Country Report: Japan (December 2021)


The autumn of 2021 was a time of transition in leadership without indication of any shift in foreign policy. The relationship with China had turned colder in 2020 with no optimism for 2022 despite its significance as the 50th anniversary of the normalization of 1972. On both sides the public had turned more negative. Debate swirled over whether the new prime minister Kishida Fumio would be tough enough on China, including its handling of Taiwan and its application to join the CPTPP. He also faced the future of free trade agreements given firm US resistance. The history resolution of the CCP drew close scrutiny as well. Building on the shift in Taiwan policy when he was foreign minister and reflecting Abe’s pro-Taiwan posture, Kishida’s relationship with China will be severely tested. A second theme covered was how talks had transpired between Japan and Russia since the fall of 2018. Other themes were whether there is a “great game” afoot in Central Asia and the attitude toward Japan of a South Korean presidential candidate. As for COVID-19, it appeared in a comparison of democratic and authoritarian state responses.


Kokubun Ryosei on October 31 in Yomiuri wrote that next year on the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, Japanese will be focusing only on China’s hardline posture. China’s aim is not the Senkakus but complete domination of the East China Sea. Putting pressure on the US armed forces, it seeks to isolate the SDF. The need to boost Japan’s deterrence capabilities with missile forces, cyber, and other high-tech responses is rising. Also needed is strategic diplomacy with a network centering on the US, including the Quad. China’s foremost objective is unification with Taiwan. Many countries have troubled relations with China, and Japan has to deepen relations with them. Tightening ties between the SDF and US forces, Japan must recognize that it is unrealistic to pursue equal-distance diplomacy with the US and China. It will be difficult to host Xi Jinping in the 50th anniversary year, but this is a chance for summitry at international conferences. Even with many points of contention, dialogue is important.

If Japan proceeds guided by emotions, its strategy will be weakened. Intelligence is essential on what China is seeking and fears, not emotions about liking or disliking China. Economic security is now one of the central themes. A balance is needed between enterprise interests and national interests. Japan needs expertise and must encourage studying abroad in the US, prepare to freely join in international exchanges, and compete with China’s expanding cadre of experts. At present, there are fewer your Japanese able to operate on an international level.

On October 21 the results of a joint Sino-Japanese opinion poll were announced on CGTN. The relationship is important, 70% indicated. JCastnews on October 23 explained the worsening sentiment in China toward Japan: a function of presidential campaign criticisms of China, of more negative Chinese media reports, and of reduced Chinese travel to Japan in the pandemic. Chinese with an impression of Japan as “not good” reached 66 percent, a rise from 53 percent in 2019 although below the 93 percent of 2013. 91 percent of Japanese were similarly negative. Factors driving views on China were a sense of no political trust between the two governments, conflict over territory, and the impact of Japan-US alliance and Japan’s military strengthening.

In Yahoo! Japan on October 26 Endo Homare noted that Kishida will establish a post of minister for economic security, but Endo doubts that Kishida will be tough enough on China. In his view, Kishida’s seriousness will be tested by the accession of Taiwan to CPTPP. Since Japan is chair now, it has a chance to move ahead. Taiwan announced on October 14 that TSMC will build a semiconductor plant in Japan, albeit not for the most state-of-the-art semiconductors. Japan will cover half of the investment. The article links this announcement to Taiwan’s desire to join the CPTPP. Also mentioned is rare Komeito Party criticism of China. It had blocked a Magnitsky Act for Japan. While Endo is wary of such minor moves, he praises the ouster of Nikai Toshihiro as the secretary general as Kishida’s boldest move against the pro-Chinese faction in the LDP. On October 16, Yomiuri asked if for reasons of economic security Taiwan should not be invited into CPTPP. While some say that Japan should be careful not to provoke China, China continues to provoke, and being soft on China abets its behavior, damaging Japan’s international standing.

