Loud Diplomacy working in Japan



“Loud Diplomacy” working in Japan


by Christopher Johnson


Since the end of the Pacific War, the United States and its allies in Asia and elsewhere have tried to nurse Japan into the international community by either turning a blind eye to Japan’s problems or trying to solve them through diplomatic channels behind the scenes.


But countries from the United States to the Marshall Islands, who’ve been long frustrated by foot-dragging in Japan, are increasingly vocal about their demands for Japan to shape up on certain issues. Two of Japan’s most powerful politicians, former prime minister Naoto Kan and kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa, who both command large ranks of lawmakers, have also been making statements that, if uttered by foreigners a year ago, would have been deemed “Japan-bashing”, racist, or conspiracy theories.


For years, Japan’s allies, non-governmental organizations, and United Nations agencies and others have been frustrated by insular Japanese officials repeating a pattern of violating or ignoring international treaties, whether on tobacco ads, child pornography, money laundering, sexism or racism. Many believe that quiet diplomacy has only resulted in indulging the behaviour of anti-social forces in Japan who tarnish the image of decent, law-abiding people in Japan.


But the tone of criticism has changed in recent weeks. Last month, the US government effectively rebuked Japan’s government for failing to reign in criminal syndicates known collectively as the “yakuza”. The US Treasury Department announced it was freezing assets and sanctioning the Kobe-based Yamaguchi mafia for trade in drugs, girls, boys, brides, porn, guns, funds, money, stocks, property and almost anything else profitable. It was an extraordinary measure by the US to lump a Japanese organization together with mafias based in Russia, Italy and Mexico. 


While US-born yakuza expert Jake Adelstein and authors have called the US action a “slap in the face” of the Japanese government, it’s likely that Japanese leaders are not entirely against Obama’s measures. For their part, Japanese lawmakers have passed new laws giving police greater powers to crackdown on anyone dealing with gangsters, and some reports suggest that gang battles are simmering below the surface in Japan. 


Meanwhile in the central Pacific, the Marshall Islands have publicly scolded their former colonial master. For the first time, they fined a Japanese-operated fishing vessel $125,000 for violating a ban on shark fishing, after they found 27,000 kilograms of shark carcasses and 680 kilograms of shark fins. Enforcement officer Marcella Tarkwon said dozens of vessels, most of them legally fishing for tuna in the Marshalls’ territorial waters, were illegally holding sharks on board, according to AFP. Though Chinese-owned vessels are also allegedly involved in illegal actions in the Marshalls, the government is taking a public stand against Japanese operators, which it wouldn’t have done years ago when Japan was a rising economic powerhouse. 


Chinese nationalists, meanwhile, are not hiding their outrage over comments by Nagoya’s mayor belittling war-time atrocities against civilians in Nanjing. Even the governor of Aichi province, home to Nagoya, has chastised the mayor over his comments. 


Given the volume of complaints against Japan, the key question is whether loud, public pressure is helping Japan solve its problems.


In many cases, Japanese elected officials, bureaucrats and judges have indeed been responding positively to pressure coming from inside and outside Japan. Following months of investigative reports in Japan’s FACTA magazine and other media, and the whistle-blowing campaign of ousted Olympus president Michael Woodford, Japanese police recently arrested several executives allegedly involved with hiding losses at Olympus, a global maker of cameras and medical equipment. Japanese police have also been reportedly cracking down on prostitution, child exploitation and gangs smuggling foreigners into Japan via phoney marriages and other scams.


Even if the pace of progress is too slow for some critics, many observers agree that Japan is at least going in the right direction, by switching off controversial nuclear reactors, giving foreign media more access to ministers, and disclosing more information about its immigration and detention systems.  


Amnesty International and NGOs in Japan have been complaining for more than a decade about thousands of foreigners — especially from China, Korea and the Philippines — being held in limbo in detention centres for months or even years, without knowing when they’ll be deported or allowed to live legally in Japan. In 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture recommended that Japan “should establish limits to the length of the detention period for persons awaiting deportation.” Then in 2010, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations accused the Justice Ministry of violating human rights by detaining a couple from the Philippines and separating them from their children, who were forced into welfare care. It was just one of many cases of individuals falling between the cracks of an archaic system that’s been slow to adapt to the needs of a shrinking labor force in Japan. Even as the world community was marshalling donations for Japan after the March 11 disasters, foreign inmates staged hunger strikes to protest their conditions, and some committed suicide.


