Japan's Asia Policy

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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Japan's Asia Policy

Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review

What Japanese people usually mean by 'Asia' is the East Asian countries ranging from China and the Koreas in the North to Indonesia in the South. From this Japanese view of Asian-ness, the Korean Peninsula, however, bears significant importance to Japan. Japan has always regarded Korea as critical to its own security; it fought two wars, with China and Russia, to secure control over the peninsula in the early years of this century. The Koreans have not appreciated Japanese interest in the Peninsula. The era of Japanese colonial domination has left deep-seated bitterness toward the former colonial oppressor. Today, South Korea and Japan are bound together by geography, economics, and mutual ties to the United States while Japanese trade, investment, and technology are vital to South Korea's (ROK) economy. In turn, US forces based in Japan are critical to South Korean security. For all this Japan and Korea remain uneasy associates rather than true allies. Within the scope of Japan's Asia policy, this article primarily discusses Japan's relations with the two Koreas and with China where Japan aims at balancing political and economic interests.

Japan and the Two Koreas

The security of Korea has long been a matter of substantial importance to Japan, not just for military reasons, but for a full range of political, economic, and cultural considerations. In the famous Nixon-Sato joint communique of 1969, Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku declared that the security of the Republic of Korea is 'essential' to Japan's own security. Although Sato's successors have slightly modified the so-called 'Korea clause' of the 1969 joint communique, such a modification in no way has changed the basic proposition that the security of Korea is vital to Japan's own security, because the renewal of conflict in Korea would be perceived to have a more serious impact on Japan than any other conflict which might occur in Asia. In view of the existing security arrangements with the United States, Japan would be drawn into a Korean conflict, either directly or indirectly. Furthermore, in view of the two Koreas' existing ties with their patrons, such a conflict could escalate into a major nuclear confrontation imperilling Japan's security. For these reasons, Japanese leaders from time to time have believed that the best policy has been to promote 'peaceful coexistence' between the ROK and North Korea (DPRK) by encouraging them to expand the scope of their contacts and dialogue.

On the other hand, a reunified Korea, even if achieved peacefully, would not serve Japan's national interests as much as a divided Korea. Therefore, one could argue that, 'the task for Japanese diplomacy is to influence events that will minimize war and enhance a stable peace on the whole of the Korean Peninsula by reducing tension.' This view has not changed in the post-Cold War period as demonstrated in a statement in 1992 by the Japanese Defence Agency. It reaffirmed the importance of the Korean Peninsula to Japan thus: 'The Korean Peninsula is inseparably close to Japan both geographically and historically. Maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is important to the peace and security of the overall East Asian region including Japan.'

Japanese relations with South Korea have been very delicate because of the legacy of Japan's colonization of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. In addition, South Korea is concerned about the treatment of a considerable Korean minority living in Japan. On the other hand, South Korea cannot ignore the important role which Japan, as host to a sizeable US military force, plays in its own security.

However, it was observed earlier in this paper that Japan and South Korea remain uneasy associates. Public opinion polls in both nations consistently indicate their peoples' mutual dislike. South Koreans rank Japan as one of the countries they like least, second only to North Korea; while Japanese rank South Korea third on their list of most-disliked nations, behind only North Korea and Russia.

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