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Japan bashing again?

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First there was “Japan bashing”.  Then there was “Japan passing”.  Could “Japan bashing” be making a return, thanks to Toyota, US troop issues in Okinawa, whaling, dolphins and blue-fin tuna?

The 1980s were the heyday of “Japan bashing”.  Japan had a big trade surplus, and the US was pressuring Japan to open its markets and revalue the yen.  The term was coined by Robert C. Angel, a lobbyist hired by the Japanese government.  The intention was to belittle US policy pressures and insinuate that the US was being unfair, racist and xenophobic.  These were also the days when Japan was perceived to be a powerful threat to the US.  All very similar to the situation today with China. 

Then came “Japan passing”.  As China rose in power over the last decade, the US allegedly lost interest in Japan, and even bypassed Japan on official travel and in important discussions.  Although the Japanese did not like Japan bashing, they most certainly did not like being bypassed.

And although global international relations are now fully focused on US/China relations, Japan has managed to hit the headlines in a way that does not please it.  So, how to respond?  By claiming that this is all Japan bashing Mark 2!

Let’s have a quick look at some of these cases.

First, Toyota.  The argument goes that Toyota’s problems are no different from those that beset auto makers the world over.  And that with US automakers on the ropes in the current crisis, the US government is picking on Toyota unfairly. 

This is a complete misreading of the situation.  Toyota is a big investor in America and employer of Americans.  Like most global organizations, it is really part American, even though its head office is in Japan.  Toyota has completely mishandled its safety problems.  It imagined that it could get away with the non-transparency which is par for the course in Japan.

What about the confusion over US troops in Okinawa?  True, the US in the form of Defense Secretary Gates has been somewhat highhanded.  But all they are pressuring for is that Japan honour its previous agreement.  The US has been willing to discuss the issue, but Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his government have been confused.  Hatoyama has promised to solve the issue a few times, begging US President Obama to trust him, only to breach that trust.  Hatoyama likes to announce publicly that Japan would like a more equal relationship with the US.  But it is not clear what he means, or that Japan is capable of lifting its game to equality.  The Japanese government’s confusion over the membership of its proposed East Asian Community also does not help.  

Now, let’s look at whaling.  It’s a completely different set of actors, who have no real interest in Japan bashing.  The governmental critics of Japan are Australia and New Zealand.  And the boat that is harassing Japan’s whalers is Dutch.  All the indications are that the US may even go soft on Japan at the next international whaling talks.     

Perhaps the greatest kefuffel has come from “The Cove”, an American film which this year won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.  This is a complex story.  The film portrays the annual killing of dolphins in a National Park at Taiji, Wakayama, in Japan.  It was made covertly and against the will of the inhabitants of this region.  It shows that the number of dolphins killed is several times greater than the number of whales killed in the Antarctic, and that migrating dolphins are herded into a hidden cove where they are netted and killed by means of spears and knives over the side of small fishing boats. 

Westerners are shocked by this, because they believe that dolphins are very special animals with high intelligence and sensitivity and so on (fundamentally different from all the other animals that they kill themselves).  The television show “Flipper” was a great source of inspiration.  Japan has of course many traditions which shock Westerners.  But most importantly, this film is basically the work of activists.  It is not a governmental project, and the timing of its release is pure coincidence.  It has been in the projector for years.   

Lastly, blue fin tuna.  The 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species considered a proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna, a key ingredient in sushi.  But Japan scored a great victory.  Its aggressive lobbying, supported by many other nations that benefited from Japanese cash handouts, meant that the proposed blue fin tuna ban did not pass. 

Japan also apparently did a deal with China.  Japan supported China's resistance to a shark fishing ban (shark fin soup, of course!), in return for China's support on blue fin tuna.  Is this an early example of China and Japan working toward the East Asian Community that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is promoting? 

If you like tuna, eat as much as you can now.  Soon, there will not be any left.  Over the past decade, stocks have dropped by some 72 per cent.  Can you believe that Japan is this year hosting the United Nations International year of Biodiversity?

So, what’s the verdict on the alleged return of Japan bashing?  Nothing much in it. 

The US is so preoccupied by China, that it does not have enough time for Japan bashing!  Continued Japan passing is the much greater risk.