Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2014.02.25
A special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly expressed his personal disappointment on YouTube, in response to the U.S. "disappointment" following Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine late last year. By the time ordinary Japanese knew of the remarks on February 19, however, the message had been already withdrawn and the YouTube video erased.
According to media reports from Tokyo, the special advisor, Mr. Seiichi Eto, seems to have said the following in his video:
- America said it was disappointed but we are the ones who are disappointed.
- You may think America's "disappointment" statement was directed at Japan but that's not the case.
- They are telling China that they are disappointed.
- The United States is on the verge of becoming a nation unable to speak out loud against China.
- My understanding is that it's just an excuse they are making to China.
- Why doesn't the United States take better care of Japan which is their ally?
Despite these reports, many Japanese still do not know what was actually stated in the video. The message was withdrawn because, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on February 19, Eto had only expressed "his personal view" which is "not the Japanese government's view." Suga did not elaborate on whether the message was wrong or right.
Many stories have been written since but none seems to reflect the political reality in Tokyo. So, let me try to recreate what and how the silent majority of Japanese felt over the past few days. They are not as simplistic and naive as some of those news stories have hinted. Rather, their views are much more subtle and ambivalent than those outside Japan may have imagined.
Simply put, a minority of left-wingers hate Eto, while another minority of right-wingers defend him. This does not mean, however, that the majority of the Japanese support Eto's message, period. The following is my recreation, to the best of my knowledge and imagination, of the voices of the silent majority of Japanese on the remarks by Eto.
- Eto stated that "America said it was disappointed but we are the ones who are disappointed."
The majority of Japanese, as much as 60% according to a post-shrine-visit opinion poll, were definitely not happy with the U.S. "disappointment" at the end of last year. Nonetheless, this time, they were probably more embarrassed than disappointed, because they are very much concerned about the future of Japan-U.S. relations, and their bilateral alliance in particular.
- Eto also said that "The United States is on the verge of becoming a nation unable to speak out loud against China," and that "My understanding is that it's just an excuse they are making to China."
These remarks do not seem to represent ordinary Japanese citizens either. The silent majority of Japanese are much less xenophobic than those minority left-wing or right-wing fundamentalists in their neighborhoods. Having said that, however, here in Tokyo Eto's concern is real and in the future could grow, and U.S. policy-makers should not underestimate the emotional aspect of this issue.
It is worthwhile to note that the sincere efforts of the U.S. to be as neutral as possible in disputes in East Asia could easily backfire. If the U.S. attitude were to be considered passive and not proactive enough, Eto's "Why doesn't the United States take better care of Japan which is their ally?" remark might eventually resonate even among the silent majority in Japan.
As expected, China's foreign Ministry spokesperson reportedly called Eto's message on YouTube, "evidence that Tokyo has no repentance" over the past. Lo and behold. Although Eto's message was inappropriate and politically incorrect, it was also evidence that Japan is a mature liberal democracy in which everybody, except those in the government, enjoy the basic human rights, including the freedom of expression.
The silent majority of Japanese are proud of their free and democratic society which they have rebuilt over the past nearly 70 years. They are fully aware that, although democracy sometimes malfunctions, their political system is much better than the one they used to have until 70 years ago and far better than the one which has existed in Beijing since 1949.