Foreign Ministry officials were scrambling to deal with the backlash over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's comparison of the current state of relations between Japan and China to that of Britain and Germany before the start of World War I a century ago.
Abe made the comparison during a meeting with media representatives on the sidelines of the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
The Financial Times reported that Abe did not deny the possibility of war breaking out between Japan and China.
Officials in the prime minister's office in Tokyo were critical of the reports in the Western media, with one saying Abe's remarks were taken out of context, while another said, "There might have been a misinterpretation."
At a Jan. 24 news conference in Tokyo, Katsunobu Kato, a deputy chief Cabinet secretary, explained that Abe's comment was intended to call for the creation of communication channels between those in charge of national defense in Japan and China to prevent an accidental military encounter.
"We will make efforts so that the true intentions of the prime minister can be transmitted," Kato said.
According to several government sources, the meeting with foreign media representatives in Davos was initially set on the premise that Abe's remarks would not be reported. However, Abe agreed to have the session on the record, leading to his remark about the current state of relations between Japan and China.
In the background to Abe's desire to speak openly are his past comments made during trips abroad. Abe has repeatedly touched upon the importance of the rule of law, an apparent reference to China's recent moves. Abe made those comments in an attempt to gain the support of foreign nations for Japan's position.
"If you want to refer to me as a right-wing militarist, please do so," Abe said when he visited the United States last September.
With China criticizing Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December, he may have felt a need to directly address the current relations between the two nations in his own words.
A comparison of the current standoff between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with the situation between Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I is one view that has been touched upon by those involved in national security issues in Japan.
"It is one disturbing example of war breaking out despite strong economic dependence between two nations," said a senior Defense Ministry official.
A high-ranking government official said that Abe may have had that view in mind when he made his comment in Davos.
At the same time, it is clear that foreign media will likely have a different take on any comment by a national leader that refers to the situation between Britain and Germany before the Great War flared in 1914. Moreover, foreign media have repeatedly painted Abe as a hawkish leader.
"This is a major issue," said an expert involved in national security issues in the Abe administration. "This is an error on the scale of his visit to Yasukuni."
Foreign Ministry officials have been working overtime in trying to deal with the ripples around the world from Abe's comment. Explanations were made to the British media through the Japanese Embassy in London. Translation work also had to be done to explain his remarks to other Western media.
"We are truly troubled by this," one ministry official said.
However, there are few in the ministry willing to remonstrate Abe.
"From the standpoint of diplomatic history, using the example from World War I was correct," one high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.
There also appear to be no moves within the prime minister's office to analyze what prompted the criticism over Abe's remark.
One high-ranking government official said, "Why are Japanese media becoming involved with pointing out a remark by their own prime minister?"
Meanwhile, China was stepping up the criticism it had been directing at Abe since his visit to Yasukuni, which Beijing considers a symbol of Japanese militarism during World War II because Class-A war criminals are enshrined there along with Japan's war dead.
On Jan. 23, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued a statement that openly criticized Abe and said, "His excuses will only come back to haunt him."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also quickly picked up on the reporting in the Western media.
At a Jan. 23 news conference, Qin Gang, a ministry spokesman, said, "Yasukuni memorializes Class-A war criminals who were the Nazis of the Orient."
A Japanese government source said: "Bringing up World War I in Europe is a very sensitive issue. This will make it only more difficult for any contact with China."
(Nanae Kurashige in Beijing contributed to this article.)
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