free web stats Transcript of the Japan Considered Podcast for March 16, 2007


March 16, 2007; Volume 03, Number 10

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The North Korean Negotiations Saga Continues

Japan Discusses Defense/Military Issues With Australia, Indonesia, and France

Recent Developments in Japan’s Relations with Mainland China
“Sushi Police” and Other Public Communications Debacles, Domestic and International
Another Useful English Language Website
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Spring Valley in the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, March 16th, 2007. and you are listening to Volume 03, Number 10, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping by this week. It’s good to be back at the microphone. After nearly a two-week absence. Thanks too for all the e-mails in the interim. I haven’t had time to read every one yet. But they’re all appreciated. And I hope to get to them before things start up in earnest again next week. We’ve had quite a remarkable increase in subscriptions to the podcast during the past two weeks. A hearty South Carolina welcome to all of you new listeners. I hope the programs you receive will meet your expectations. Drop me an e-mail and tell me what you think at I’ll do my best to write back. And certainly appreciate the feedback.

No, I haven’t pod-faded,” as the expression goes. Last week was a planned absence, for a short spring break vacation. And there’s just too much that needs to be discussed and considered when it comes to Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. Pod-Fading here just isn’t an option!

Speaking of vacation, late last week, and earlier this week, we took our new Aliner hard-sided pop-up camper clear down to South-Central Florida to visit my Dad and his wife in Labelle. Near Ft. Myers. Nearly 1,200 miles, both ways. We had a wonderful time. And enjoyed the first outing in our “little tin house,” as one visitor there described it.  We especially enjoyed meeting all the folks at the Labelle Woods Resort. And the opportunity to hear one of their regular Tuesday night jam sessions. How Ed Cartwright keeps all of those independent-minded participants together through one number after another is hard to imagine. A real treat. Though I was unable to get a recording for the end of this show.

A lot’s been going on in Japan since our last program. Both in domestic politics and in international relations. We’ll begin this week with a quick review of developments in the North Korean situation. Because of its overall importance. Then a comment on the Abe Cabinet’s discussion of defense relations with Australia, Indonesia, and France, and its significance. Next, we’ll consider recent developments in the relationship with Mainland China, including the run-up to Premier Wen’s visit to Japan early next month. And we’ll conclude with further consideration of the Abe Cabinet’s management of public communications, both domestic and international. Domestic politics too has been busy. But we’ll be lucky to get through all of this, and still have time for the excellent bluegrass clip I’ve prepared for you at the end.

The North Korean Negotiations Saga Continues

During the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear developments held last month in Beijing, the participants agreed to establish five working groups to negotiate outstanding problems. Among them was a Japan-North Korea working group. It was established to deal with outstanding bilateral issues, including questions remaining about North Korea’s bizarre abduction of Japanese citizens, and North Korea’s concerns over Japan’s occupation of Korea during the pre-World War Two era.

Those bilateral Japan-North Korea talks got under way in Hanoi, Vietnam, on the 7th of this month. Last Wednesday. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other senior government spokesmen assured the public that Japan’s representatives would insist on substantive progress on the abduction issue before agreeing to further negotiations. North Korean representatives before the meeting continued to describe the abduction issue as “resolved.” Said they’d provided all the information they have to give. Or will give. This dimmed prospects for progress on Japan’s participation in the energy relief program for Pyongyang, and other bilateral issues.

Well, the expected happened. The bilateral meeting had hardly gotten under way at Japan’s Hanoi Embassy on Wednesday morning, the 7th, when they ended, with no schedule for their resumption. The North Korean delegation said they had no plans to return to the scheduled afternoon meetings. Though Japanese representatives were seen entering and leaving the North Korean compound in Hanoi that evening, suggesting that non-public efforts to restart the talks were continuing. Thursday’s meeting went no more smoothly. And the two days of bilateral talks in Hanoi ended with no progress. Or, at least, no published progress.

Few observers were surprised. Both Japanese and North Korean representatives at the talks had to assure their home governments they’d taken a “firm stand” at the meetings. And in Japan’s case, also assure the Japanese attentive public. This belligerent posturing is bound to go on for some time. With a breakthrough – if there is a breakthrough – coming only just at the last possible moment. That’s how these things go.

