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Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006

Thoughts better left buried


LOS ANGELES -- Japan offers the world a culture of surpassing elegance, intellect, literature and political achievement, but it still remains something of an enigma. The great novelist Haruki Murakami understands, perhaps as well as anyone, this aspect of his country. His recent "Kafka on the Shore," a deserved literary hit in the United States as well as in Japan, conveys, as Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato recently put it in a newspaper interview, "the off-kilter, weird and uncertain feelings that remain in Japanese society."

Off-kilter and weird are adjectives that well describe some of the unfortunate public comments of Japan's current foreign minister. Taro Aso seems anything but uncertain these days. He sees nothing wrong with the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine (the memorial to Japan's war dead) and, indeed, sees no reason why Japan's emperor ought not visit there, too. In fact, for many years (thankfully) no occupier of the Japanese throne has cast wisdom aside to visit the controversial shrine.

In the postwar era, subtle Japanese diplomacy has often emphasized constructive engagement, economic aid and careful negotiation of differences and tensions. So it's as if Aso somehow misses the old days of a tightly wound region dominated by Japanese militarism.

Perhaps that's going too far, then again, maybe not. In an interview 10 days ago he went out of his way to downplay his country's tensions with China and South (not to mention North) Korea, lamely explaining that neighboring countries don't always agree. "We should be prepared to a certain degree and not count so heavily on neighbors always remaining on such good terms," he said on national television.

Is there no central role for careful and thoughtful diplomacy in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government? Has Japanese diplomacy become so unimportant that the famously competent Ministry of Foreign Affairs is suddenly seconded to the fisheries ministry?

Aso is the same foreign minister who recently said Japanese colonialism brought demonstrable benefits to Taiwan and Korea, and that ending visits to Yasukuni Shrine would not solve all outstanding regional problems.

In the latter regard, Aso is absolutely right, of course, but a change in direction and tonality on Tokyo's part would be a helpful symbolic starting point. It would demonstrate Japanese sensitivity to the concerns (albeit overwrought and politicized at times) of others in the region, and remind people of the country's general magnanimity since World War II ended.

True, if China's leaders had the capacity to take the long view and eschew nationalism-mongering, the shrine issue could be shelved. But that doesn't seem to be in the cards at present even if it is in the region's true interest.

What makes Aso run off at the mouth? To be sure, the politician is gunning for the top spot in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which will open up later this year when Koizumi steps down, as he has promised to do, as its president. Appealing to core nationalistic factions in the LDP may be necessary election profiteering, but it is terrible international relations.

Several things need to happen soon. For starters, Aso himself should start heeding the sage advice of one of the greatest foreign ministers in history: "Speech was given to man," said Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, "to disguise his thoughts." As the current foreign minister appears sincerely thoughtless, it would be better for him to say as little as possible publicly for as long as he remains foreign minister.

Which raises the second point: Why is this man the foreign minister of America's No. 1 ally in Asia, of the second-largest economy in the world, and of a current applicant for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council? Moreover, as elevation to the U.N. seat depends on the support of neighbors like China, is Aso the best that Japan can do?

Is he the best that Koizumi could have appointed to the high-profile position back in October?

Japan's apparent official drift toward the rigid thinking of old should alarm the U.S. while it provides fodder for Tokyo's skeptics and enemies in the region. After all, what Asian country is more important to Washington than Japan?

Even if the answer were China, then the way for Tokyo to continually improve relations with Beijing is to understand that its future lies in making friends and isolating enemies, not giving those who wish it the worst the gift of a gabby foreign minister that reminds everyone of Japan's bad old days.

Journalist and UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Relations.

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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