Country Report: Japan (July 2022)


The year 2022 has unfolded strikingly differently from Japanese expectations. Although already in retirement, Abe Shinzo had set the agenda that was expected to prevail. This included not only an ever-closer security alliance with the United States and further institutionalization of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” buttressed by the Quad, but also a cooperative approach to China in what would be the fiftieth anniversary of the 1972 breakthrough normalization and lingering support for the momentum left from Abe’s repeated summits with Vladimir Putin. Surprises of the sort caused by COVID-19 in 2020-21 or Donald Trump over four years were thought to be a thing of the past. To be sure, many recognized new challenges to globalization and deepening confrontation between democratic and authoritarian systems, symbolized by a US-China clash, but intensified dialogue was foreseen as Xi Jinping sought stability for validation at the fall 20th Party Congress and Joe Biden proceeded more deliberately and pragmatically than Trump had. As much as Taiwan was a hotspot, it was not an imminent threat to regional stability. On January 8 Yomiuri issued a conventional list of key foreign affairs events for 2022.

This diplomatic calendar, as discussed by Kokubun Ryosei, would see Kishida continue to take alliance relations with the US as the foundation while seeking a role in new dialogue with China. Despite very negative feelings toward China among the Japanese people and no expectations of meaningful progress in relations—as in the difficulty of Xi visiting Japan—the anniversary would be seized. A new president in Seoul would offer an opening for more dialogue. Asian states sought Japan as well as the US to play a security role given concern over China. This upbeat outlook had no mention of how Russian aggression, Chinese support for Russia, spillover into concern over aggression toward Taiwan, and new polarization over North Korea, could derail earlier plans. The assassination of Abe in July put an exclamation point on the end of an era and prior hopes. Then came the Chinese show-of-force in response to Speaker Pelosi’ August visit to Taiwan.

As the year began, Kaigai Jijo devoted issues 1-2 to soft power, as if that would be of great importance in the coming period. Toa dedicated its first issue to the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic normalization of Japan and China, asking how Japan could find balance between the US and China, exploring how China might enter CPTPP, discussing how exchanges could revive as the pandemic waned, and considering how negative opinion toward China in the public and the LDP could be managed as efforts resumed to improve ties. Amano Satoshi detailed what draws Japan and China close and what distances them from each other, while holding out hope for expanding networks and increasing shared consciousness starting off the next fifty years.

On July 28 Sankei discussed how distant the Heisei era of three years ago appeared, signaling out the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the death of Abe. A certain nostalgia permeated talk of that earlier period, as the Reiwa era is rife with uncertainty or even danger. In contrast, Sankei pointed to Russia’s outright rejection of the past three decades, expressing in its invasion of Ukraine its view that the world order since the end of the Cold War has failed. The relatively stable, secure environment of the Japan-US-China triangle over recent decades means that Japan now returns to being a member of the Western camp as in the Cold War. An era has ended. Separately, on July 26 in Sankei Hosoya Yuichi explained that for the past ten years international society had considered Japan a trustworthy country. That image was inseparable from Abe’s leadership, who served as a bridge when Trump divided international society. Russia’s invasion has deepened the divide. It is left unclear what the return of a cold war atmosphere means for Japan’s special identity.

Japanese sources, such as Yomiuri on March 23, showcased shared values with the United States, warning of the threat from authoritarianism to the international order. After his meeting with Biden, Kishida told reporters that they had discussed how together they hope to lead the international society. The Quad is the key structure to advance a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, readers were told. A new economic version of the 2 + 2 was approved. The article blames China for using economic pressure to strengthen its influence over other countries and get a hold of advanced technology with the intent to use it for military purposes. It adds that there is a need for international rules to support free trade and economic security, adding that the revival of TPP is important, too. Discussions at the new economic 2 + 2 will look in detail at the US idea for a new economic framework of the Indo-Pacific region. Linkages were drawn between the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the response to the invasion of Ukraine. It is indispensable to make clear the principle that using force to change the status quo in the East China Sea is impermissible, the leaders said. Biden welcomed Japan’s strengthened defense, as Kishida raised possessing counterattack ability against enemy bases.