North Korea continues its international PR campaign to persuade Japan’s attentive public that the Abe Government’s stubborn refusal to put aside the abduction issue is “isolating” Japan within the international community. This includes suggestions that the United States is likely to cut its own deal with Pyongyang and abandon Japan because of this. Some of the anti-Abe forces within Japan have endorsed that line as well. With a few American Japan Hands who oppose the Bush Administration’s policies chiming in. In spite of repeated official assurances from Washington that the Bush Administration recognizes the importance of the abduction issue for Japan.

Abe and his team, however, have considerable domestic political latitude on this issue. If recent opinion polls are to be believed. All of those I’ve seen report that well over 80 percent of Japan’s public agrees that Japan should withhold any support from North Korea until significant progress is made on the abduction issue. Raising the threat of “international isolation” into top-level negotiations with Japan no longer seems to work as well as it once did. We’ve discussed this transformation and its causes on past programs. The Gai-Atsu game has changed. But it’ll take a while for the international spin community to accept this and adapt their tactics, I guess.

The North Korean nuclear threat negotiations continue on. With progress one day and disappointment the next. Nobody thought it would be easy. Everyone involved wishes to avoid disaster on the Korean Peninsula. And therefore everyone involved is willing to put up with a lot of posturing and airplane travel for the sake of even a little progress. I’ll keep an eye on all of this. And keep you posted should next week’s round of negotiations in Beijing bear any fruit.

Japan Discusses Defense/Military Issues With Australia, Indonesia, and France

During his visit to Tokyo this week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a joint declaration on security cooperation. That was on Tuesday, the 13th. This declaration is not a treaty, as both sides took pains to point out. But it is the first such international agreement on security affairs Japan has made with any country other than the United States since World War Two. So, it is, I think, of some significance.

The Declaration emphasizes cooperation in the fields of counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, disaster relief requiring the involvement of defense forces, and greater cooperation between the two nations’ self defense forces. Japan and Australia also agreed during Howard’s Tokyo visit to establish a framework for regular “two-plus-two” ministerial meetings. Such as those Japan and the United States have long held between their foreign and defense ministers. This hardly compares with the terms of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. But it does represent an important development for Japan in its conduct of international relations.

Both Abe and Howard also went to considerable pains to deny that their new declaration of defense-related cooperation was aimed at any particular country. Including Mainland China! A Foreign Ministry spokesmen in Beijing immediately said he hoped that both countries were sincere in their denial. Since China poses no military threat to other countries. Let’s hope there’s enough sincerity here to go all the way around ….

In addition to this joint security declaration with Australia, an Indonesian government spokesman told the press on Monday, the 12th, that Indonesia and Japan have agreed to expand their bilateral defense cooperation. This during meetings between the director-general of the International Cooperation Bureau of Japan’s Defense Ministry and Indonesia’s Defense Minister. Their cooperation, the Defense Ministry spokesman said, will be directed toward “stability and security in the Asia Pacific region.” This, he said, in light of recent economic expansion of China and India in the region. This development follows on the successful visit of Indonesia’s president to Tokyo last November. So, another, incrementally significant, development. Especially given the timing.

And if that wasn’t enough to make the point, today, Friday the 16th, Prime Minister Abe met in Tokyo with French Defense Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie. This meeting didn’t include announcement of any new agreements on defense-related cooperation. But Abe and the French minister of defense did discuss the North Korean issue, with Alliot-Marie expressing support for Japan’s position on the abduction issue. And they agreed, essentially, to disagree, on the EU ending its ban on weapons exports to Mainland China. Abe opposed it, of course. And France thought it a good idea, of course. Hardly another conversation with just another transistor salesman for the French defense minister this time around.

Japan, it seems, is more directly and openly involved in discussions of national security with other nations these days than in the past. Quite a bit more, in fact. At the level one might expect of a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. Announcements of such discussions no longer bring long lines of red flag-waving snake dancers into the streets. They appear to be accepted – even expected – by Japan’s attentive public. If so, Japan’s major Opposition political party had better be prepared to join the national security discussion. With substantive contributions, if they wish to have any influence over policies and events. This appears to present a challenge for the DPJ leadership, given the diverse backgrounds of its membership, and their current electoral strategy.

