While the recent Chinese protests against Japan did very little for China’s image as a country ruled and inhabited by rational and well-informed people, in terms of the public relations war over the Senkaku territorial dispute itself, and regarding drawing attention to China and Taiwan’s dangerous attempts to undermine Japanese effective administrative control, Japan has been faring badly.
The main problems have been the combination of Japan’s unwillingness to admit that there is a territorial dispute, combined with simplistic understandings of the historical context of Japan’s acquisition(by both sides of the argument, actually), which has made it look less than reasonable, especially as critics have pointed to Japan’s WWII-related territorial disputes with other nations. The recent prominence of hardline conservative voices regarding the Senkaku Islands dispute has also raised suspicions elsewhere. While Japan has proposed taking the ROK to the ICJ over Dokdo, has emphasized the “rule of (international) law” in the UN, and has criticized the ROK for not recognizing the dispute, it has been too timid to also adhere to the same exact logic regarding the Senkaku Islands, which drastically undermines its credibility.
At the same time the Japanese government has also been unable to articulate to the international community that any Chinese attempt to undermine effective control, is, irrespective of historical and legal dimensions of the dispute itself, invalid and dangerous. Essentially there is a difference between being pigheaded and committing violence against the international order. The principle of respecting effective control must be adhered to, especially given the serious limitations of international law regarding dealing with historical territorial claims. However, if Japan admitted that there was a territorial dispute, was open to taking it to the ICJ, perhaps in exchange for China recognizing Japan’s administrative control and not challenging it, then perhaps China’s actions would be regarded as every bit as provocative as the Japanese believe they should be. This is the jist of former ambassador and head of the MOFA Treaties Bureau Kazuhiko Togo‘s argument to deal with the situation, anyhow. There is certainly something to it.
It is of great interest in this context of territorial and international law disputes, security tensions, and “hardliner” Abe Shinzo’s ascendance to the LDP throne, that Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru has chosen this time to pick a Twitter fight with conservatives over territorial and history issues. I have reproduced selected elements of the discussion below with commentary. While there is a lot to deconstruct and challenge regarding his own view of history and past and current conflicts, the below conversation shows why it is too soon to lump him in with populist “nationalists” like Ishihara Shintaro, or for that matter, conservative “nationalists” like Abe Shinzo and Koizumi Junichiro (as people who walked out of even a reasonably mild Diet resolution on Japan’s war responsibility and defunded the secular alternative to the Yasukuni Shrine).
Hashimoto had earlier suggested that Japan propose dual administration of Dokdo, or the area around it, which is arguably a more moderate proposal than the current government line and certainly more so than calls to “punish” the ROK with sanctions or whatsoever. He had already had media criticism. The storm that this touched off led Hashimoto to confront his interlocutors regarding what they perceived to be “weak-kneed” diplomacy regarding South Korea (on his part and of the current Noda government).
He pointed out the most important point – that South Korea has clear and effective administrative control over the islands. He accused past administrations going way back of having done nothing about the ROK’s acquisition of the islands, but he suggested that this was ultimately Japan’s own “fault” and that they had to accept the cruel facts of life – Korea is not going to give up Dokdo, and like Japan with the Senkakus, it has administrative control. While Hashimoto’s own plan of dual administration will be considered for all of a single second in Korea, Hashimoto felt the need to ask his assailants what they would otherwise do to rectify the situation.
Were they actually saying that they wanted “to use force against Korea to take back the islands?” “No” they said – of course not. “But that is basically what you are arguing for” Hashimoto replies. “What about economic sanctions?” some suggest. “Go back and do so more study! How is that going to work?” Hashimoto accurately notes.
Indeed. Hashimoto seems to at least understand that you can’t take one stance on one territorial issue and then self-indulgently take another stance on another conflict.
This morning Hashimoto is at it again, but this time with the Senkakus. What is that retro-conservative saying now?
Japan should admit that there is a territorial dispute and should be willing to go to the ICJ!
Hmmm…that isn’t going to sit well.
Between sovereign states, claims should be settled by reference to principles of law and justice. The rule of law should be respected. While continuing to adhere to such a stance, it is also a reality that a certain degree of one’s own force needs to be maintained. We must face reality while also adhering to the rule of law.
Thus, in regards to the Senkakus, we should stop with this kind of bureaucratic “there is not territorial dispute” stance. If we are so confident in our convictions we should say to China that we are willing to go to the ICJ. This is our chance – actually China is not too keen to go to the ICJ. International society is neutral in regards to disputes. Even the US does not recognize Japan’s sovereignty and is keeping neutral. If we are willing to resolve through the ICJ, we will get considerable support from international society. Even if Korea and China are reluctant, they will have to explain to the international community their position. Likewise with Russia. We should however also increase our national strength. In regards to defense spending, we should not limit it to 1 percent. We should acquire the level of defense strength that we need. As a maritime nation, including the JCG strength, this is a particularly important topic. We need to embrace collective self defense. And strengthen the US alliance. While leading on the promotion of the rule of international law through the ICJ, we should also strengthen ourselves (militarily).