On April 22 Sankei reported that in the Reiwa diplomatic bluebook, Japan restores language that the Northern Territories are illegally occupied as the tone on Russia changed abruptly as did the characterization of the new era as one of international competition. In defense of international society Japan must oppose the use of force to change the status quo. Whereas the tone toward Russia had become unambiguous, there was still talk of aiming for constructive and stable relations with China across Japan’s leadership, struggling with defining a new era.

Former Diet member Nagao Takashi in his early 2022 book charged that many in elite circles had been spokespersons for China or at least slow to awaken to the China threat. Concentrating on 2020-22, he contrasts the recent responsiveness of US officials to the halting response from the Japanese government, the Diet, and Japanese business. His book offers a snapshot of Japan on the eve of the Ukraine war as many awakened to the severity of the threat. Focusing on the reluctance of the Diet to challenge China on human rights, including some seeking a state visit by Xi Jinping in September 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of normalization, he traces Japan’s culpability back to its rush to be the first to lift sanctions after the Tiananmen events of 1989 and worries that hosting Xi in 2022 could bring new shame. Appraising China inside Japan, he faults business for its response to China in the pandemic. In advance of Suga’s April 2021 summit with Biden, the Diet could not mention China in wording a resolution meant to cover the Uyghurs. Nagao singles out Komeito influence in the ruling coalition and the role of Nikai Toshishiro, the powerful LDP secretary general. In December, with talk of a boycott of the Beijing Olympics also on the table, resistance in the Diet to a resolution was again strong. From the mid-2000s, Japan was moving beyond an era of minimizing human rights and promoting universal values under Abe’s leadership, but national interest was still easily cited to restrain this, particularly where direct relations with China were concerned or supply chains were at issue. Human rights issues became a factor in ODA. NGOs were not given meetings with officials. 

Kishida’s second cabinet saw more effort to catch up to the US, UK, Canada, and the EU on human rights diplomacy, but Nagao at the beginning of 2022 remained dissatisfied, blaming the Kantei and the foreign ministry for weakness before China, In 2021 he charged that Japan continued to be weak in controlling Chinese investments with security implications, that better intelligence was needed for economic security, that Japan was unduly dependent on China in critical area, thar technology flowed to the Chinese military from the university community in Japan, and that many Japanese companies minimize the risk in China or act as if they can remain aloof from the Sino-US trade war. Yet, Nagao saw Abe pressing for supply chain security and in December 2021 raising consciousness that a situation involving Taiwan was one that involved Japan. If China annexed Taiwan, Japan’s lifeline would be in jeopardy. What has happened to Tibet, the Uyghurs, and the southern Mongols are instructive for Japan’s possible future, Nagao warns readers.

On April 21 in Hokkaido Shimbun Koizumi Yu responded to fears that Russia would attack Hokkaido, saying in the near term there is little chance given the small number (80,000) of Russian troops in the Far East and ships to transport them. Troops will move to Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Nor is there a reason to attack Japan, even if one-third of the Far Eastern force in March was exercising on Kunashiri in the Northern Territories, if without heavy equipment. If Japan must maintain a certain deterrent force in the north, facing China is the main task before it. Japan lacks the force for two fronts in money or personnel. Its “southwest shift” continues to be the correct course, concluded the article on force realignment.

The late spring and early summer of 2022 saw a burst of diplomacy and a consolidation of the new direction in Japanese foreign policy set by the response to both the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the US-led rebooting of the international order. Late May saw Biden’s visit to South Korea and then Japan, followed by the Quad summit in Tokyo. The message from the May 24 summit was Japan and the US must lead, in diplomacy, security, and economics in opposition with China and Russia. Just a month later, the Japanese prime minister journeyed to Europe to join the G7 and NATO summits. Press coverage recognized the transformative nature of these meetings and of Kishida’s responses. Three points were reaffirmed in the media reports. First, the transformation under way is far-reaching and irreversible, a milestone comparable to the end of the Cold War. In Europe, the war will be long-lasting, and NATO will hold together. Second, Europe and Asia are indivisible, facing shared security challenges and recognizing that they need to face them together. Third, Japan faces unexpected uncertainties over energy ties to Russia and also economic security relations with China. These remain to be resolved to set an agenda for an emerging era.