Recent Developments in Japan’s Relations with Mainland China

We’ve seen quite a change in Japan’s relationship with Mainland China since Shinzo Abe assumed the premiership last year. A change compared by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to the breaking and melting of ice. Opinions differ on the determinants of that change. With some observers believing the change was caused by Prime Minister Abe recognizing he must accept China’s demand that he abstain from official visits to Yasukuni shrine in order to have smooth relations with Beijing. And other observers attributing the change to Beijing’s realization they had painted themselves into a corner with their Yasukuni Shrine Visit international PR operation during the Koizumi era. And therefore, that Beijing jumped at the opportunity to back away from their refusal to hold summit meetings. Summit meetings even with the more conservative Shinzo Abe in the premiership

But for whatever reason, bilateral summit meetings between Japan and China have resumed. And Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to visit Tokyo between April 11th and 14th. Wen originally was expected to stay in Japan for a week. But he shortened the trip in order to have time to visit South Korea before arriving in Japan. During his stay, Wen is expected to address Japan’s Diet, as well as visit Kyoto.

In spite of his strained ice breaking and ice melting analogy, Premier Wen faces a number of challenges when he visits Tokyo next month. Japan’s government has been unusually frank in its expressions of concern over important issues related to China. And Wen can expect to hear more about them during his Japan trip. These include Japanese concern over China’s rapidly expanding military budget. And the “transparency” of that military spending. Increasing Chinese submarine activity around Japan, and China’s recent destruction of one of their own satellites by guided missile, add to Tokyo’s concerns.

Wen also is likely to hear considerably more about exploitation of natural gas reserves in an area claimed by both Japan and China in the East China Sea. China has begun pumping gas from the area, Japan believes, prior to mutual settlement of the problem. LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, and New Komeito Secretary General Kazuo Kitagawa, arrived in Beijing yesterday for a visit that included meetings with President Hu Jintao. During the meeting Nakagawa said Tokyo hopes for substantive progress on outstanding issues before Wen’s visit. Including East China Sea gas exploitation. In other words, Wen will have accomplished little by just showing up, as far as Tokyo is concerned!  

China, on its side, hopes to confirm Japan’s willingness to continue economic cooperation measures. Including tech transfer, and Japan’s financial support for Chinese environmental conservation programs that will kick in next year, after Japan’s low-interest ODA loans are scheduled to end.

But on the whole, it appears as if Wen must be the apprehensive one during this visit. With Japan’s new-found willingness to openly and publicly discuss their own issues of concern in the bilateral relationship. Given this, Wen and Beijing can only be grateful for the recent resumption of concern over handling of the “Comfort Women” issue in Japan. And around the world. Quite convenient timing. From Wen’s perspective, it seems to me. By simply agreeing to ignore the Comfort Women issue, or to downplay his expressions of concern, Wen will have done his hosts a favor. A favor that costs him very little. And for which he can justly expect to be compensated by the Japanese side downplaying one or more of their concerns. A coincidental blessing, surely.

We can only hope next month’s Japan-China Summit Meeting goes smoothly, as planned. That it lays the groundwork for more cooperative relations in the future between these two great Asian nations. As they try to cope with the genuine differences of national interest that exist behind the smoke and clouds. I’ll watch the developments carefully, and keep you posted.   

“Sushi Police” and Other Public Communications Debacles, Domestic and International

Finally today, another comment on the difficulty Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet is having communicating its objectives and accomplishments to Japan’s attentive public. And to the rest of the world. The decline in public approval of Abe and his Cabinet continues, if at a somewhat lower rate. This in spite of accomplishments in domestic politics and international relations that Japan’s attentive public seems to approve. I suspected late last year he might be in this sort of trouble. When the Kantei had difficulty coping with public outcry over one of his hand-picked economic advisers being caught living in government-subsidized Tokyo housing with his girlfriend!

Discussion of the “Homma Scandal” went on and on, tying the Kantei up in knots when more serious issues required their attention. And needlessly, really. Any third-year associate of a reputable PR firm could have whipped up an effective defensive strategy in half an hour. And showed the Kantei how to implement it. The Kantei certainly has PR strategists with far greater skills than that. Perhaps its time for Abe to begin taking their advice.

This problem is well illustrated by the “Sushi Police” debacle now facing Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture. And ultimately, the Kantei. The idea is said to have been prompted by complaints of Japanese returning from abroad. Over the quality of the fare served in restaurants that advertised themselves as purveyors of “Japanese food.” The Ministry responded to those concerns in good bureaucratic fashion. They established a panel of distinguished food experts. Then charged the panel with creation of standards necessary for foreign “Japanese food” restaurants to be “certified.” Gaimusho cringed.

The panel of food experts is expected to publish their standards by next February. So Ministry of Agriculture inspectors can begin their global inspection tours after the beginning of the next fiscal year. In April. Probably not bad duty at all for a young Ministry of Agriculture bureaucrat.

