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When U.S. President Donald Trump incited an insurrection on Jan. 6 that led a mob of supporters to violently attack the U.S. Capitol, leaders worldwide — including in Japan — condemned the move.

But Japan’s mildly worded rebuke stood in contrast to the forceful language used by leaders around the globe.

“Hopefully the difficult situation faced by U.S. democracy can be overcome, and stability and harmony will be restored as the country moves toward a peaceful, democratic presidential transition,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Jan. 7 following the riot that left five people dead.

Asked about Trump’s responsibility for the incident, Kato declined to comment, saying it was a domestic affair of the U.S.

On Jan. 6, Trump supporters had tried to stop the U.S. congress from validating President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election, after Trump told them to march to the building. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached Trump for inciting a violent insurrection.

Kato’s comment struck a markedly different tone to the reactions of leaders around the globe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned Trump by name, saying he created the atmosphere for the violent events. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said democracy should never be undone by a mob. French President Emmanuel Macron said Trump’s action represented a threat to the democratic principle of one person, one vote. Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been particularly close to Trump, condemned the U.S. president for encouraging people to behave in a disgraceful way and said he was pleased democracy had prevailed with congress confirming Biden’s election.

But when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke on the issue, during an appearance on a TV program for NHK on Jan. 10, he too avoided harsh rhetoric.

“The world sees the U.S. as the representative of democracy. In that sense, it’s extremely regretful,” Suga said. “I hope (the U.S.) will go from conflict to unity under Biden, the next president.”

Lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party criticized Suga for not sending out a clear message to the world.

“It is important for Prime Minister Suga to get the message out. German Chancellor Merkel criticized President Trump for inciting violence, but at the same time, she said she was opposed to Twitter’s freezing of Trump’s account,” Masahisa Sato, who heads the party’s foreign policy committee, quoted one of the members as saying during a meeting Wednesday.

Japanese experts on U.S. politics say that Trump’s close relationship with Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, played a role in Suga’s reaction.

Members of the National Guard walk in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.  | BLOOMBERG
Members of the National Guard walk in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

Hiro Aida, a visiting professor at Kansai University and an author of several books on U.S. politics, says that there are several reasons why the Suga administration hasn’t been as strongly outspoken in its criticism of Trump as other governments, including Japanese reticence toward Trump, which is partly a legacy of the Abe administration.

Abe nurtured a close relationship with Trump during his four years in office, which cemented bilateral ties. Under the bilateral security treaty, the U.S. defends Japan from foreign attack and stations around 54,000 troops at U.S. bases in Japan.

“The tradition of conservative politics in Japan is characterized by pragmatism, which is indifferent to principles and ideals. The Japanese government has also been reserved in its approach to the Hong Kong issue,” Aida explains.

“Trump had the best personal relationship with Abe,” says Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor at Waseda University’s school of social sciences. “Suga promised the people and the LDP that he would keep Abe’s policies and legacy. Therefore, criticizing Trump may mean criticizing Abe, which he definitely wants to avoid.”

Still, Japan’s influential national newspapers condemned the riots, with the Asahi Shimbun writing in its editorial that what happened was a danger to all democracies. The Yomiuri Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun newspapers both described what happened as a stain on the democratic process.

Some regional media used strong language to warn that American democracy was at risk or criticized Trump by name. A Chugoku Shimbun editorial published last Saturday stated clearly that the Capitol violence was a crime by Trump, and that there was no doubt the day of the attack was U.S. democracy’s most shameful. A Hokkaido Shimbun editorial the day before said the first priority of the incoming Biden administration must be to repair America’s damaged democracy.

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