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Interview

Japan as of late has demonstrated an upsurge in nationalism, together with a gradual rejection of its policy of ‘pacifism’. On 7 February 2014, when Japan celebrated “Northern Territories Day”, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left for Sochi for the opening of the Olympic Games and had a meeting with Vladimir Putin there the day after. The prospects for Russo-Japanese relations and the implications of the internal political situation in Japan are discussed in this interview with RIAC member Alexander N. Panov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia.

Interview

Japan as of late has demonstrated an upsurge in nationalism, together with a gradual rejection of its policy of ‘pacifism’. On 7 February 2014, when Japan celebrated “Northern Territories Day”, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left for Sochi for the opening of the Olympic Games and had a meeting with Vladimir Putin there the day after. The prospects for Russo-Japanese relations and the implications of the internal political situation in Japan are discussed in this interview with RIAC member Alexander N. Panov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia.

The 24th Olympic Games opened in Sochi last Friday, and were also the reason given by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his visit to Russia. On the other hand, that same day, 7 February, is known in Japan as Northern Territories Day, referring to Japan’s dispute with Russia over the South Kuril Islands. How would you comment on this rather unusual step by Prime Minister Abe? What reaction might it cause in Japan or in Russia? What are the prospects for Russo-Japanese relations?

I would like to note, first of all, that the meeting between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin has already taken place in Sochi in a very warm and friendly environment. Vladimir Putin welcomed Prime Minister Abe at the doors of his residence accompanied by the dog that residents of the Akita Prefecture had given him in gratitude for assistance offered to Japan following the 2011 disaster.

A new ‘two plus two’ dialogue has also been launched as a framework for consultations between foreign and defence ministers. The first meeting was hosted by Japan last November in Tokyo. Japan has had a similar format of dialogue before only with its closest allies such as the US or Australia.

Prime Minister Abe’s visit on the so-called Northern Territories Day did not affect the fruitful outcome of the meeting in any way. Nor was it treated back in Japan as an anti-Russian position: nobody expected that Prime Minister Abe would be going to Russia with demands to return the Northern Territories. While 7 February, Northern Territories Day in Japan, is marked annually, this time was quieter, as noted by the mass media. The Russian Embassy did not report any significant demonstrations, while the far right activists did not even use their loudspeakers to demand the return of the Northern Territories. The meeting commemorating the Northern Territories Day, which was addressed by Shinzo Abe, was also held in a calm and low-key setting, without any hype typical of that day two or three years ago.

It appears that our relationship has graduated to steady evolution. Speaking with Prime Minister Abe, Vladimir Putin started by noting his satisfaction with the status of our bilateral relations. The relationship has been dynamically growing in all directions, and in particular, as part of a political dialogue. This was already the fifth meeting between the leaders since Shinzo Abe was elected prime minister last year, and Vladimir Putin was elected President.

Photo: Alexander N. Panov

In addition, with the dialogue becoming more intensive, there are now regular talks at the deputy ministerial level, inter alia, on issues related to the peace treaty: the third regular round of negotiations in Tokyo took place on 31 January.

A new ‘two plus two’ dialogue has also been launched as a framework for consultations between foreign and defence ministers. The first meeting was hosted by Japan last November in Tokyo. Japan has had a similar format of dialogue before only with its closest allies such as the US or Australia.

Vladimir Putin has also made note of the 6 per cent growth in trade last year, which topped USD 30 bln. There are positive changes both in Russia and in Japan.

There is an awareness among both countries that the key objective is to ensure a positive, favourable environment in their bilateral relations that allows for the solution of the most complex issues. Vladimir Putin voiced this idea during his meeting with Prime Minister Abe. The latter, addressing the Northern Territories Day meeting in Japan, stated that Japan’s approach was to develop its relations with Russia to be able, ultimately, to resolve the Northern Territories issue and sign a peace treaty.

The meeting reached a number of understandings not only to continue but also to intensify the dialogue. This year, the two leaders will meet at least two more times, when Shinzo Abe comes to the G-8 Summit in Sochi in June, and later in October-November this year, since Vladimir Putin has agreed to pay an official visit to Japan then. In addition, the Japanese foreign minister will come to Moscow in April for a meeting of the intergovernmental commission on economic issues.

These cover four major areas: energy, agriculture, medicine and the environment. All four have relevance to our cooperation in Siberia and Russia’s Far East, which is of great interest for Japan. At the moment, one can conclude that our relationship is steadily growing, and this is quite satisfactory.

A large event will be held in Tokyo in March to be attended by Russian ministers responsible for economic issues and major business leaders. Together with their Japanese counterparts, they will discuss the specific issues of cooperation that were delineated during Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Moscow last April. These cover four major areas: energy, agriculture, medicine and the environment. All four have relevance to our cooperation in Siberia and Russia’s Far East, which is of great interest for Japan. At the moment, one can conclude that our relationship is steadily growing, and this is quite satisfactory.