Regarding Japan’s past war deeds, we should recognize our wrongness [literally "that wrong things are wrong"]. However, in regards to the (unchangeable) circumstances of that era, we should also at the same time[as recognizing the bad things] identify the constructive aspects [likely referring to Taiwan and Korea's economic growth, or Southeast Asian independence?] and correct global perceptions. All of the thinking (statements) about this period is foggy. This fogginess is the main cause of problems. We cannot just say that everything we did was justified or that we are simply being masochistic [by not recognizing positive aspects]. If we admit to the bad things [atrocities] more specifically then we can also talk about the circumstances of the time [perhaps the reasons for the war] and also our contributions. We can push back against mistaken perceptions. This should be made more clear in our government statements on these issues [the bad things should be detailed more as well as "good" things ie the current vagueness is preventing the recognition of either].
We should admit the wrong things, have sympathy for others, and continue to be cautious [about war?]. But, we should push back against unreasonable criticism. Being able to be proud of what we did is directly connected to our recognizing the injustices.
Hashimoto’s point regarding China and Japan having a “chance” shows a good understanding of the situation. China would certainly hesitate to take the Senkaku Islands dispute to the international court, having built it up into a big deal and emphasizing the “unmistakeable” justice of the Chinese claim. In reality, the historical evidence and justifications are foggy at best, and Japan’s continuous administration and lack of Chinese protest before the 1970s could be fatal for China’s case in a court of international law. Certainly ignoring such a risk would be unwise.
Any Japanese administration that lost the Senkakus would be finished to be sure – but what is a Japanese Prime Minister and a new party in government worth these days anyway? The consequences for the Chinese Communist Party would be much more severe. They may ignore the ruling and take on the nose the possibly irreparable harm done to China’s international reputation – significant all the more because they would have agreed to abide by the ruling by going to court. The other issue is that if Japan received a ruling in its favour then it would almost certainly strengthen further its administrative control over the islands and would feel good about doing so. Would China continue to contest this control? Would it launch a military strike?
Conventional logic would suggest no, given the economic, military and diplomatic losses it would incur. But, the CCP’s legitimacy, especially now that the economy is faltering and social instability is rising, is increasingly based on a perception of it being a hardheaded and effective manager of international relations and of China’s rise, and in particular one that would ensure that the historical traumas inflicted by the West and Japan are not repeated. If the CCP just meekly accepted the ruling, the chance of popular anger rising could well lead to the party’s downfall, or certainly end quite a few political lives. Either it would be accused of having been too soft regarding Japan and/or the international community, or it would be accused by others of deceit and manipulation surrounding the Senkaku Islands.The CCP has recently effectively dealt itself “all in” on this dispute.
So Hashimoto probably calculates that Japan being open to taking the dispute to the ICJ is a low-risk, high-return proposition.
In any respect, Hashimoto was not finished there on Twitter and took a few responses. A few other tidbits that won’t endear him to either the left or the right in Japan:
Interlocutor 1: If we adhered to the 1 percent cap on military spending then Japan would still be 3rd the highest military spender in the world, and that there is still waste in defense spending – 1 percent should be enough.
[Japan is no where near 1 percent right now FWIW]
Hashimoto: I am not necessarily advocating for going beyond 1 percent…just simply that we should start from the point of view of what we need, and we can take the conversation regarding money from there.
Interlocutor 2: The US and Europe never bother to apologize for their colonialism… and there is no way that they could compensate for hundreds of years of colonialism
Hashimoto: There is no need for us to imitate Europe and America’s bad points. We should recognize the violations and we should also note clearly the constructive actions.
[Fun fact just to stir the pot with my American readers: Until 2009 in the US there was no official apology for black slavery or for the treatment of Native Americans/First Peoples - and the resolutions of 2009 explicitly identified that there would be no compensation]
Interlocutor 3: Maybe you want to abandon the  Japan-Korea Treaty on Basic Relations? [Which resolved the legal issue (for the ROK at least) regarding compensation].
Interlocutor 4: Many [Japanese war criminals] were executed, money was paid, and a treaty was agreed to, don’t you think this has been resolved? Are you saying even though reconciliation money was paid and documents exchanged then this is insufficient?
Hashimoto: Yes, legally speaking. But problems of the spirit [lit. heart] are different from legal issues.
An additional comment to No.4: “Could you say the same thing [directly] to the bereaved families of those caught up in “gratuitous” internal incidents?