(Japan and its role on the international stage grow increasingly important by the day. As North Korea accelerates its nuclear and missile threats and China builds its military at a frantic pace. the role of Japan as one of American’s premier allies in the Pacific becomes even more critical and the byzantine internal politics of Japan are gaining more attention. On Sunday, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost the latest in a string of municipal elections to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, this one in the capital city of Tokyo. Almost immediately, Prime Minister Taro Aso called a national election for August 30th. Thus, Japan will hold an election which could send international tidal waves: polls show that Aso’s LDP, which has ruled Japan for all but eleven months out of the last 53 years, could be displaced by a newly-minted DPJ, whose views and leadership are relatively unfamiliar to America.
Under these circumstances, Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, sat down for a wide-ranging interview with HE Editor Jed Babbin and me last Friday. . . . )
“We want F-22s as an option”
These days, any discussion with an official of the Japanese government usually begins with some serious talk about the U.S. F-22 fighter aircraft. Nervous about rumblings from North Korea, Japan very much wants the fifth generation fighter plane. Acquiring even a limited number of the aircraft, the Japanese government believes, would be a critical boost to its strategic air defense.
“Our air force has some fighters such as F-4s and F-15s, but F-4s are approaching retirement,” Ambassador Fujisaki explained, “We are looking for candidates to replace the F-4s. We would like to look at the F-22s as well and we need necessary information for evaluation.”
As Japan engages in consultation about acquiring the aircraft, the ambassador says the U.S. government “has been generally cooperative” and he hoped that a progress will be made soon.
Discussion of Japan acquiring some of the next generation fighter aircraft comes at a time when Congress is in the final stages of sending President Obama a defense appropriations bill that the White House threatens to veto precisely because it contains funding for more F-22s. Less than two weeks before our interview with Ambassador Fujisaki, I asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs where the veto threat stands. Citing criticism of the F-22 by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Gibbs replied without hesitation: “Yes.”
Dealing With North Korea
Japan’s desire for F-22s and its support for a missile defense system is motivated in large part by it being so close to North Korea, which has alarmed the world with recent nuclear tests and missile launches. As the ambassador told us, “In view of our geography, we think missile defense is an important element of national defense and that is why we are spending $1 billion a year on a missile defense system.”
But Japan’s man in Washington also avoided any suggestion of a hard-line against the regime of Kim Jong-il so far. Rather, he said, “We would like to have North Korea come to the six-party talks [the six-year-old forum on nuclear testing that includes Japan, North and South Korea, the U.S., China , and Russia] and try to cope with nuclear issues, missile issues, and abduction issues [the controversy more than a dozen of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970’s and ‘80s, many of whom Japan believes are still alive in the “hermit kingdom.”].”
“But this is not the case right now,” Fujisaki conceded, “What we’re trying to do is go through the United Nations to send a strong message to the North Koreans that they are in contravention of the UN Security Council resolutions and against the will of the international community.” He added that the United States “has been a strong ally in pushing these relevant Security Council resolutions” regarding North Korean missile launches and nuclear testing.
Conceding that many Americans concerned about these recent North Korean actions are skeptical about what the six-party talks and Security Council resolutions can accomplish, the ambassador nonetheless expressed optimism. In his words, “It’s a little too early to say efforts through the UN Security Council are not effective. A lot of the sanctions may not seem to be working but in reality could be working. We hope that necessary steps would be taken so that the resolution would be effective. Other countries such as China and the U.S. will be effective in trying to change North Korea’s attitude. The international community must work hand-in-hand to impose its collective will, and that cannot be easily neglected by North Korea.
“At this juncture, any country that would try to help North Korea even discreetly will find this is not very possible.”
“No Sizeable Difference” With South Korea
Turning to a neighboring country to Japan that is also a democracy, the ambassador offered strong praise for South Korean President Lee Myoon-bak, a center — right leader who was elected in 2007 after a decade of left-of-center presidents.
“There are no sizeable differences between South Korea and Japan,” he said, “and President Lee is cooperating very closely with Prime Minister Aso and with the U.S. There is no sizeable difference in their views vis a vis North Korea.”
Given historical tensions between South Korea and Japan, have relations between the two countries improved under Lee? Fujisaki replied: “I could say that President Lee’s policy line and the policy lines of Japan and the U.S. are closer than ever.”
This, of course, was not always the case. There were frequent disagreements between the U.S. and South Korea under Lee’s two predecessors. In addition, Japan and South Korea have long had tensions that have their origins dating back even before the World War II. In 2001, those tensions were exacerbated when Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi started going to the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine which also included war criminals of WWII.
But all that appears to be behind both countries. As Fujisaki explained, none of the last three prime ministers including incumbent Aso have visited Yasukuni.
And the Election?
The August 30th general election in Japan will surely have an impact on policy and U.S. relations with Tokyo. After decades of dealing with prime ministers of the pro-business and pro-U.S. LDP, an historic change in government would mean the coming to power of relatively unfamiliar figures, such as opposition leader Hatoyama, and his decade-old DPJ, which appears primarily motivated by its desire to get the LDP out of power after more than half-a-century. In effect, Washington would be dealing with the unknown if, as polls show, there is a DPJ victory next month.
On the subject of the election, the ambassador was very much the diplomat: “Everybody is holding their breath and waiting to see.”