The August issue of Chuo Koron conveyed a narrative of far-reaching change in thinking about world affairs. The Kishida era was no longer an extension of the Abe era but something entirely new. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had set in motion a string of recalculations. In an exchange between Kawashima Shin and Koizumi Yu one reads that Xi Jinping is learning from Putin and that many factors enter into China’s calculations: domestic politics, relations with Russia, US relations, and the view of developing countries. In contrast, for Japan in the face of a crisis the situation has narrowed to solidarity with the US and its allies and partners. The result is a new posture not only to Russia but also to China, representing the biggest shift from Abe’s legacy. The age of separating politics from economics has passed with new attention to economic security. In the case of Russia, agonizing in July was worry on reducing dependence on natural gas. In the case of China, the challenges were more complicated, as US decoupling from China aroused debate and China’s zero-COVID lockdowns also raised concern. Reducing dependency and vulnerability grew more urgent, especially as a Taiwan contingency loomed. Kawashima and Koizumi discussed what Xi and Putin have in common, a subject readily linked to China’s moves toward Taiwan, the US-China-Russia triangle, and Japan’s positioning. Little doubt is left in Japanese writings that Japan stands with the US on Taiwan as well as Ukraine. The Kishida era leaves no room for maneuvering, as Abe had done, in great power relations.

A second cold war does not mean Japan cannot pursue business-like relations with Russia or China was a message that continued to be conveyed, For example, in the. August Chuo Koron Iwashita Akihiro wrote that it can have an active role despite bipolarity. Keeping Us relations as the base, it can pursue balance through local ties, for example through the Quad, through sustaining Sakhalin-2, through a fishing deal with Russia, and other ties where war did not have to have an impact. Things do not have to be seen as black and white. The crisis can be left on the sidelines. This message countered mainstream pessimism that post-Cold War autonomy had been lost.

In the June 23 issue of Sankei, the question was raised how Japan should respond to the debate in NATO on how the war will end, with a peace faction pressing for its early end through a ceasefire and the mainstream supportive of Ukraine’s continued resistance. France, Germany, and Italy are called the peace faction, seeking talks to end the conflict. On the other side, the US, the UK, Poland, and three Baltic states are the mainstream. Does Japan have the same values as the peace camp? Bungei Shunju is cited as resisting the peace line, accepting the argument that Putin must be stopped here or he will continue his aggression. Putin plans to wait out the opposition, which must be prevented. Another case for persistence is the cost to values of Putin’s possible massacre ahead in Ukraine, boosting global authoritarianism against democracy. Moreover, this would be a big blow to the international order existing since the end of WWII. Japan should back the mainstream position, it is clear in the conservative worldview.

On July 5 Sankei discussed Russia’s decision to exclude Japanese companies from Sakhalin 2 oil and gas. Mitsui held a 12.5% stake, and Mitsubishi a 10% one. There is fear that this means confiscation of the Japanese side’s property and stoppage of LNG imports from there. This kind of outrage must not be permitted, readers are told. The G7 must tighten its ties against Russia and in the fierce world battle over LNG. Russia’s new company should divide up the rights as before and not stop the distribution of the gas. Sanctions against Russia are a shared responsibility of democratic states. Now Russia is trying to split Japan, the US, and Europe; it must not succeed. The Kishida administration had planned not to retreat from Sakhalin 2, but it is Russia that ignored international rules by invading Ukraine. It is useless to think it would treat property stably. Already in 2006, the Russian government used pressure to gain control of management. Although the risk should have been very clear, successive administrations continued Japan’s dependence on Russia. Now, the government needs to teach the Russian side an unmistakable lesson. Instead of concessions, it should consider anew using this opportunity to leave Sakhalin-2. Yet, with China looming as the buyer, doubts persisted.

