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Japan sought to strike a diplomatic balance Friday in its relationships with both its top ally and its top trading partner, with the government announcing that Tokyo will not dispatch its representatives to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in part due to human rights concerns.

Instead, the government will send Yasuhiro Yamashita, the Japanese Olympic Committee president; Seiko Hashimoto, an Upper House lawmaker and the president of the organizing committee for the Tokyo Games; and Kazuyuki Mori, president of the Japan Paralympic Committee.

“Japan believes that it is important that the universal values of freedom, respect for basic human rights and the rule of law be guaranteed in China, and we have been working directly with the Chinese side at various levels to promote this position held by Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

“As the Tokyo Games have shown, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are a festival of peaceful sports that gives courage to the world,” the prime minister said. “The Japanese government’s response to the Beijing Games was based on its own judgment in a timely manner, taking these points into consideration.”

Kishida stopped short of calling it a diplomatic boycott, saying the government “does not intend to use a specific phrase.” Japanese athletes are not expected to be impacted by the move and will participate in the Games as scheduled.

The announcement comes nearly three weeks after the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden announced that it would not be sending government officials to the Beijing Games. Group of Seven partners Australia, Canada and the U.K. later joined the diplomatic boycott, while France said earlier this month that it will not adopt the same approach, apparently in consideration of the 2024 Paris Games.

Countries taking part in the boycott said they were protesting Chinese human rights abuses, including its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in its far-west Xinjiang region and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Japan’s move will allow China to save face by avoiding the diplomatic boycott terminology, while still conveying to the U.S. that it stands with its ally in taking a stronger stance on the challenge presented by Beijing, including its desire to strengthen its military and territorial claims.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Tuesday | BLOOMBERG
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Tuesday | BLOOMBERG

Although Hashimoto is an Upper House lawmaker, and as such could be viewed as a government representative, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said that she will be dispatched to Beijing as the head of the organizing committee at the invitation of the IOC.

The two others — Yamashita and Mori — will attend as representatives of their respective organizations.

Japan Sports Agency Commissioner Koji Murofushi was among possible candidates to be sent to Beijing. But Matsuno said Murofushi will not be going because it will be difficult for him to perform his tasks as head of the agency, such as encouraging Japanese athletes, due to strict coronavirus control measures that will be imposed during the Beijing Games.

However, it has been speculated that the government decided not to send the former Olympian because he belongs to a government agency.

By sending representatives not directly affiliated with the government and mentioning rights concerns, Tokyo believes it has fulfilled its obligations in sending a message to China even though its tone is not as harsh as the countries engaging in a diplomatic boycott.

China dispatched its Olympic committee chief, Gou Zhongwen, to the Tokyo Games last summer. However, Gou also holds a Cabinet-level position as head of the General Administration of Sport of China.

Japan and China will mark 50 years of diplomatic ties next year, and Kishida may be looking to use a more tempered approach to the Games to avoid a full-blown row over the issue ahead of the anniversary.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

China, however, may not see things this way.

“While the Kishida government has been more careful in its rhetoric by not using the term ‘diplomacy boycott’ — suggesting Tokyo is trying to walk a fine line balancing its ties with Beijing and avoiding escalating the risk of conflict — China will certainly not perceive this as such,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University.

Chinese Ambassador to Japan Kong Xuanyou last week urged Tokyo not to join the boycott, likening it to a “political performance.” Kong said he wants Japan to be “strongly cautious about and block such a dangerous” move so as not to damage bilateral diplomatic ties as the key anniversary looms.

Ahead of the announcement, the prime minister had repeatedly said that he would take into account Japan’s national interests in coming to a decision.

Kishida had faced growing pressure from some more conservative members of his Liberal Democratic Party — including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi — who urged him to hew more closely to the U.S. and others that have joined the diplomatic boycott.

“Finally,” tweeted Masahisa Sato, an LDP Upper House lawmaker who has been urging the government to take a firm stance against China’s human rights issues, in response to news reports about the decision that were published before Matsuno’s briefing.

“The point is whether or not to explicitly state ‘human rights violations’ as the reason for not sending government officials. If it is vague, China will see Japan as a weak partner,” Sato tweeted.

Still, since taking office Kishida has taken a tougher line on China than many observers had expected, calling Beijing out over its actions on Taiwan, creating a new human rights advisory post and devoting resources to economic security measures.

“All of this also illustrates that early expectations of Kishida inheriting the liberal wing of the LDP are misleading,” said Maslow. “The LDP as a whole has, especially since Abe’s return in 2012, been moving to the right and thus become increasingly more hawkish toward China.”

Potentially adding fuel to the fire, Japan is set to revamp three key diplomatic and security documents next year, moves that Maslow said would likely contribute to an even more confrontational Sino-Japanese relationship.

“As Japan is set to review its national security and defense posture in 2022, the rhetoric surrounding China will certainly be amplified more, thus further escalating tensions,” he said.

The International Olympic Committee said in a statement after the U.S. announcement earlier this month that “the presence of government officials and diplomats is a purely political decision for each government, which the IOC in its political neutrality fully respects.”

Olympic organizers have long attempted to insulate the Games from politics, touting neutrality as a key tenet of the spectacles. But global events have in the past sparked debate and even led to large boycotts, even as recently as 1980 and 1984.

Japan decided at the last minute to join 64 other countries, including the U.S., West Germany, Canada, Norway and China, in boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union and its allies responded with their own boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

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