professional diplomats?
Perhaps, but one needs to start somewhere. Many hope the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing this November will include a summit between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. APEC is a forum ostensibly about trade, the perfect pretext for a businesslike tete-a-tete between the two leaders that can be built upon by those in Osaka and elsewhere who would rather talk about the benefits of trade and investment than the possibility of conflict.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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