The persistent pressure over the past decade is starting to yield positive results. The Justice Ministry said in a statement last month that they have adopted a policy of trying to release detainees, who had overstayed visas or applied for asylum upon landing in Japan, within six months after their capture, according to Kyodo News. (This compares with an average detention time of 28 days in Canada). Japan’s Justice Ministry said that 167 foreigners had been held for at least six months from March to August in 2011, compared with 612 a year earlier. The government took more than 5 months on average to decide on cases in 2011, compared with 12 months during previous years, according to the report. 


According to a report in the Japan Times, the Justice Ministry has also been allowing teams of inspectors — made up of NGO staff, academics, and legal and medical experts — to visit the detention centres, which for years were cloistered away in Ibaraki, Osaka and Nagasaki out of public view. Even though lawyers such as Koichi Kodama complain that the visits are planned in advance and controlled, many critics agree that they are at least a step in the right direction toward greater transparency.  

In early February, the Justice Ministry also signed an agreement with the Forum for Refugees Japan and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to hold three-way consultations about how to improve the system. 

In rare step toward transparency for any country, prison officials in Osaka recently allowed a Japanese TV crew to film conditions for prisoners from China, Iran and Japan in their cells.  

In a case of judges siding with activists rather than corporate interests, the Tokyo District Court last month rejected a lawsuit filed by Berlitz Japan in 2008 against teachers and their union. The company had been seeking punitive damages against about 100 foreign teachers and union leaders who went on strike against Berlitz for 11 months beginning December 2007 to protest the lack of rights and wage increases since the 1990s. “There is no reason to deny the legitimacy of the strikes,” said Presiding Judge Hiroshi Watanabe, who sided with the labor union and its workers. Defense lawyer Yukiko Akutsu, part of a new generation of activist lawyers in Japan, called the ruling “a complete victory” for the foreign teachers. 


Outspoken critics of Japan’s handling of the Fukushima meltdown have also been inspired by the public protests of politicians. 


Naoto Kan, who was Japan’s prime minister during and immediately after the March 11 disasters, has been meeting reporters to enhance his local and international image and to speak out against nuclear energy and Japan’s own failings. A year ago, such blunt comments about the system would have been deemed “Japan-bashing” or even racist, if spoken by foreign critics. But they’re becoming a new norm within Japan. “Before 3/11, we were totally unprepared,” Kan told the AP on February 17. “Not only the hardware, but our system and the organization were not prepared. That’s the biggest problem.”


Sounding like Greenpeace and other activists who blame the Fukushima disaster on human error, Kan lashed out at TEPCO, which operates the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. “If they (TEPCO) had thought about it, they wouldn’t have intentionally built it at a place so low,” said Kan. “The plant was built by people who never imagined the risk of a major tsunami, and that’s the very beginning of the problem. We should have taken more adequate safety steps, and we failed to do so. It was a big mistake and I must admit that (the accident) was due to human error.”

Given the powerful status of former prime ministers in Japan, Kan’s words will bolster local residents and officials who want nuclear reactors in their backyards to remain shutdown permanently. Only two out of 54 nuclear reactors are currently operating in Japan, which used to rely on nuclear power for about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity. This is a major achievement for anti-nuclear groups, thanks in part to the outspoken approach of Kan and Masayoshi Son, president of Softbank and one of Japan’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, who is championing alternative energy for Japan’s future.  

Even Kan’s rival, Ichiro Ozawa, has become a harsh critic of Japan’s system, though for different reasons. Ozawa, banished for the moment from the ruling party, is defending himself in a criminal case over alleged violations of laws covering political funding. “There has never been a political world as irresponsible as this,” Ozawa told the Asahi Shimbun. “That means that democracy has not matured to a point of taking hold in Japan.” 

Ozawa joined the chorus blaming TEPCO and the government for the Fukushima disasters. Immediately after the hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, I continuously said, ‘a meltdown has occurred’ and ‘disclose all information.’ The government only acknowledged what happened several months after the accident. The top leadership was responsible for that tendency to cover up and for not properly handling the matter, including managing the various bureaucracies.”

If said by others, these comments would sound like a conspiracy theory. But Ozawa commands an army of MPs loyal to him for getting them elected on his coat-tails, and he could still become a future prime minister of Japan. 

And finally, after nearly 12 months of protests by animal rights activists and nuclear refugees, the environment ministry and the Fukushima prefectural government have started to round up and decontaminate stray pets left behind when their owners rushed out of the 20-kilometer zone around the Fukushima reactors. The government has also allowed animal welfare groups to enter the forbidden zone in recent weeks to capture or help animals suffering from neglect since March 11. “We take the attitude that every pet counts if it’ll help restore some peace of mind to their owners,” said Michiyuki Nishiyama, the head of the ministry’s Animal Welfare and Management Office, according to NHK. 

Though it’s far too late for many pets and their owners, it’s one of many examples where protesting and “loud diplomacy” is finally paying off. 

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