Japan must look outward, not just inward, after quake

Repost from The Mainichi Daily
May 22, 2011

Since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, diplomatic pressure on Japan has, on the whole, been easing. Sympathy is one reason for this; another is that countries are looking to adopt a new approach and break the deadlock that their relations with Japan have reached.

The United States, Australia, France and other countries whose leaders rushed to Japan’s side right after the earthquake, have been making new pledges to assist Japan. France, for example, will help decontaminate water from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant from June. An official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented, “I never knew France had such know-how about nuclear power plants.”

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s tour of disaster areas in Japan from May 21 is representative of the harmonious approach that these countries have been taking. Immediately after the quake, China sent an international rescue team to Japan for the first time, and Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese Embassy in China and expressed his condolences to Japan. The visit to the disaster areas is an extension of this goodwill.

Russia also dispatched a team of more that 160 rescuers to Japan after the quake. Meanwhile, one major Russian newspaper made the rare step of carrying a column calling for the return of the four Russian-controlled islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories — hinting at a slight change in public sentiment toward Japan.

A similar state of affairs was seen after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The earthquake hit at a time when Japan was becoming isolated from the international community, but after it struck, diplomatic pressure on Japan temporarily eased. An official telegram sent by Paul Claudel, a famous writer who at the time served as French ambassador to Japan, pointed this out. (The telegram is listed in Claudel’s book “Correspondance Diplomatique. Tokyo 1921-1927,” whose Japanese translation is published by Soshisha Publishing Co.)

In 1921, Britain, which had decided to terminate the Anglo-Japanese alliance, planned to turn Singapore into a naval port to resist Japan’s advances into Asia. But after the quake, some analysts called for abandoning the plan. In China, meanwhile, the anti-Japanese sentiment that had arisen in response to Japan’s 21 Demands to China in 1915 diminished. And the United States, which had been debating an immigration act that limited the number of Japanese in the country, was the first to come to Japan with major aid. Claudel noted that the U.S. performed charitable work while displaying virtue with unsurpassed magnificence.

The ambassador noted that sympathy from around the world and decreased diplomatic pressure helped to break down walls in the wary hearts of Japanese people. But he also stated that Japanese leaders were viewing the situation coldly, taking the opinion that friendship and national interests were different things. As it turned out, Japan accelerated its advance into the Asian continent.

Now Japan’s position and the international environment are different, but the country must be wary of the inward-looking sentiment that arises after an earthquake — the kind of logic that says, “We can’t think about the world when we’re in such a terrible state,” the fears of countries using the earthquake to employ “smiling diplomacy.”

Of course, when it comes to sympathy and other countries’ approach to Japan, national interests hold great importance, but the question is, can Japanese diplomacy skillfully utilize this opportunity? (By Megumi Nishikawa, Expert Senior Writer)

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