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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (May 20, 2002)

Shenyang Incident: Japan at Its Inconsistent Worst

Gregory Clark (Honorary President, Tama University)

Japan's overheated reaction to the May 8 North Korean refugee incident at the Japanese consulate-general in Shenyang, northeast China, is worrying.

Emotions began to flow with vivid video footage of two men running into the consulate building while Chinese policemen stationed at the entrance grappled with two women and a child following them. The fact that the police penetrated about a meter into the consulate premises was condemned as a blatant violation of Japanese sovereignty. China's inhuman attitude to refugees was also condemned.

The same video shows a consulate official quietly collecting debris at the gate and politely handing it over to the police. This alone makes it obvious that consulate staff were not too worried about either the sovereignty violation or the lack of humanism. Indeed, given Japan's consistent record of only granting asylum, and then most reluctantly, to refugees who make it to Japan, the attitude of the vice consul was hardly surprising.

Even more relevant was the fact that the two men who had managed to get inside the consulate building were somehow quietly escorted out of the premises 20 minute later by the police. Here it can only be assumed that consulate officials must have cooperated with the Chinese police, and Beijing later confirms that this was so.

But by this time the illogic of the commentators had gone into overdrive. On the one hand, we were told that Beijing was lying, since it is quite inconceivable that any Japanese official would ever allow Chinese police to enter Japanese sovereign territory. At the same time, commentators maintained, the behavior of the officials proved conclusively the weak-kneed nature of Japanese diplomats, the Japanese foreign ministry and Japanese diplomacy in general. Those responsible should be dismissed, they said, and Japan should take a crash course in crisis management.

Even the normally impartial NHK made a fool of itself by giving top news prominence to an alleged Japanese expert on Korea warning darkly how the eyes of the world were on Japan and condemning its supposedly weak response. But a quick switch to the BBC and CNN news broadcasts at that moment would not have turned up even a mention of the incident, let alone a commentary.

Worse was to come. Soon after the Foreign Ministry on Monday issued an allegedly thorough report insisting that Japanese consulate officials had opposed the removal of the refugees, we discovered than just four hours before the incident the Japanese ambassador to China had warned his staff about the need to do everything possible to keep North Korean refugees from getting into embassy premises. The ministry report made no mention of this warning. Even worse, it made no mention of how the Shenyang consulate official in charge of security had received and rejected a document from the refugees setting out their claim for asylum. It was left to Beijing to tell us this highly relevant detail.

But even this did not change commentators' stance: The ambassador did not mean what he was supposed to have said, we were told. He, too, should be dismissed. The consulate official rejected the asylum document only because he could not read English, and the document was not important anyway.

In any case, the fact remained that Japanese sovereignty had been violated. That in itself meant Tokyo was entitled to protest strongly and demand a Chinese apology, we were told.

The sovereignty issue shows Japan at its inconsistent worst. In principle, guards for diplomatic premises have to be stationed outside, and can only enter when invited. They are also supposed to stop intruders. As anyone who has worked at an embassy or consulate, including myself in Moscow in the 1960s, can tell you, this creates a very difficult situation: Either you go the very undesirable route of keeping your gates firmly locked and letting the guards outside decide who comes in; or else you go the very expensive route of stationing your own people at the entrance to decide who can come in (as the United States does).

In practice, most compromise, as the Japanese do. They leave the gates open and hope that the guards will do the sensible thing. The Shenyang guards did just that. Suddenly faced with a clear-cut attempt at intrusion, they tried to catch as many as possible at the entrance. They waited for permission to take out those who had made it inside.

In this sense they were better behaved than the Japanese police guards stationed outside the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo who in 1998 went well inside the premises, without permission, to chase an intruder. In the early 1980s, Japanese police guards made a similar intrusion into the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in a vain bid to drag out a North Korean defector.

Details like these the 1998 precedent especially should put an abrupt end to any talk about sovereignty violations, particularly today when Tokyo makes such a fuss about the dangers of terrorists attacking its premises. So why are the details so easily ignored by so may, and not just by the predictable anti-China hawks? Newspaper editorials in unison have condemned Beijing. Not one of Japan's many opinion makers has dared to challenge the obvious distortions.

Even though the facts of the incident are fairly clear now, there is no hint of self-reflection or apology from the Japanese side. On the contrary, media and other attention now turn to Tokyo's self-proclaimed victory in persuading Beijing to let the five refugees go to a third country.

As we see with the contrived Northern Territories dispute, once the Japanese mind gets set in a certain emotional direction, objective facts and common sense get pushed aside, particularly when disliked foreigners are involved.

An ugly nationalism may also be involved, with both the prime minister and the chief Cabinet secretary implying separately that anyone who believed the Beijing version of events rather than Tokyo's version was unpatriotic.

In the same Shenyang area of China more than half a century ago, the Japanese military secretly staged the incidents that led Japan into its brutal invasion of China and its disastrous war in the Pacific. At that time, too, a key factor was the way Japanese public opinion could be so easily swayed into believing that those devious Chinese were at fault. Pure-hearted Japan was of course blameless.

(Originally appeared in the May 17, 2002, issue of The Japan Times)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications