A recent news item in The Japan Times really shocked me. It concerned what a former political heavyweight once said in private.

I am not easily shocked by what politicians say or do in private. John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson often used barnyard language to describe their real and perceived enemies. Well, let’s not be prudes. You couldn’t keep abreast of American politics if you thought SOB stood for “Silly Old Bumbler.” And, when it comes to more than words, I couldn’t give a Lewinsky for what presidents actually get up, or down to, in private.

But Henry Kissinger’s remark in 1972 about the Japanese people, as reported in this paper on May 28, stands out.

According to just-released official documents, Kissinger, then U.S. Secretary of State in the Nixon administration, said of the Japanese, “Of all the treacherous sons of bitches, the Japs take the cake. It’s not just their indecent haste in normalizing relations with China, but they even picked [China’s] National Day as their preference to go there.”

There are two points to examine in this statement.

First — and this is the part that shocked me — is Kissinger’s use of the derogatory epithet for the Japanese. Is this acceptable in private? Acceptable, I guess so; he’s entitled to his biases as a private citizen. But what does this tell us about the man who was secretary of state? It suggests that he may have been racist, at least toward the Japanese. Were the foreign minister of a country to refer to Kissinger, who is Jewish, with one of the pejorative words that anti-Semites use to describe Jews, the Western press would condemn him or her before you could say Jackie Robinson.

Second, let’s look at the background behind these telling remarks.

Liftoff for economy

1972 was a momentous year for China’s relations with the outside world, a year which, in a way, provided the liftoff for today’s skyrocketing Chinese economy. In July 1971, Kissinger himself had been on what was, at least at the outset, a secret mission to China. That paved the way for U.S. President Nixon to travel to Beijing in February 1972 and shake hands with Mao Zedong. The Japanese had not been given prior notice. Why should they have been? The business of the United States is its business . . . and no one else’s.

So, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka took an initiative of his own. He went to China in July 1972 and, in a move that got the jump on the Americans by a full seven years, announced — together with his Chinese hosts — that full diplomatic relations were to be established between the two countries. It was to this announcement that Kissinger reacted so vituperatively and illiberally. How dare the Japanese establish diplomatic relations without U.S. permission! Kissinger’s bully mindset is exposed by his use of the word “treacherous” to describe what Japan had done.

As for Japan, rapprochement seemed to be the logical course to take. Eisaku Sato, Tanaka’s predecessor, had been openly pro-Taiwan. This barred any genuine rapprochement with China. Furthermore, China’s self-mutilation in the form of the Cultural Revolution had essentially run its course, and the country was ready for its real great leap forward into modernity. Tanaka’s reversal of policy was based more on economics than politics. He wanted to facilitate Japanese investment in China before the West cottoned on to its potential. That is precisely what happened. Japanese investment in China soared, making Japan’s role in China’s present economic achievement immense — a fact never given its due credit by either the U.S. or China.

Was this treachery? Not as observed from the standpoint of Japan’s national interest. But it was from Kissinger’s. This is the man who did not hesitate to prosecute America’s interests, as he saw them, in Chile and Cambodia, directly bringing on the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. In this world view, all international relations are bilateral: between the U.S. and one other country. Any other countries that wish to take part are sincerely encouraged to sit on the sidelines, or, for countries that matter little to the U.S., in the bleachers. Feel free to watch the game, sure, even make the occasional catcall. But stay off our field.

Kissinger’s remarks would be meaningful but quaint history were it not for their startling relevance today. We are, once again, at another of those turning points in the triangular relationship between Japan, the U.S. and China.

Reconciliatory moves

In a few months’ time, the Liberal Democratic Party will choose its new leader, the person who will most likely be Japan’s next prime minister. The three leading candidates differ little in terms of their domestic agenda. It is clear that the primary issue in the choice of leader is Japan’s policy toward China. It is in the closed chambers of today’s LDP that Kissinger’s remarks reverberate loud and clear: It is not in the interests of the U.S. for Japan to make reconciliatory moves toward China.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been U.S. President George W. Bush’s star pupil in Asia, bending over backward toward America and away from China. But the upcoming choice of new leader may see Japan stand up straight and once again offer the hand of friendship to China. This will be the likely outcome of a victory in the race for the top job by Yasuo Fukuda, who is well disposed to a shift in Japan’s China policy.

But if either Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe or Foreign Minister Taro Aso becomes the next prime minister, we can expect Japan to hold fast to the hard Koizumi line for the foreseeable future. Go to Abe’s official site and you will see that defense is his primary concern. Emblazoned across the top in large characters is a single message: “Kono kuni o mamoru ketsui (Determination to defend this country).” Abe has supported Koizumi’s frequent visits to Yasukuni Shrine and has, in effect, told the Chinese not to meddle in the affair. “Kuni o mamoru” is a statement of purpose aimed primarily at China.

As for Aso, he has gone so far as to use the word kokka (nation) to describe Taiwan. On March 9, in a Diet committee meeting, he referred to Taiwan as a “nation,” before embarrassingly adding, “It would be more precise to say it’s a region (chi’iki).” But such slips of the tongue, if that’s what they were, are as revealing of the politician’s true intention as was Kissinger’s outburst against Tanaka and his more than 100-million compatriots.

This is not the end of history for Japan and China; it is the beginning of a new chapter. It will be interesting to see if the Japanese will be authoring it themselves, or if the old ghostwriters in Washington will be busy putting words in Japanese mouths.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.