Japan and its neighbours: A question of respect

Japanese need to accord Asian neighbours the same respect they show to the West

The recent territorial squabbles that Japan is experiencing with all three of its neighbours have been, in several respects, an eye-opener for many Japanese.

Chief of these is the sudden realisation of how weak Japanese diplomatic power has become. There is some bewilderment: "Why are all our neighbours treating us without any respect?"

In fact, the Japanese were shocked when, in the midst of the renewed bilateral spat over the sovereignty of Dokdo/Takeshima island, a personal letter sent by their Prime Minister to the President of South Korea was promptly rejected and sent right back by the Koreans. This kind of first-degree insult is indeed hardly ever heard of in diplomacy, especially between two supposedly friendly countries.

Besides the Koreans, Russian leaders in July have also poked fun at the Japanese anger aroused by the visit of the Russian Prime Minister to the Kuriles islands occupied by Russia and claimed by Japan.

Then there were the fierce anti-Japanese demonstrations in China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the humiliation suffered by Japan's Ambassador to China whose car was "robbed" of its Japanese flag in the streets of Beijing.

Some Japanese analysts have tried to explain the situation as an attempt by China and Russia to test American resolve in defending Japan. But this analysis does not explain the behaviour of South Korea, which is a close ally of the United States. In fact, the drastic decline of Japanese diplomatic leverage with its Asian neighbours can be - at least partly - blamed on two factors: its over-dependence on the US and its traditional disdain of Asia.

Japan's political dependence on (some call it subordination to) the US has always been an open secret. In his recent book, Mr Magosaki Ukeru, former director of intelligence at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, gave a list of Japanese prime ministers who, since the end of the war, have learnt at their own expense (usually a sudden scandal followed by political disgrace) that trying to end this dependence was hazardous to their political health.

In the 1970s, it was common to hear Japanese officials declare on TV: "About this issue, we will define our position after watching what America has to say about it..." And when Japan campaigned in the 1990s for a permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, a diplomatic joke circulated that this would end up giving the US two vetoes in the council. This kind of dependence on America led Mr Ishihara Shintaro, the ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, to complain in 2010 that "Japan is America's concubine".

Such dependence is not helpful in calling for other countries' respect.

Although many Asian governments do need to maintain a cordial relationship with the most developed nation in Asia, many ordinary Asians, despite their admiration for the post-war achievements of Japan, feel a certain frustration at its traditional haughtiness towards the rest of Asia, in contrast to its adoration of the West.

This attitude of looking down on Asia is translated into Japan's failure, 67 years after the war, to repent - sincerely - for its colonial and militaristic past. Such an attitude is far from inspiring true friendship and respect.

Without friendship based on mutual respect, as the Japanese themselves like to say, "You run out of friends when you run out of money". Witness a survey conducted in 2008 in South-east Asia by the Japanese government which found that, in Singapore, 57.8 per cent of respondents picked China as "the most important partner for South-east Asia" while only 3.6 per cent chose Japan. In Malaysia (39.2 versus 25.8) and Thailand (42.7 versus 25.3) too, China was more favoured than Japan although not as sharply as in the city-state.

The reverse was found only in more traditionally anti-Chinese countries such as Vietnam (16.5 versus 42.7), Philippines (8.6 versus 32.7) and Indonesia (12.8 versus 37.9).

In the 1980s, a French educator visiting Japan had a long discussion with students in Japan's most prestigious elite-training school, and marvelled at the near-perfect knowledge of the bright young Japanese about everything in the West: French culture, English literature, American politics.

But when he asked a single question about China and Korea, he was stunned that practically none of these future leaders of Japan could say anything about their immediate Asian neighbours. The incredulous French scholar left with the impression that "they did not even consider themselves as Asians!"

It is well known that most Japanese schoolchildren grow up without properly learning their country's recent history, mainly the part about what their elders had done in Asia. Due to this neglect in education and to general social indifference, a surprising number of young Japanese do not even know that their country had ever waged war against the US and Asia. Is it then a wonder that they cannot understand why their country is being repeatedly asked to apologise to the rest of Asia?

The lack of respect shown recently by Japan's neighbours is regrettable for a country which otherwise enjoys a rather positive image in Asia as a pacifist, industrious and developed nation.

I have often heard young Chinese, who were politically upset at Japan, voice admiration for the high technical and cultural levels attained by the Japanese. It takes only a little effort for the Japanese to say what they have in mind without looking at Uncle Sam, to take an honest look at their country's past, and to treat their Asian neighbours with the same respect as they treat Western partners.

There is no reason why Asians will not reciprocate with their own respect, on top of the admiration they already have for Japan.

The writer is a retired French diplomat, born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, who worked for 20 years at the French Embassy in Tokyo.