In September 1972 when he was prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka visited Beijing for a series of meetings with the late Premier Chou En-lai.
They discussed a range of pending bilateral issues.
After most of the key topics had been dealt with, Tanaka steered the conversation to the touchy subject of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.
China had recently begun to claim sovereignty over the group of islets in the East China Sea.
Chou proposed dodging the issue, saying the time was not right to discuss it. His attitude was echoed by Deng Xiaoping six years later, when Deng, as first vice premier, proposed shelving it during his visit to Japan.
Tanaka and Chou eventually signed a joint declaration to establish a formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Tanaka's move to normalize Japan's relations with China while severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan infuriated anti-communist, pro-Taiwan lawmakers within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, prompting them to rail against the administration.
The following year, more than two dozen young, right-wing LDP politicians formed a group called Seirankai. Shintaro Ishihara, who had achieved a reputation as a writer and then embarked on a political career, became secretary-general of the rightist group. After serving one term as an Upper House member, Ishihara had successfully run for the Lower House.
ISHIHARA'S PET ISSUE
Since then, Ishihara has been one of the most vocal anti-China voices in Japan's political community.
Ishihara has openly called for using the word "Shina" when referring to China, instead of the commonly used "Chugoku." The word Shina is now seldom used in Japan because it has come to be regarded as having a derogatory tone.
The territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, a dangerous cancer festering on the bilateral relationship, has been Ishihara's pet issue in his anti-Beijing narrative.
He gave enthusiastic support for a political association that landed on one of the disputed islands and erected a lighthouse. He also chartered a boat to help a Diet member land on one of the islands.
The Japanese government adopted a policy of trying not to provoke China as much as possible, which Ishihara criticized as "weak-kneed diplomacy."
Ishihara's recent announcement that the Tokyo metropolitan government will buy three of the islands is nothing less than a provocative action fully in line with his incendiary rhetoric concerning Japan's diplomacy toward China.
In announcing his plan to purchase the islands, Ishihara said he would make the government weep with a sense of defeat.
His words and actions related to the Senkaku dispute appear to reflect warped emotions toward the central government, which never paid any attention to his arguments on the issue.
In 1989, driven by his ambition to become prime minister, Ishihara ran in an LDP presidential election.
However, he suffered a humiliating defeat in the race as his extreme hawkish stance made many of his fellow party members uneasy about the prospect of him at the helm. Clearly frustrated, Ishihara abandoned his Diet seat in 1995.
He became governor of the nation's capital four years later. The job has apparently given him a convenient political outlet for his warped emotions.
As a governor, Ishihara can provoke China as much as he likes without risk of creating a formal diplomatic dispute or questioning by the Diet. He has been able to grab headlines and hog the media spotlight with various controversial utterances and deeds while acting from a position of safety.
PURCHASE BY CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
This time, however, the central government cannot ignore Ishihara's antics, which could have serious diplomatic consequences. What the central government needs to realize is that the diplomatic context for the Senkaku issue has changed dramatically in recent years. In short, it has become difficult for the two countries, despite diplomatic niceties, to keep the problem off the table. This change in the diplomatic landscape has given Ishihara's words and actions some weight.
One incident that powerfully underscored the change occurred in 2010 when a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats off the disputed islands.
The amateurish response to the incident by the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan was criticized as "weak-kneed."
China's hard-line stance toward territorial issues, coupled with its fast-growing economic power and rapid naval buildup, has alarmed Japan like never before. Ishihara's provocative behavior is gaining traction because of this context.
Still, the proposed purchase of the islands by the Tokyo metropolitan government is not just inappropriate but diplomatically dangerous.
Ishihara has vigorously denied that Japan bears any responsibility for its invasion of Asia, for which former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formally apologized in a much-publicized statement.
Beijing's reaction to the purchase of the islands by the metropolitan government headed by Ishihara would be all the more harsher because of his views of history, which are unacceptable to China. And the territorial issue would become even more difficult to handle.
I hope China, a rapidly rising power, will learn lessons from Japan's experiences. Japan suffered badly from the consequences of its reckless expansionism led by the military.
At a time when Japan should offer humble and cool-headed advice to China, Ishihara's high-profile, provocative move is deeply counterproductive and could accelerate the country's military expansion.
Ishihara says he wouldn't object to the central government’s purchase of the islands. If the current owner really wants to sell the islands, the government should consider buying them.
In that case, however, the government should convince China that the purchase is aimed at preventing unnecessary confusion rather than at expressing Japan's determination to protect its sovereignty over the islands.
In their meeting in December last year, the leaders of the two countries, reflecting on the diplomatic repercussions from the maritime collision off the Senkakus, agreed to make efforts to turn the East China Sea into the "sea of peace, cooperation and friendship."
Both Tokyo and Beijing need to act in a mature, grown-up manner in dealing with the tricky diplomatic challenge created by Ishihara's untoward move in this year marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.
* * *
Yoshibumi Wakamiya is editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
- « Prev
- Next »