In Business Insider on November 5, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s warning to Kishida not to cross a line on Taiwan was reported. On the one hand, Kishida is from the LDP faction “Kochikai,” considered friendly by China. On the other, he has been emphasizing Taiwan. The article observes that Japan understands and respects China’s claim that “Taiwan is an inseparable territory of China,” emphasizing that “it should be strictly adhered to under any circumstances.” Yet it adds that Kishida will visit the United States in December to hold a summit and plan the reconvening of a 2+2 in Washington. There, he would like to conclude a legal framework for security legislation that would allow the exercise of collective self-defense rights for logistical support of the US military in a Taiwan emergency. It is understood that, regarding the 2+2, China opposes deploying US military’s intermediate-range missiles in Japan, SDF’s participation in “freedom of navigation” operations, and the SDF acting to ensure the safety of private ships in the South China Sea. Also, if Japan were to accept Taiwan into CPTPP without China after both applied for membership in September, this would be violently opposed as “crossing the line.”

The article notes that on October 8, Kishida emphasized the promotion of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and forthcoming National Security Strategy, National Defense Program, and Medium-Term Defense Program statements, all intended to strengthen the defense force against China. He spoke of “cooperation with countries that share universal values.” Contrasts are drawn with Abe’s January 2020 policy speech, in which he stated “In addition to the traffic between leaders, we will build a mature Japan-China relationship in a new era by deepening exchanges in all fields,” and Suga’s January 2021 speech: “There are various concerns in both countries, but while taking advantage of high-level opportunities.” Kishida’s attitude toward China is colder. Taiwan policy is in contrast. Asked about Taiwan at the Lower House in October, Kishida described it as “an extremely important partner who shares basic values ​​for Japan and has close economic relations.” Although Abe had been more circumspect in his wording, his pro-Taiwanese stance has been at work, including in the four years and seven months of Foreign Minister Kishida’s era, when a “paradigm shift” in dominant values was under way. Kishida will not be free from the strong magnetic field of Abe.

At the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Congress in November 2021 a resolution on history drew close attention in the December issue of Gaiko. This was the CCP’s third resolution on history over 81 years, prompting intense interest in its political significance. Takahara Akio and Kawashima Shin both offered their assessments. The objective was unity of thought and a “correct history” to be transmitted, while legitimizing an unassailable line to assure personal control, based on winning in a power struggle. That was the significance of the 1945 and 1981 resolutions for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping also seeks to suppress an oppositional camp in this way. The intended result is to overcome what had been clashing lines of thinking and of aspirations for power. In 1945, the target was the returnees from the Soviet Union, and in 1981, it was the Hua Guofeng faction and the Cultural Revolution. This time there is no explicit target. Rather, the aim is to look back on 100 years of the CCP and clarify the direction going forward.  This resolution should be viewed together with the July 1 statement on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the CCP and the October 9 statement on the 110th anniversary of the 1911 revolution. Yet it serves to demarcate the Xi era just as the other resolutions demarcated the Mao and Deng eras. In mind with the slogan “common prosperity” is the claim that China in 2021—the first of the two “hundredth anniversaries”—has fully realized a “xiaokang” society; meanwhile, by the second of the anniversaries in 2029, it is aiming for a “socialist modernized power,” the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” and realization of the “China Dream.” Xi is now aligned with Mao and Deng in the historic pantheon of the CCP. The resolution also justifies a break from the rules of the past era, allowing Xi at the 20th Party Congress to forge new ones.

The logic is that China is rising, the CCP is the source of that transformation, and Xi Jinping is the core of the CCP. There is no mention of the 1981 rebuke of Hua Guofeng for trying to establish a cult of the personality. New textbooks will be issued to reflect the new historical resolution. As for the Qing dynasty and the Zhonghua Minguo that followed, these are essentially erased with the period from 1911 to 1925 treated as jointly pursued before the CCP becomes the sole heir to Sun Yat-sen’s legacy. The era of reform and opening is likewise altered in the narrative now espoused. Little is said of the failures of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution as well as of the cult of personality previously blamed. Memories are fresh of the crisis in the late Hu Jintao period as problems mounted and leadership divisions interfered. Demand rose for stronger leadership, removing the separate bailiwicks for various party leaders. Common prosperity threatens to harm the interests of the relatively weak private enterprises. Much as people could not oppose the bland “anti-corruption” slogan, this one too is hard to resist, but its specifics are far-reaching. It is not only about redistribution of income but also redistribution of power in favor of the state and the party. Groups will struggle over defining its meaning to serve their interests.

