Yesterday, my colleague Elizabeth Economy raised an important question in her blog post about Japan’s new prime minister Yoshihiko Noda. I had characterized him as a moderate, yet for many in China and Korea he is a right-wing nationalist. So which is it?
Noda is both a moderate, and a nationalist. At home, in the context of Japan’s leadership politics, he is a self-described “middle of the road” politician. In an essay in Bungei Shunju this month, Noda outlines his governance vision and firmly places himself in the moderate middle of the policy agenda—a comfortable place for those wishing to bring divisive factions together.
As I wrote in ForeignAffairs.com, Noda’s domestic agenda is full. Yet, diplomatic challenges abound—and particularly this coming year in Northeast Asia—as the politics of transition make every nation in the region sensitive to the reactive nationalism that is so often triggered in political campaigns and leadership transitions.
His nationalist label in my mind, however, doesn’t conjure up extreme views on Japan’s wartime behavior, or of conservative ideology. Rather, Prime Minister Noda seems quite in the middle of the national axis of ideological positioning, which tells us less about who he is and more about where Japan is today. Nationalism (nashonarizumu) is no longer a bad word for many, although that word in its contemporary usage today reflects sentiments that run the gamut from pride in the women’s soccer team to the call for national unity in the wake of the March 11 disasters. On the more contentious question of Japan’s 20th century history, there remain significant differences of opinion. Yet, there is a broad sense of fatigue over what many see as the use of the “history card” by Japan’s neighbors.
So what does Prime Minister Noda believe, and how will it affect his tenure in office? In October 2005, Noda’s position, forged as an opposition critic of Koizumi’s statements on Yasukuni Shrine, was that Japan’s legislature had thoroughly debated this issue in the immediate postwar and come to the conclusion that those tried and convicted under the Far Eastern Military Tribunal would not be treated as criminals under Japanese law. But this is not a radical idea. It is in fact the established legislative basis upon which the Japanese government based its postwar treatment of Japan’s veterans and their families. B and C class war criminals were brought back into the mainstream of Japanese life. The 14 Class-A war criminals were executed or died in captivity under the U.S. occupation.
Critics of these post-WWII tribunals exist within Japan and beyond. “Victor’s justice” is an uncomfortable premise for many, and one of my colleague’s commentators in his outrage refers to these legal proceedings as “kangaroo courts.”
Clearly the Chinese and Korean media responses to his selection as prime minister reflect the sensitivities that remain close to the surface in Northeast Asia. In his press conference after becoming Prime Minister on August 30, Noda stated that the legal position outlined in his testimony is the basis of national policy, yet he went on to say that media queries about his testimony belied his intent to build a strong “win-win” relationship with Japan’s neighbors.
And here lies the challenge for Prime Minister Noda that my colleague rightly reads in China’s response. The intent of Chinese outrage over personal views seems idiosyncratic. When Japan’s much more well-known conservative nationalist, Shinzo Abe, succeeded Koizumi as prime minister in 2006, his personal views on the Class-A war criminals, on Yasukuni visits, and on Japan’s historical role in World War II were much more developed and clearly articulated. Yet, Beijing welcomed him with open arms as the post-Koizumi antidote to the freeze in bilateral relations, and went on to build a diplomatic partnership with Abe in crafting the reconciliatory “mutually beneficial strategic relationship” that, at least in theory, is the basis for Sino-Japanese relations today. Last year, Beijing took an open dislike to one of the DPJ’s most popular new leaders, Seiji Maehara, because of his positions on Chinese military expansion. Maehara has no positions on the history issue that would be disagreeable in China, and yet he has expressed some concerns about the future direction of China’s rise. He too is labeled a Japanese “nationalist,” and “anti-China.”
The DPJ, as a party, does not support prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine. No Cabinet member of the DPJ has visited Yasukuni since the party took power. When pressed on August 15th this year, however, Noda stuck by his 2005 views, but then refused to allow the media to link his views on the legal treatment of “war criminals” to a hypothetical position on Yasukuni Shrine visits.
Prime Minsiter Noda can no longer avoid the Yasukuni question. As Japan’s leader, his intentions matter, and he earns nothing by fudging the issue. Stating openly that he will not visit the shrine as Japan’s prime minister will be a positive contribution to Japan’s relations with South Korea, which have been relatively good under the DPJ government.
A clear statement would also take the wind out of the sails of China’s voluble media. Many in Beijing clearly want to dictate Japan’s conversation on its past, but the six years of the Koizumi administration gave the Japanese ample opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of domestic views on Yasukuni. Despite the media hype, most Japanese were hesitant about the controversial shrine—until Chinese pressure gave them a reason to support their prime minister’s right to choose.
After last year’s Sino-Japanese clash over a Chinese fishing trawler’s provocations, it is clear that unlike Abe in 2006, Noda does not have a strong partner in reconciliation in today’s China. Rather, he has a Sino-Japanese relationship that is tense and easily riled. Noda would be wise to build the domestic basis for a strategic approach to China, one that prepares for some rough waters on the way to that “win-win” outcome. Taking the Yasukuni issue off the table would be a good beginning.