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Written by Julian Macfarlane exclusively for SouthFront
Will Japanese foreign policy change with the new Biden administration?
The simple answer is no.
The media line right now in the US is all about “new beginnings” and that is echoed in the Japanese mainstream media as well. However, “new beginnings” is defined as a return to normal”, and “normal” is–by definition– same-old, same-old. In the Age of COVID, ‘normal’ is regressive.
Joe Biden is an institutional politician: representative of an aging, if not fundamentally conservative political culture, favoring off-the-shelf solutions provided by “deep state” culture. So, you can expect him to double down on neo-liberal, neo-imperialist foreign policies in place since the end of WWII, which, in fact, did not change much during Trump’s tenure.
Although Japan is seen as a loyal American ally, like many US vassal state elsewhere that, for the most part, obediently follow the lead of whomever rules in Washington, it is in many respects more independent than it is given credit for – more so than Canada, for example, or even Germany.
The Japanese Cultural Divide
For Americans, the Japanese are different, if not exotic – and a different set of standards apply. The Japanese themselves have always agreed with this notion of cultural singularity.
The Japanese are proud of their insularity which they call “shimaguni konjo”, the spirit of a culturally isolated island people. The think they have evolved as a unique race through centuries of isolation — a different species, as it were. In the end, the look after their own interests, which they defend passively rather than aggressively since their existence now depends on trade with other peoples.
The Virtue of Deceit
The Japanese are the ultimate situationalists.
As the anthropologist Nakane Chie says, they have no principles of the kind that Americans say they have: context determines everything, not abstract ideals.
There is no black and white, only a spectrum of colors and shades. Simple honesty is the mark of a fool. If George Washington were Japanese, he would have lied about the apple tree. If you live in Japan, as I do, you have to quickly learn the difference between “tatemae” – “face” a kind of personal PR—and “honne” what you really feel. Also “omote” –that which is “in front” and “ura” that which is behind. Social deceit in Japan is an art form, which promotes interpersonal harmony.
In Japan, everything is about stability and balance, which is why tradition and maintenance of appearances are so important.
Accordingly, Japanese politics have been dominated by a single party since 1945, with “opposition” parties, really factions of the main party, and decisions reflecting a consensus of Japan’s three neo-feudal estates: what van Wolferen calls the “iron triangle ”, which is composed of the Ministries (Japan’s “deep state”), Business (the after-retirement “amakudari”: destination of ministry officials), and a hereditary political class, comprising 30 to 40%. The Public? They go with the flow.
The Prime Minister is little more than a spokesperson for the three estates that make up the triangle and whose interests are aligned to maintain a co-dependent relationship with the foreign world. When Perry’s black ships arrived in the 19th Century, the Japanese saw the need for unity. But to win against the foreign devils, they had to borrow their weapons and learn to play the Western game, no Go, but poker.
From the Japanese point of view, the American President is just an icon on the political desktop. Click the Biden Smiley and a whole program opens up, which does not surprise anyone here where the state is nothing if not “deep”.
In Japanese society, relationships are defined by power, as is also the case in many other societies. But Japan is collectivist, and the individual expression of power must be curbed by the group, which has evolved a unique social system to balance tribalism and factionalism. Some might say that Japan is intrinsically fascist.
Maybe. But not in the western way with its emphasis on individual leaders. Let us keep in mind that fasces are a bundle of rods. An individual rod is useless. A bundle can beat you to death.
In Japan, as in China, the public relies on a mandarin class to govern. Ordinary just want to get on with life, and leave politics to the politicians, who nevertheless claim to represent the will of the people.
The Japanese do this somewhat Confucian system differently from the Chinese.
Each Japanese is dependent on others according to defined social contexts: younger/older; child/parent; worker/manager but these dependencies–while apparently binary – are not dichotomous or exclusive as they would be in Western cultures. It is not the individual links one on one that matter but the whole chain. Your senpai is your superior by age or designation. You are his kohai, inferior. But he gives more than he receives—because he has to be responsible for you and look after you, so weakness or inability and your part will not degrade the strength of the chain as a whole.
You, of course, are someone else’s senpai. And your senpai is someone else’s kohai. The separate chains interlink to form a matrix. So, everyone has an interest in maintain vertical order. And leap-frogging to a higher position is not permitted or forgiven.
Japan lost WWII; it became nominally dependent on the US: for Americans that was a simple master-slave relationship. For the Japanese American military superiority made them senpai and Japan kohai. But kohai are not slaves anymore than children are the slaves of their parents.
In 1945, Japan was totally dependent.
The Americans had bombed the entire country into rubble. There were no resources to exploit. No oil. No gold. No minerals. All Japan had to offer was a strategic position relative to Korea, Russia and China which made the islands useful to Americans as very large alternatives to aircraft carriers. Even today, while it has returned Okinawa to Japanese jurisdiction, the US still controls a large chunk of the islands., with bases that are extra-territorial, outside of Japanese jurisdiction, mini-colonies—as are the other bases elsewhere in Japan.