Xi Jinping reasons that if Mao had founded China and Deng had made it rich, Xi is the one who is making it powerful, and thus, confronted by foreign countries. With nationalism aroused, officials fear being blamed for showing weakness. This is not a formula for stabilizing foreign relations. Yet people want stability with the major powers, notably the US. More than the economy, Xi prizes national security and unified control at home. Wolf warrior performances are needed even if they damage China’s reputation. Developing countries will mostly choose China over the US and its allies given human rights and democracy attitudes as well as economic reasons, but China has no allies. On the Taiwan question, China has to be sensitive to this and also the power of the US network of allies. World attention is now concentrated on this question. It has military and security dimensions as well as human rights, democracy, and TSMC semi-conductor dimensions.

The article ends by looking at Sino-Japanese relations. Over the past two years attitudes toward China in Japan have trended downward given Senkaku maritime challenges, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the pandemic. On the Chinese side, image of Japan had been improving, but tourism was halted by the pandemic, and last year it leveled off, while this year it reversed. The Sino-US economic frictions and battle over technological hegemony cast a shadow even as economic exchanges continue to flourish wit trade rising in the first half of this year by 24 percent. Biden seeks both cooperation and competition with China, adding an element of unpredictability. With the 50th anniversary of normalization looming in September, both sides may do more to boost cooperation. Xi will see this in the context of the 20th Party Congress soon afterwards. The Sino-Japanese 50th follows as well. Xi will probably seek to avoid trouble with Japan, but he also may demand a “new era in China-Japan relations,” making new demands on Japan. Will Japan pass a Magnitsky-like law over human rights? Will it pass a new economic security law? On the Chinese side, will it push for decoupling? Sino-Japanese and Sino-US ties have similar contradictory features, requiring increased wisdom to realize the national interest.

An article in Gaiko discussed the September applications by the PRC and Taiwan to join CPTPP. It noted a shift in Washington from a traditional pro-trade and pro-investment position to a framework for economic and technological cooperation based on security and values. It has shifted its sight from rejoining CPTPP to a focus on digital trade, semi-conductors, and green energy. Where does that leave Japan as the biggest economy in CPTPP with others seeking entry? Beginning talks with China about entrance is viewed with wariness or opposed in the LDP. Also, talk of an FTAAP, in accord with the “Yokohama vision” of 2010, is problematic since that became linked to a US-led TPP and a China-led RCEP. A next-generation, high-quality trade agreement and market liberalization removing government interference would not be possible if China entered CPTPP. According to Rush Doshi’s Long Game, China’s grand strategy is to replace the international order centered on the United States. China’s entry into CPTPP would give it discourse power to facilitate that. It would lower the rules of the organization to make them acceptable to China, making it like RCEP. Possible responses are to press for the speedy entry of Great Britain, Australia, and Canada, link up with the US, strengthen the oversight system of CPTPP (left weak when the US pulled out), and over the long-run join with the EU. The ruling party supports Taiwan’s entry, but China would be furious. A possibility is to begin talks with both China and Taiwan, saying that they would not be prevented from joining together, and getting China to agree to Taiwan’s entry without violating the “one China” principle. Thus, Taiwan would get more international space while talks dragged out. If either met the conditions, it could be given provisional entry. The article concludes that Japan should show leadership, waving the banner of free trade even if it cannot get direct support from the US.


JBPress on November 25 asserted that China is preparing for war over Taiwan and that Japan will inevitably be a battlefield. The article reported the results of a survey on Taiwan presented on Wideshow. Asked if Japan should become militarily involved if there is a Taiwan incident, 71 percent answered that it should, 18 percent that it should not, and 11 percent could not say. The reason cited is that it would involve Japan’s territory whether Japan wanted this or not. Two concerns stood out: how to protect the 1.4 million people on Okinawa and 100,000 more on islands nearby; and the danger to Japan’s sea lanes if Taiwan fell to China. A Taiwan incident would pose a danger to Japan’s existence.

