LONDON — Every year on my annual visit to Tokyo I spend at least one evening drinking sake in a small bar in Shibuya. And every year after I have finished eating one of the dishes the mama-san has put in front of me, while I am talking, there will be a big cheer and a lot of laughter. Yet again I have been tricked into eating whale meat. And every year I wonder why the Japanese are so weak at public relations and unable to attract the respect on the international stage that they believe they deserve. Very odd.
Listening to a Japanese senior politician recently saying that as long as one Japanese consumer wants to eat whale meat the Japanese will continue to kill whales to supply that need makes you wonder if he appreciates how ridiculous he sounds. Very odd.
And doesn’t the senior Japanese bureaucrat at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) realize how silly it makes him and Japan seem when he claims a great political and moral victory when he has bought enough votes to ensure a minor victory — a majority of one for a vote on an intention to return to commercial whaling “sometime in the future”? Very odd.
Just how odd can you get?
Asserting that you have a moral or political right, or even a religious right, to take a position on some international issues is fine, as long as you do not mind what the consequences are if asserting those rights upsets other countries. In recent years Japan has developed its ability to offend other countries by asserting its rights to a fine art.
At a time when Japan is also asserting its right to play a larger role in world affairs and to be taken more seriously, this seems odd.
It is getting increasingly difficult to find respect for many Japanese politicians, and the bureaucrats who uncritically seek to implement the offensive policies those politicians press for.
On prime time British television earlier this month I was asked why Japanese politicians and bureaucrats at the IWC meeting lied so blatantly even though they knew that every listener was aware that they were lying. The answer I gave, and I believe I am right, is that the liars thought that they would lose less face lying when they knew people would know that they were lying than they would if they admitted that they had “perverted the cause of justice” by buying votes.
You lose respect for a country’s leaders who act like this, especially over whale meat, which fewer and fewer Japanese like to eat. The Japanese leaders also lie when they say that the only objective in killing whales is to carry out research — this research apparently requires Japanese whalers to kill almost 1,000 whales every year. I cannot bring to mind even one finding of that research, can you? I doubt if ordinary Japanese people could tell me either. Most of the whales the Japanese kill are simply stuffed into large freezers and left there, if we are to believe newspaper reports.
No, it is definitely very odd that at a time when Japan wants so much to be taken seriously — think about the effort it is making to become a member of the United Nations Security Council — it seems determined to do as much as it can to alienate global public opinion.
The whaling fiasco would be enough on its own. But it is not on its own. There sometimes seems to be a special department of the Japanese government whose role is to find ways to get up the nose of global public opinion.
At a time when Japan should be playing a major leadership role in East Asia, especially Northeast Asia, its government’s poor PR means that it is less and less likely to play that role.
Think Yasukuni Shrine — apart from allowing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to keep as friends and supporters some extremist nationalists, what other purpose do these visits achieve?
The visits are probably even illegal under Japanese constitutional law (and if not they should be) but off he goes each year fully conscious of the impact that the visit will have on Japan’s relations with its neighbors. It makes nonsense of Japanese leaders’ claims to be fully and genuinely contrite about the atrocities Japanese troops committed in the region over many years apparently with the full approval of the Emperor and his government.
Think too of Japanese history textbooks, Japanese claims for islands that have always been Korean or Chinese; think of the disputes with Russia over the four small islands that Russia occupied with Allied support at the end of World War II; think of disputes over maritime territorial borders; think of the media frenzy over a few people abducted by the North Koreans — a tiny, tiny number compared to the millions abducted in Korea and China (and elsewhere) by the Japanese over many years and who were not treated anything like as well as the North Koreans treated the Japanese they abducted; and think about Japan’s relations with Taiwan.
I could go on, but why bother? I think that the point is made — Japan is just not very good at public relations.
Norway kills more whales than Japan; Chinese textbooks are worse than Japanese textbooks; the Chinese Communists killed and tortured many more Chinese than the Japanese troops did; the Chinese government supports and approves bloody dictators around the world without quibble; Russia maintains tight control over its colonies in Siberia (colonies it stole from the aboriginals and from the Chinese); the North Koreans treat their own people much worse than they do Japanese abductees; Chinese territorial claims in Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang are very questionable; South Korean treatment of women is odious by Western standards (even worse than Japan’s), etc.
Global contempt seems to be saved for Japan. Not because it is any worse than most other countries, but because it gets its public-relations wrong, it takes up-against-the-wall positions on globally trivial issues. Even on big issues, Japan takes positions that are arrogant and offensive and loses it support, even when it is right.
The Japanese government, both politicians and bureaucrats, need to take some lessons on style and PR if Japan is to take it proper place on the global stage.
Note to my friends in Shibuya: no more whale meat, please.
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