All of this makes perfect sense. Especially to any of us who are genuinely fond of Japanese cuisine. And who have been disappointed, if not gastronomically inconvenienced, by restaurants around the world serving bad Japanese food.

But anyone with even rudimentary public communications skills could have recognized the flap potential of this plan. Why, even the French couldn’t get away with such an outrageous scheme in the United States. And that’s saying a lot! Why, we have to ask, didn’t someone at the Kantei recognize this international PR train-wreck in process, and stop it? True, this issue has more potential for creating knowing smiles and smirks than tears. Hardly earth-shaking. But I do believe it nicely illustrates the difficulty the Abe Cabinet has with public communications.

A more serious example is their response recently to re-introduction of the Comfort Women issue. Here, the Prime Minister himself must accept a good portion of the blame. His ill-conceived responses to early questions have provided fuel to sustain it.

It seems highly unlikely that a man as straight-laced as the Perrier-sipping Shinzo Abe approves the horrific actions – coerced, un-coerced, or otherwise – that indisputably occurred during World War Two. Yet he’s allowed himself and his Administration to be tangled in this successor-to-Yasukuni international PR campaign. With predictable consequences.

Consequences this time with real significance for Japan’s conduct of foreign relations. In the short-term, introduction of the Comfort Women issue will advantage nations negotiating with Japan. As we noted a moment ago. But, like Yasukuni, in the longer-term, application of this issue may genuinely offend Japan’s attentive public. A consequence Japan’s Kantei would be sure to recognize. Not good for anyone. Either for Japan. Or, ultimately, for those nations negotiating with Japan.

Does all of this matter? Will Abe and his Kantei be able, as they suggest, to ignore their decline in public approval? To wait for the Japanese public to recognize their genuine accomplishments? Maybe so. Some of Japan’s political commentators recently have suggested that the decline in Abe’s approval rating has finally bottomed out. But at considerable loss of political opportunity. Abe’s initial ambitious political agenda appears to have been scaled back considerably. Unnecessary loss, I believe. Were more attention paid from the beginning to the importance of public communications. Especially its importance for a prime minister whose selection depended upon his approval by Japan’s attentive public. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Another Useful English Language Website

I may have introduced this site on a past program. But it’s worth another mention. The “Japan Press Weekly” is the most reliable internet-based source of Japanese Left opinion and analysis I’ve been able to find in English. It’s sponsored by Japan’s Communist Party. And, therefore has no need to pretend to be politically neutral or objective.

The masthead states the Japan Press Weekly “is the only news agency providing information of progressive, democratic movements in Japan.” Though I presume they mean English language news here. Its selection of articles and interpretation of the significance of those articles reflects accurately the positions of Japan’s Communist Party. And that’s that!

There are some real advantages to this, I believe. Ideological coherence, for one. Reliability of the news selection process and interpretation, for another. You know exactly what you’re getting. No biased interpretation, Left or Right, masked with a veneer of journalistic even-handedness, that leaves more thoughtful readers wondering.

And what you get usually is valuable. The Communist Party, and its Party newspaper, Shimbun Akahata, are known in Japan’s political world for the rigor of their research and analysis. That’s exhibited here as well. You’ll also find the Japan Press Weekly covering issues that Japan’s other media outlets have chosen to ignore. Again, very useful for the serious student of Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. So when you want a clear interpretation from Japan’s ideological Left of particular events and issues, click on over to the Japan Press Weekly. You’re bound to find something of use. I’ll put a link to their site in the show notes and podcast transcript. []

Concluding Comments

Well, that brings us to the end of our time together this week. Mustn’t take too much extra time just because we didn’t have a program last week! As always, continue to send your comments and suggestions for new subjects to me at I read them all, and take each one into consideration when planning future programs. It will take a couple more days to go through those that arrived since the last program. But I’ll be sure to get to them.

Let’s go out today with another clip of that refreshing bluegrass. This time from the “Infamous Stringdusters.” They may not be as familiar to you as some of the bands and artists we’ve featured on the program. But I think this short clip of “Letter From Prison,” on their recently released album, “Fork in the Road,” will demonstrate that they’re already right up there with the best of ‘em. I’ll put a link in the show notes and transcript to their CD on Sugar Hill Records site for those of you who might want to order one. In the meantime, just listen to this!


Goodbye all. Until next week.