Japan at the moment is gradually abandoning “pacifism” in its foreign policy, as suggested by statements made by the country’s leaders, weapons purchases as well as the new policy of “active pacifism”. How will this type of policy in Japan affect the bilateral relationship? Should Russia respond to it, and if so, how?

Recently one of the members of board of governors at a large semi-governmental corporation, NHK, and a popular writer, Naoki Hyakuta, has put forth a justification for Japan’s aggression against China and its attack on Pearl Harbour without a declaration of war. This caused a very angry reaction on the part of the US Department of State, whose spokesperson called such statements revolting and unacceptable.

True, with Shinzo Abe coming to power, nationalist sentiments are on the rise in Japan. This has already had its repercussions for Japan’s relations with China, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan and some other Asian countries.

In this respect, there was a certain deterioration in relations with the USA. The US, for the first time, expressed its displeasure as a result of the Prime Minister’s visit in late December to the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating dead soldiers, including those killed during WWII. According to the prevalent tradition, Yasukuni also enshrines war criminals who were executed by the decision of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Recently one of the members of board of governors at a large semi-governmental corporation, NHK, and a popular writer, Naoki Hyakuta, has put forth a justification for Japan’s aggression against China and its attack on Pearl Harbour without a declaration of war. This caused a very angry reaction on the part of the US Department of State, whose spokesperson called such statements revolting and unacceptable.

Photo: AP / ITSUO INOUYE
Dmitry Streltsov:
Japan: A New National Security Policy

There is a distinct atmosphere of unhappiness over the right-wing shift in the political arena, which is bound to continue to remain in focus and cause negative reactions from the US. Russia, too, has expressed its concern over Shinto Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. There are, however, signs suggesting that the Japanese leadership is becoming aware of the implications of all this displeasure. Shinto Abe, for instance, is no longer talking about the need to revise the Constitution, and this topic is no longer given much priority.

The focus is more on Japan’s right to “collective self-defence” meaning that in the event of an attack against US troops that are engaged in the mission of defending Japan, Japan may act together with the US. Under the current interpretation of its constitution, Japan has no such right. Abe’s cabinet is currently trying to amend not so much the Constitution as its interpretation.

Shinzo Abe is less prone now to making statements about the historic past. He has announced that by 2015, when the end of WWII will be commemorated, the Japanese Government will again make statements accepting guilt for all the sufferings that Japan caused many countries during WWII. Russia, undoubtedly, is closely following any changes in the positions of or attitudes in Japan.

Japan now appears to be paying more attention to the southern flank of its defences, namely the islands disputed by China. Japan is seeking to strengthen its self-defence, in particular its maritime and airborne self-defence forces, to protect the islands in the event of a conflict.

Japan now appears to be paying more attention to the southern flank of its defences, namely the islands disputed by China. Japan is seeking to strengthen its self-defence, in particular its maritime and airborne self-defence forces, to protect the islands in the event of a conflict. Japan has also increased its defence budget, which is nevertheless only one third of that of China. Japan continues to have no major offensive weapons: no bombers, cruisers, aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines.

The present economic situation in the country does not allow for any significant increase in defence expenditure. But, more significantly, Japan continues to have very strong pacifist attitudes. More than half of the population there are against any amendments to the Constitution and in particular its peace provisions. Even the New Komei Party, which is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, is against changing the Constitution. This is something that the ruling party has to heed to, since, without a coalition, no decisions can be reached in parliament.

Sentiments in the country remain fairly pacifist overall. The overwhelming majority of the public responds rather critically to the statements made by national leaders. These are the same pacifist attitudes that Japan has had since WWII.

Japan continues to have very strong pacifist attitudes. More than half of the population there are against any amendments to the Constitution and in particular its peace provisions. Even the New Komei Party, which is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, is against changing the Constitution.

There are, certainly, occasional nationalist calls which hide more profound factors than the mere philosophical speculations of the current leader or his close circle: the country is losing its positions to China in the region. Japan has already fallen behind in the economic arena by becoming the third largest economy in the world. China’s policies in the region are becoming very assertive, and it is ‘squeezing’ out Japan, which does not enjoy the role of being a junior partner to China.

The government is currently trying to revitalise an economy that for over two decades has been stagnating. And, with such unpopular economic measures as higher taxes, lower agricultural subsidies or other similar policies, the leaders have to resort to simple, although by far not the best, methods of appealing to nationalist sentiments or patriotism, to be able to carry the unpopular measures with greater ease.

Thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Interviewed by Ilya Ivanov, RIAC Programme Assistant

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
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