Japan’s foreign policy part 1, better understanding the black box

3 Dec

For today’s topic I thought I would write about the folly that is Japan’s foreign policy. I think it dovetails nicely into the pending island fiasco simmering in the South China Sea. It also further illustrates why Japanese politicians have little to no clue about handle the situation. In fact the more I understand about how the Japanese foster foreign policy the less I like it.

However to truly understand the situation some details are required.

So for starters it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the Japanese language is not well known and actually their culture is even less understood than their language. I have heard the Japanese people themselves refer to Japan and all things Japanese as being the “Galapagos”. I think its a very accurate way to expressing their rather unique perspective on the world.

Essentially you have a culture hanging off the edge of the world, with little to zero western influence that made a decision 150 years ago to bootstrap themselves to world power by following a blend of German and English cultural patterns. The Japanese are highly skilled at observing, digesting and ultimately spitting out a slightly better widget. But it functions on the other end of the aforementioned language and cultural filter. Things enter the system, are modified, processed, approved and implemented in a consensus seeking process that winnows out the opinions of the minority no matter how valid they might be.

The decision is made and everyone pulls together seeking the best possible result. I have seen highly educated men of masters level and above work 60 and 70 hour weeks without holiday for years, even decades to achieve the results put on the table by their executive decision makers. Its a very impressive feat and in my opinion not ideally suited for the Western thought process which involves many individuals all with their own opinions. That is not to say one system is better than another, just different in how the are generated.

So 150 years ago the scions and motivated young men of a new generation embarked upon a journey to better understand the European model. These young men returned to Japan with new ideas, visions and perspective. These leaders brought the European methodology back to East Asia where it brewed. Ultimately they and their family’s influence and wealth developed many of the things we foreign people typify as part of our Japanese experience. Or if you prefer simply put, many of these things came from that era. For example the Tokyo subway system was initially started from a young man’s impression of the London underground. Mitsubishi began during this period as did other corporations that eventually became part of the Japanese invasion many of us remember from the 1980s.

Hopefully I have put into Japanese methodology into better perspective. Consensus seeking, a rigorous work ethic and formal polite mannerisms that avoid confrontation are the key elements of the mind set.

When the situation involves studying a mechanical system such as a Model A which the Japanese brought into production in 1917, or the first TV in 1953 it works almost flawlessly. However when it contains something dynamic such as human relations or even more unusual like a foreign culture the system often is not up the challenge. Remember the culture filters everything it comes into contact with.

Perhaps another story will better put it into focus. A few years ago my wife and I went to visit Korea. We have been living in Japan for some time but hadn’t been to Seoul yet. It was on my short list as I am very interested in Korean history. When we arrived flying in low over Incheon I was reminded of the battle fought there by US and other UN forces under command of Douglas MacArthur in 1950. Anyway arriving in town I was struck by how many American companies had a major presence in there. Dunkin Donuts, Burger King etc, plus numerous other smaller companies with names like Gorilla burger, Memphis King BBQ, Hollywood Grill and Brooklyn Burger Joint. Tokyo also has plenty of American style restaurants but the difference between the two was quite significant in my view.

In Korea the portions were American sized, while in Japan the portions are quite small. In fact the food is often barely enough to fill you up if you are used to eating in North America. In Korea the flavor was truly foreign. Italian tasted Italian, Mexican obviously Mexican when the Koreans really wanted to eat foreign food they ate it as it should be prepared. While in Japan the flavor has been filtered or if you prefer altered to suit the Japanese sense of taste. Pasta with ketchup sauce, pizza with octopus, corn and mayonnaise or Hamburger with Teriyaki sauce. Its a spin on western food which they enjoy. Obviously there are exceptions but basically if the chef is Japanese and hasn’t studied cooking overseas you can expect this kind of treatment when it comes to eating foreign food. Not so in Korea, at least that hasn’t been my experience.

So finally to the current situation in the South China Sea between the emerging world power of China and her “Daiyou” islands and the aging financial colossus of Japan with her claims upon the Senkaku islands. Same islands, different names.

It seems that at every turn the Japanese openly put their foot in their mouths.

We have a leadership caste to a certain degree is related to the generation that attacked China during the territorial grab of the 30s and 40s as well as foreign policy blunders. Shinzo Abe’s grandfather served in Tojo’s cabinet. Taro Aso another former prime minister is great grandson of Okubo Toshimichi who was a very influential leader and a notorious loyalist and nationalist. We can see it in some of Abe statements such as “Japan is a country where rich Jews would like to live” and “Japanese colonization was good for Taiwan”. He appears to be somewhat clueless as to what is an appropriate thing to say, especially as a leader of Japan.

Shinzo Abe is cut from the same wood as his grandfather Mr Kishi (see my previous post) who favored Taiwan’s independence from China and his great uncle Eisaku Sato was the last prime minister to visit Taiwan while in office. Shinzo Abe is on record denying the existence of Korean comfort women kept by the Japanese army during the war. His book “toward a beautiful nation” contains passages that question the Tokyo war tribunals rulings. He openly visits Yasukuni shrine as a member of the government and expresses his interest in visiting again.

These guys live a privileged existence in a somewhat isolated and filtered society where international gaffes are more frequent that they should be. The news agency reporters require a license to work and the approval process is to a significant degree controlled by conservative forces. These forces also happen to mesh nicely with policy decisions that are rarely openly questioned in a society I have already explained seeks consensus.

Are these the guys that are going to negotiate a peaceful solution to the island problem with the growing power of China ? It doesn’t appear to be case to me. How does it look to you ?

Finally this post turned in a much longer one than I initially wanted. I have more to say on the subject of China and her domestic issues and the hopeful future of Japan and her leaders but I think this is enough for today.

Thanks for reading

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2 Responses to “Japan’s foreign policy part 1, better understanding the black box”

  1. Chrissy Shelko December 18, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    I didnt look for this, but I love this, found it enlightening! Keep up the great work!

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