Japan keeps free riding

Today marks the first anniversary of North Korea’s presumed subterranean nuclear test, which initially prompted criticism and sanctions from the international community but has since — in some way — led to renewed attention from the US and thus the latest progress towards denuclearized North Korea.

One year ago, of course, Japan was praised for its swift reaction to the test, imposing a broad spectrum of economic sanctions on its pariah neighbor.

And now? The Japanese government has renewed its sanctions, which prohibit the import of all North Korean goods and bans North Korean ships from Japanese ports, for another six months. The reason, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, is that there has been inadequate progress on the abductions issue (no surprise there).

Based on the Japanese government’s actions, one could easily forget that four other countries have equal or greater stakes in resolving the situation on the Korean peninsula. And so Japan continues to free ride on the efforts and sacrifices of others, not least the US, its most important ally. The US — or more specifically Chris Hill, with the backing of Secretary Rice and the president — is pushing hard and is actually willing to deal with a regime that not too along was a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” Japan, the country with the most to fear from North Korea’s arsenal, is also contributing the least to efforts to implement an agreement to neutralize it.

Looks like Mr. Fukuda will not be bucking the LDP’s conservatives after all — not altogether surprising given his vulnerable position.

Meanwhile, I think the difference between Japan’s approaches to the North Korea and Afghanistan issues is revealing. On the former, Japan is, of course, pursuing a hard line independent of the US; in addressing what its leaders (and many of its people) believe to be a multi-dimensional threat to national security, Japan is acting pretty much alone, with little or no consideration of its international reputation or the desires of its partners. In regard to the latter, the government claims to be acting out of deference both to the US but also to the international community, especially the countries participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. At the same time, however, the Japanese government supports doing the minimum necessary to earn the respect of other nations.

Accordingly, for all the talk of Japan’s normalization, it turns out to be not only uneven across time — it has experienced lags and backsliding — but also across space: Japan is not prepared to risk anything substantial in an area in which its interests are not directly affected. This impression is reinforced when one considers that the implicit reasoning behind Japan’s support for the Iraq war, for example, was that supporting the US would firm up US support for Japan vis-a-vis North Korea.

Of course, all this amounts to Japan’s being a fairly typical middling power, concerned more about its fundamental security interests — which necessarily involve its periphery — than about abstract concerns for global order and stability. Japan’s normalization will likely continue to be conditional, which is worth keeping in mind when reading more hysterical accounts of Japan’s changing security policy.

7 thoughts on “Japan keeps free riding

  1. Observer -The Japanese government\’s duty is to pursue Japan\’s self interest. If Japan can free ride, the government should free ride as far as it can.The trick is, of course, smoothly stepping off the moving vehicle just before the crash. This will likely be far easier than many pundits are willing to believe. Internal and external distractions cloud the visions of the other powers sharing the table at the Six Party Talks. They will be happy just to go home having accomplished something. Japan will likely walk away from its infuriating pursuit of a self-serving policy without even a scratch. If I were to be provocatively essentialist, I would argue that continental peoples cannot help but find island peoples exasperating–the islanders being at once innocently selfish and annoyingly generous. In the end, the continentals always forgive the islanders, even when the islanders rob and cheat them in little ways…because the islanders are just so entertaining…and because somebody has to watch out for them.Not that the islanders could possibly be aware that they are gaming the system…of course.


  2. Bryce

    \”On the former, Japan is, of course, pursuing a hard line independent of the US; in addressing what its leaders (and many of its people) believe to be a multi-dimensional threat to national security…\”Do you really think that is the main consideration? I see this largely a question of public opinion. North Korea has been whipped up (with much justification) as a threat to justify sanctions, as well as other initiatives such as missile defence. I think it is a little optimistic to expect the GOJ now to turn around and say that the threat from NK has now reduced so we can ease sanctions.The abductions issue was also used by Abe first to gain public popularity in his bid for the LDP leadership then to shore up support for an imploding cabinet. Japan\’s rather irrational stance over the remains of Yokota Megumi is indicative of this. Something like 70 to 80 percent of Japanese now see \”resolution\” (whatever that means) of the issue as a sine qua non of any steps towards reconciliation with NK. As long as that particular monkey is on the back of the GOJ it will be hard to move forward on North Korea policy.


  3. Oh, I have nothing but respect for Japan\’s maddening ability to free ride its way to success — far from \”Japan rising,\” the reality has been and will continue to be \”Japan (free) riding.\” The irritating thing is when certain Japanese leaders claim that Japan will do otherwise or that it is acting from higher motives.And I guess there is the question of how long Washington will tolerate it, but then Washington does seem to have a lot of tolerance for do-little allies.


  4. Bryce, While abductions may occupy an inappropriately exalted position in Japan\’s North Korea policy, I don\’t think it\’s just a matter of public opinion. I think the abductions issue has put a human face on the North Korean threat, which had presumably become a public issue after the 1998 Taepodong launch. The emphasis on the abductions elevated fears of North Korea to an entirely new level, but I don\’t think it created those fears. Would the issue have the same resonance absent North Korea\’s nuclear and missile programs, and infiltration of Japanese territorial waters? For conservatives like Mr. Abe, the abductions issue was a convenient way to scare the public on North Korea. Whatever their concerns about the fate of the abductees, Mr. Abe and his cohort conceives of the abduction issue as a security issue, a violation of Japanese sovereignty, and thus an inseparable part of the perception of North Korea as \”terror state,\” a multi-dimensional threat to Japan. As for the six-party talks, I don\’t think it\’s a matter of saying the threat has reduced — it\’s a matter of participating in a process of threat reduction, which may or may not work but is worth a try. But of course the situation within the LDP is such that I doubt Mr. Fukuda will even be able to attempt this modest shift.


  5. Bryce

    Yeah, that was kind of my point. The rhetoric on NK, which has in part been stoked by the GOJ, has made any Japanese leverage very difficult in the short term. Because of public pressure – and yes – pressure within the LDP, the government has no other option but to take the hard line position it has found itself in since it applied sanctions after the nuclear test.


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