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Commentary (June 18, 2004)

Shifting rightwing goal posts

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

Japan's increasingly powerful rightwing has gone to some strange lengths to condemn Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent admirable efforts to improve relations with North Korea.

Koizumi was accused of kowtowing to North Korean blackmail by going to Pyongyang to gain freedom for the eight family members of the five abductees sent to Japan in October 2002. From the beginning, though, it was clear that Pyongyang had no objection to the family members going to Japan.

Its only objection was to the way Tokyo had reneged on Koizumi's earlier promise to allow a return visit to North Korea of the five repatriated abductees. Koizumi's dramatic Pyongyang visit last month was in effect a bid to make up for breaking this promise.

With his promise to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea, Koizumi is accused of offering hostage money. In fact he was simply lifting an unfair sanction imposed on North Korea for its alleged intransigence in not returning the family members earlier.

Before Koizumi's visit, Shinzo Abe, secretary general of Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party, and other LDP rightwingers were saying openly the visit would be a failure if Koizumi did not bring back all eight family members, including Charles Jenkins, the husband of a repatriated abductee, Hitomi Soga. But from the beginning they knew quite well that Jenkins could not go to Japan, since the United States had already warned at the highest levels that it would demand the extradition of Jenkins as a former U.S. Army deserter the moment he set foot in Japan.

They also knew that Soga's two daughters would refuse to go to Japan without their father.

More rightwing scorn was poured on Koizumi's alleged failure to gain full information on the fates of another 10 people said to have been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and early '80s. This, despite Koizumi's remarkable success in getting the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to admit that the previous information provided was deficient and that he would accept Japanese officials' joining in a reinvestigation.

Koizumi was also criticized for failing to get North Korea to renounce its claimed nuclear weapons program. But as Kim told Koizumi, and will tell anyone else who will listen, North Korea cannot abandon that claim while the U.S. says it is part of an "axis of evil" and threatens preemptive attack. The key to solving the nuclear problem lies with the U.S., and the U.S. continues to refuse direct negotiations, not to mention the normalization of relations it promised back in 1994.

The irony in all this is that Koizumi, with his love of Japan's military and his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, can hardly be accused of lacking nationalistic credentials. Yet he is being portrayed by the right as some kind of national traitor for even talking to North Korea. Immediate sanctions and even the threat of war are said to be needed to bring North Korea to heel. Rightwing publications are already touting Abe and another prominent LDP hardliner, Takeo Hiranuma, as possible successors to Koizumi.

Even more alarming is the way most of Japan's media and many in the allegedly more liberal-minded Democratic Party of Japan have gone along with this anti-Koizumi, anti-Pyongyang fervor. Even the media outlets in the progressive Asahi Shimbun group, which in the past has done much to oppose Japan's drift into rightwing demagoguery, have preferred to go along with the anti-Pyongyang consensus. Nowhere do we find any hint of anyone realizing that Japan's past abuses of Chinese and Koreans brought or abducted to Japan before 1945 were far worse than anything North Korea has done to Japanese citizens.

Nor, and unlike in South Korea, is there any recognition of the significant concessions Pyongyang has been making in its bid to open up to the outside world. For the leader of an autocratic communist regime to admit and apologize for his own past misbehavior, as Kim has done on the abductee issue, is remarkable.

In this, as in so many other foreign policy issues, Japan remains fixated on its own claims and emotions. It is quite unable to realize that the other side has claims and feelings too.

Worse is the way the rightwing happily shifts the goal posts whenever some hard-won breakthrough in relations with the other side seems imminent. If the other side reacts in protest, it is then slammed for intransigence.

Japan's rightwing protested violently the way the five abductees and the eight family members had to wait 18 months for a reunion. But that 18-month delay was the direct result of rightwing maneuvers to have Tokyo renege on its initial 2002 agreements with North Korea.

The rightwing now calls for sanctions and a freeze on relations if North Korea does not satisfactorily account for all of the other 10 alleged abductees, including two that North Korea says it has never heard of. But who decides what is satisfactory? The scope for the rightwing to keep those goal posts moving is infinite.

We saw the same deviousness in the so-called Northern Territories dispute. When Moscow agreed to return two islands claimed by Tokyo, the rightwing quickly arranged for Japan's claim to be upped to four islands. When this was refused, sanctions and a freeze on relations with Moscow was demanded. Today the media and the entire political establishment have all come to believe that Japan's claim is totally justified even though Tokyo has consistently refused to test its case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

We see the beginning of similar rightwing manipulations in Japan's claims to ownership of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Taken together it is a worrying reminder that Japan has not moved much from the attitudes that pushed it into its prewar militarism.

(This article appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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