On July 16 Kyodo and others reported that Japan’s government was aiming to maintain Japanese companies’ role in Sakhalin-2. Shell pulled out and lost roughly $4 billion in Russia. Earlier Japan had been preparing for a cutoff in Russian LNG and seeking more from Australia, which already accounted for 40% of Japan’s demand. On July 7 a Yomiuri editorial had called on the government to strongly resist Russia’s threat of confiscation, a response anticipated by how Russia had treated other countries considered “unfriendly.” The editorial warned that Putin’s new decree on setting up a new company is clearly aimed at Japan. Medvedev’s remarks on Japan on July 5 were a harbinger as well of an intended cutoff, readers were warned. On July 19 Asahi editorialized against relying on Russian energy as debate over Sakhalin-2 continued. Russia’s confiscation and curtailment of imports to Japan loomed after Russia had designated a new company to handle operations. Russia has violated the contract and the joint agreement on protecting investments. Japan relies on Russia for about 10% pf its LNG imports, half of which are from Sakhalin-2. Supplies from other countries will fill the gap with no huge increase in prices. Japan must stick tightly to the Japan-US-EU bond and not reduce sanctions. Japan kept repeating that it would not pull out if Sakhalin-2, but the importance of “leaving Russia” in energy has grown further, readers were reminded.

A Yomiuri editorial on July 31 reported on the 2 + 2 economic ministers meeting with the US. It was said to have strengthened economic security linkages. Given Chinese and Russian bad behavior, Japan and the US should lead in constructing a just, rules-based economic order. In the editorial the first economic summit in the White House is described. Echoing articles over months conveying a polarized view of the new era, this just preceded the Pelosi visit to Taiwan.

On Speaker Pelosi’s August 2 visit to Taiwan, Japanese media responded quickly. On August 4 Asahi warned of the danger of both US and Chinese military power being mobilized to face each other and called on both to avoid conflict. In a peaceful exchange not reflecting the intentions of Biden, China has no cause to flex its military power. Yet, Pelosi is faulted for choosing this time to act at the expense of regional stability and when domestic conditions on both lean toward a harder line. This is a time when efforts should have been made for peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait question. The risk of accidental conflict has grown. Both the US and China should draw lessons from Russia exaggerating its own power. As Pelosi visits Japan, Japan should pursue a role as a bridge between the US and China.

Mainichi on the same day editorialized about Pelosi’s visit and calling on China to show restraint in its military activity. It said that showing support for Taiwan should not contradict US policy toward China. The US has deepened its involvement in Taiwan. Japan’s EEZ is affected. Imports from Taiwan may be interrupted. The risk of Sino-US conflict has risen. Biden did not seek to raise tensions. Xi should avoid a decisive confrontation. Great powers are responsible to continue dialogue in order to avoid a crisis.

On August 4 Yomiuri editorialized that China should not raise military tensions. If it seemed to imply that both Pelosi’s visit and China’s responses raised tensions, it then stressed that China broke its commitment to maintain “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, sinicizing it through force. It is natural that the US and Taiwan dread that China would do the same thing in Taiwan, China bears responsibility for causing tension now, the editorial made clear. The military tensions extend to Japan’s EEZ, and the Japanese government should strongly urge China to show self-restraint.  

Sankei on August 4 highly valued Pelosi’s refusal to bend to China and support for Taiwan. This is linked to strengthened US containment of China, which democratic states including Japan should join. If the US government wavered on the visit, it realized it would lose the trust of international society. The show of support for democracy was significant. Japan refused to comment officially on the visit, but the US is an ally, and consciousness is insufficient of the direct security implications of a Taiwan crisis. Should not Diet officials also visit Taiwan?