South Korea

On November 25 JBPress reported on the ruling party’s presidential candidate in South Korea Lee Jae-myong, calling him anti-Japanese. It asserted that after Korea had been subordinated to China, it was thanks to Japan that it finally broke free in 1895. Whereas Britain contributed almost nothing to India’s modernization and killed hundreds of thousands under its rule, today Indians largely have a positive attitude toward Great Britain. Even though the US fought a war with Japan, it is very friendly to Japan. Even China is not as sickly anti-Japan as South Korea. Then there is Taiwan with the same experience as South Korea but a friendly attitude. It, thus, defies common sense for today’s South Korea to be anti-Japan, readers are told, and its superiority complex derives from a history of “little China thinking.” It was manifest when Moon Jae-in repeated in December 2017 that China is a high peak and South Korea is a small country, adding that the “China Dream” is not just China’s dream but the world’s, and that South Korea pursues China’s dream with it. China’s attitude was made clear in April 2017, when Trump reported thar Xi Jinping said that historically Korea was a part of China. The stronger the attachment to “little China thought,” the more anti-Japan. They are two sides of the same coin. The syndrome’s roots go back more than 1000 years and could not be eradicated in the mere 35 years with Japan. To dispel it now depends not on Japan’s apologies and reparations but on the end of subordination toward China.


Hokkaido Shimbun on November 11 published a volume on Japan-Russia relations. It begins with the Abe-Putin meeting in Singapore in November 2018, where they promised to resolve their dispute on the basis of the 1956 bilateral agreement and Abe indicated that Japan would accept two islands as Moscow had agreed then. Not mentioning the Tokyo Declaration of 1993, Abe had apparently set the goal of four islands for a peace treaty aside, using language not cleared in advance with the Kantei. This was a big turning point in bilateral relations. The Japanese government briefing afterwards, however, offered no acknowledgment of the shift, allowing only joint economic activity and free exchanges on the two, big islands. No explanation was offered to the Japanese people of the shift. Asahi Shimbun covered the story, but stressed two islands first, not abandonment of the other two. Yomiuri and Mainichi went further to emphasize the continued determination to recover all four islands. The government did not lower its banner of four islands, but Hokkaido Shimbun made clear that this was not the actual requirement for a deal. Soon, however, Russia cut away from a two-island discussion

What prompted Abe’s change of course were remarks by Putin in Vladivostok in September when Abe attended the EEF for the third year in a row. Putin urged a quick peace treaty with no preconditions, i.e., no islands to Japan. Sitting with Xi Jinping as well, Putin suggested that Japan and Russia could have the same type of close relationship as China and Russia if Abe followed the 2004 Sino-Russian model of clearing away territorial issues. Japan’s response was negative at first, but within days it was leaning toward accelerated talks despite criticism that Abe’s pursuit of Putin had failed. Yet Abe focused more on Putin’s desire for a deal than on the curveball he had thrown. In Singapore, Putin demanded recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands. Despite repeated negative signals from Russia, Abe’s advisors were confident Putin wanted a deal for two islands. Remarks by Lavrov in December 2018, however, threw cold water on these hopes, emphasizing the need to accept the rights of the victor from the war.

In contrast, Kono Taro took the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration as the basis for negotiations to conclude a peace treaty, stating his intention to proceed in line with the agreement between the leaders of Japan and Russia in Singapore. He pointed out the threat of China and explained that the development of Japan-Russia relations is important in order to “incorporate Russia into our camp,” it was reported. Yet Kishida took a harder line, saying at a press conference that he was “continuing efforts toward the return of the four northern islands” regarding negotiations with Russia. He also declined to answer whether he would inherit the policy of Abe. Thus, he expressed his intention to aim for the “return of the four northern islands,” and in fact showed his distance from Abe’s route, which had shifted to the “return of two islands.” The article adds that during his time as foreign minister, he was discomforted with diplomacy of reconciliation with Russia led by the Kantei and that the Russian side has warned that “Mr. Kishida attaches great importance to the United States.”  On September 29, Kishida talked about diplomatic security policy and expressed willingness to deepen the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept in collaboration with the United States, but did not mention relations with Russia.

Lavrov insisted to Kishida that he was not negotiating the territorial dispute, and Kishida countered that even if economic cooperation is advanced the Japanese people will not be convinced without progress on the territorial dispute, It is indicated that Kishida was put in an awkward position by the Kantei approach given the way Russia was handling the talks, while also warning of a backlash from the United States if he were to push for reconciliation with Russia as a candidate for prime minister. Even so, given Abe’s support for Kishida, some doubt Kishida can change course on Russia. On September 30, Suzuki Muneo told an interviewer that “Russia will not come if we change the line of negotiations (based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration),” and “I asked Mr. Kishida to take over the Abe route.” Yet Russia views Kishida as a politician who has made harsh stances against Russia, and on September 29 TASS introduced him, mentioning that he advocates a strategic alliance with the US and strengthening Japan’s defense capacity. Former ambassador Alexander Panov warned that if Japan strengthens its stance of following the United States, it will not contribute to the activation of Japan-Russia relations. The article doubted Kishida’s seriousness about working out a deal with Russia, but it neglected to warn of Russia’s lack of interest and threatening posture if Japan pushes back.

