Part of the problem is a statement by newly appointed MAFF minister Ota Seiichi, who reportedly described Japanese consumers as “noisy.”
As Jun Okumura notes, reading Mr. Ota’s remarks in the proper context suggests that Mr. Ota’s remarks as perfectly banal and inoffensive: Japan is a democracy, and when consumers complain the government must listen; China is an autocracy, and the CCP can hide information and ignore the public. Mr. Ota’s remarks would be controversial only if he was speaking longingly about the CCP’s ability to ignore the “noisy” public. I don’t think he was. (Although I’m sure that some LDP officials — perhaps even Abe Shinzo, despite his professed love of democracy — envy the Chinese communists for their freedom from oversight, public accountability, press scrutiny, and the other “encumberances” of democracy.)
But this whole affair suggests something important about the Japanese public’s attitudes towards China. Obviously the biggest story in Yomiuri‘s recent poll surveying Japanese attitudes about China and Chinese attitudes about Japan was that Chinese respondents were more positive about Japan than Japanese respondents were about China, but there is more to it than that. While Japanese respondents are undoubtedly concerned about Chinese military power — when asked how they think of China, 57.4% of 1828 respondents said they see it as a country strengthening its military — they are also not implacably hostile to China. Respondents were almost overwhelmingly positive about Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan in May and Japan’s assistance to China following the Sichuan earthquake, suggesting that there are steps both governments can take to build a sound foundation for Sino-Japanese relations. And given tepid support among the Japanese people for full-fledged remilitarization, fears of the growing strength of the PLA do not necessarily translate into support for a policy line that wouild see Japan try to compete with China in an East Asian cold war. Recall that in the Cabinet Office’s latest poll on defense issues — now two years old, so possibly dated, although given the margins I would imagine the change over two years isn’t too great (although isn’t it high time for a new one?)— only 16.5% of respondents wanted to see the JSDF’s strength enhanced, while 65.7% said it was fine as is (the latter nearly four percentage points above the previous survey result).
But what the gyoza scandal tells us is that while the Japanese people do not want to militarize Japan’s relationship with China, they do want their government to show more backbone in bilateral negotiations, a desire that surely applies to Japan’s relations with countries other than China. That naturally puts the Japanese government in a tough position. In the gyoza scandal, what would the Fukuda government have gained by denying China’s request and immediately revealing the new information to the public? Less of a public uproar, perhaps, but an even less conciliatory China. More importantly, the Japanese public is probably going to be less forgiving of their government’s weakness in dealings with China when the bilateral issues impact Japanese households directly (i.e., tainted produts). Seikatsu remains dai-ichi, even in the Sino-Japanese relationship.
And so the Fukuda government is left trying to appease the Japanese public — hence the prime minister’s rebuke to Mr. Ota — while trying to accentuate the positive in relations with China — hence the dispatch of Foreign Minister Komura during the Olympics. But outside observers should not mistake a public agitated over relations with China with a public eager to see Japan compete toe-to-toe with China in military affairs.