In a July 20 Asahi editorial, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin’s visit to Japan was showcased as a breakthrough to intensified dialogue. It called for both sides to use astute diplomatic judgment, saying this was the first visit in five years with this potential. This was a forward-looking visit with many high-level meetings, but the impression remains that the search continues for a concrete path forward, especially on the corvee labor question. If the property of Japanese companies is converted to cash this summer, the Japanese government’s harsh response is expected. Kishida should not lay all the responsibility on South Korea, and in order to improve the international environment should strive to work with Yoon. As both sides look ahead to the important anniversary of August 15, they should recall history and accelerate dialogue.

The editorial the same day in Mainichi treated the visit as an opportunity to forge relations of trust. Park indicated that Seoul would respect the 2015 agreement, which Moon Jae-in had scorned. There is lots the Korean side should do to improve relations, and Japan can influence this. Japan-South Korean relations reflect changes in international conditions. In the Cold War bilateral relations were important for security, overcoming history issues. In the following era as security changed and South Korea developed, historical consciousness rose. Now the two face the same challenges from Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Sino-US confrontation, and North Korea’s nuclear program. As US allies, they should seek to deepen cooperation. They also need to work together in the face of the rising competitiveness of China and India’s economies. The first step is to build trust at the level of politics.

Sankei on July 20 also editorialized on the Park Jin visit. It argued that without concrete steps by Seoul it is doubtful that these talks will be meaningful.  Japan’s position that all was resolved in 1965 has not changed. It is entirely up to South Korea to alleviate the situation. What Seoul is suggesting that Japan do to help resolve the situation before Japanese property is monetized is unacceptable. As Yoon’s popularity drops, taking measures that could arouse public opinion is growing more difficult. The usual response is play on “anti-Japan” sentiments. Park’s appeal for a “sincere reaction” from Japan is misplaced. This issue was resolved. Seoul alone must act.

On June 7 Yomiuri Shimbun editorialized about a joint Japan-South Korea public opinion survey. It appealed for joint crisis consciousness. Given growing alarm in both states about the security environment, the editorial appealed for strengthening three-way security cooperation with the US. About 60 percent of respondents in both fear an attack from a third country in the near future. The figure in both of those who consider a Chinese invasion of Taiwan possible has risen to 73%. Japanese view as military threats: Russia (90%), China (87%), and North Korea (84%), as Koreans see as a military threat: North Korea (74%), China (70%), and Russia (46%)—all risen from two years before. To counter China and Russia, 67% of Japanese and 77% of Koreans support joining with the United States. The Ukraine invasion and China’s military expansion lead to these responses. Notable, readers are told, is the shift in consciousness of China in South Korea as firms react to Chinese economic policies and the advance of Chinese firms. Inaugurated in May, Yoon Suk-yeol is stressing freedom and democracy and how Seoul can contribute to shaping international norms. There is a lot here Japan can appreciate. Compared to a year earlier, 24% more Koreans foresee bilateral relations improving—rising to 53%—as against 35% not anticipating change and 6% expecting deterioration. Yoon is raising hope by repeatedly talking of improving relations. In contrast, in Japan, the largest number still do not foresee change—61%—and just 31% expect improvement. Distrust lingers over repeated use by Korean administrations of historical questions. Essential for Yoon is to propose concrete policies to resolve the forced labor issue. Korean thinking continues to be unyielding, not considering the big picture. Tourism between Japan and South Korea is largely reviving as COVID-19 limits are removed. It is important to expand grass roots exchanges, taking advantage of the mutual allure of pop culture, etc. This was an upbeat message coupled with pressure on Yoon to act.

In a span of six months, much was clarified about Japanese foreign policy after a year and a half of apparent drift under Abe’s successors apart from increased solidarity with the United States. On Abe’s legacy, Sino-US relations and Taiwan, the Japan-US-Europe triangle, Japan-Russia ties, and even the Japan-US-South Korea triangle, Tokyo’s course ahead was far clearer than in 2021.

The verdict on Abe’s foreign policy legacy was unequivocally positive in early 2022 in the face of regional change, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in judgments written after Abe was assassinated. The multi-author edited volume published at the start of 2022, Kensho Abe Seiken, stated that even as Japan’s place was falling in the world economic hierarchy, its diplomatic presence in the world was rising.

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