Visits between Japan and Russia remained below about 230,00 a year, contrasting to 8 million between Japan and South Korea and 9.6 million between japan and China. This is cited as one reason for a lack of progress in mutual understanding. In late May 2021 two clashes occurred on the maritime border—the first in fog between crab-hunting ships, killing three persons, the second involving a Russian coast guard vessel that seized a Japanese fishing vessel and took it to Korsakov port, blaming it for fishing in Russia’s EEZ, when Japan insisted it was within Japan’s EEZ. Complicating matters is the absence of a peace treaty demarcating the border. The Russian side levied a fine, freeing the vessel after two weeks. Russia insists that this was only following the law, not political and not linked to the crash two days earlier. Despite government talks, a psychological barrier exists between the two nations, it was asserted. The year of regional exchanges was postponed from 2020 to 2022 due to the pandemic, but with peace treaty talks frozen and no visa-free travel for Japanese to the islands, Abe’s illusion is dead. It ended with Russia’s constitutional revision and the epidemic.

In the National Diet Library’s Issue Brief of November-December 2021, “Negotiations for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Japan and Russia and the Positions of the Two Countries,” the late Abe years and Suga era were covered—about three years in all. Milestones noted were the November 2018 Singapore agreement, the July 2020 constitutional revision in Russia forbidding territorial transfers, and the outlook ahead. Noting that there have been no top-level talks since September 2019, the brief concludes that Japan must be watchful of Russian behavior with no sign of optimism that progress is in sight.

In Gendai Business on November 11, Putin was described as desperate over Russia’s economy. In response he is curbing natural gas supplies to Europe in order to speed approval for Nord Stream 2 after a two-year delay due to US sanctions. Yet the real worry is inflation, which will rise further as domestic prices for natural gas climb. The main source of an inflation rate that hit 9.2 percent in September, year-to-year, is food, especially fruits and vegetables. Even staples such as potatoes and eggs are rising, as are wheat and sugar, affected by restrictions on the entry of foreign workers. Vaccination rates are low due to distrust. Behavioral restrictions are tightening, exacerbating labor shortages and high interest rates contribute to an economic slowdown. Fuji Kazuhiko writes that there is risk of simultaneous inflation and recession, even drawing a comparison to the period when the Soviet Union collapsed.

On December 26, Yomiuri editorialized about the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased threat from mistaken great power consciousness as Putin strives to expand Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin considers this collapse the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. As a member of the G8 in 1997 to 2013 Russia took a cooperative path, but it reacted against the expansion of NATO and dug in against the US. EU and NATO expansion was not based on coercion. International society must strengthen military assistance to Ukraine and do more to contain Russia. Conditions have worsened over 30 years for the return of the Northern Territories, and this is related to Putin’s great power thinking and view of history. Putin glorifies Russian history on this issue. Japan must clearly oppose these Russian attitudes and resist the militarization and other actions on the Northern Territories.

Central Asia

The September/October issue of Gaiko covered the anti-terror war and Japan-US relations. If much of it was about Afghanistan and Iraq, other themes arose, too. Uyama Tomihiko examined Central Asia and the Great Game. In the Soviet era ties to Afghanistan from this area were sparse. Even during the 1980s Soviet war, the spillover was rather limited. After the end of the Soviet Union, when some Tajiks and Uzbeks fled to fight in Afghanistan, there were fears of a spreading war, but that did not transpire. As the US pulled out, there has been talk of closer ties across Central Asia with Russia at the center; two leaders in Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan proposed that the other Central Asian states join the EEU. If China should proceed in Afghanistan as it has in Pakistan, ignoring environmental and other constraints, it could arouse more unrest there and lose ground in Central Asia in controlling the response to its domestic policies. Yet the reality is less of a Great Game between great powers than a mix of great and local powers pursuing their interests. The US is not a player, and Russia and China are proceeding more together than apart with ideology having little role to play.   

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