The Japanese leveraged this postwar quasi-colonial relationship of dependency by borrowing technologies from the West and dominating Western markets with consumer appliances and cars and the like. In other words, they are quickly creating a Japanese style mutually dependent relationship in the US, as sempai gave more than it received. The Japanese, as kohai, were therefore happy to give the Americans places to play soldier and generally support American policy – since it was to their advantage.
As I said, the senpai is expected to give more than he receives, which is primarily social respect and expressions of loyalty, which cost little. Bow and smile.
As kohai, the Japanese borrowed American technologies as the Chinese have been accused of – and like the Chinese improved on them. While taking over the entire American consumer appliances industry and much of the auto industry, they protected their own economy with so-called “non-tariff barriers”, all the while insisting they were trying to “open” to their Western partners—but unable to do so because they were not yet strong enough or because the public resisted the government’s efforts. All those uneducated farmers, y’know—what can we do?
Now, however, America has less and less to give. The future for Japan is the West—the real West – not Europe and America. West of Japan is Asia—China, Korea and Russia. Call it the “Eurasian West”.
Pivot to the Eurasian West: Russia
A good example is Japan’s “Eurasian West” tilt is its relationship with Russia.
While most, if not almost all of the American’s nominal vassal states, went along with American sanctions and distanced themselves from Russia after Crimea rejoined Russia, and after MI6’s Skripal false flag, Japan did not change its stance towards its (New) Western neighbor.
The English language Japanese media rationalize this as just the nice, polite, etiquette-prone Japanese wanting to play nice with the Russians in the hopes of getting back at least two of the four islands in the “northern territories”. This narrative is in line with common stereotypes of the Japanese.
Douglas MacArthur, for example, once called the Japanese “a nation of children” and many Americans still believe it. The Japanese play the role well but are anything but it is just that – role-play. Intelligent Japanese laugh inwardly.
In reality, the Japanese knew an agreement with Russia is never going to happen as long as they host American military bases and maintain their military alliance with the US, which is anti-Russian. Also, they are well aware that in territorial disputes, possession is nine tenths of the law, as both the US and Japan have often demonstrated throughout their histories, with numerous illegal annexations as a result of war. Judo PR expert, Vladimir Putin, of course, knew exactly what the Japanese thinking.
The contrast between Japan’s behavior relative to Russia and that of other members of the “Western Alliance” is striking if you look at it objectively. After Russia accepted Crimea’s application for repatriation, US officials bleated about the “Russian invasion of Crimea”. American allies joined the chorus and queued up to apply sanctions and called Putin a “thug”, “dictator”, and the “Russian Hitler”. Prime Minister Abe, on the other hand, had friendly—and respectful – meetings with Putin five times. Donald Trump would later be accused of treason for just wanting to talk to Putin.
The Japanese people reacted to the “annexation” also differently from Americans. Natalia Vladimirovna Poklonskaya, the Prosecutor General of Crimea was a media star in Japan.
The Governor of Akita gifted the Evil Vladimir with an Akita puppy.
Putin responded with a Siberian kitten.
So, the Japanese are not Russophobic like Americans.
Vladimir Putin calendars still regularly outsell those of local Japanese celebrities. Putin is especially popular among Japanese women. In the US, selling Putin calendars would earn you a visit from the FBI and a lengthy interrogation.
In Japan, Russian things are not anathema as in the US. Vladimir is not the Devil. Then again, there is no Satan in Buddhism.
Japan responded to American pressure to apply sanctions on Russia as directed by Washington but made sure they were pretty toothless.
The rather conciliatory attitude of the Japanese in dealing with the Russians, and indeed Japanese sympathy for Vladimir Putin, set Japan apart from other American allies. It is not much remarked upon in the Western Media, which put all this in the Oriental Exotica frame. As we said, earlier: the Japanese are different! They eat raw fish. The are like children.
In any case, the Japanese are careful to publicize the orchestrated Japanese rightwing hullabaloo in Japan about “national integrity” –sound and fury from sound trucks which ordinary Japanese just laugh at as a kind of neo-nazi cosplay.
“We’re with you”, say the Japanese to the Americans. And smile and bow.
In the case of Russia, geopolitics are paramount for the Japanese.
Russia is a close neighbor and it has considerable influence in the East Asian area, Japan’s vital backyard. Regarded as an honest broker with the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the Philippines, among others, the Russian Federation is a net agricultural products exporter, has oil and gas and other natural resources, not to mention an increasingly strategic advantage in the arctic, including control of potential trade routes. Add to that, sooner or later, high speed rail to Russian ports on the Pacific.
Imagine Moscow to Beijing in two days! Russia is on the rise and Eurasia is the new frontier. Go West young man!
China: Don’t Bite The Hand That Feeds You.
China is Japan’s leading trading partner.
The Japanese ministries and large businesses which really run the country cannot fail to see what is happening to Australia, with China cutting off crucial imports from that country as punishment for anti-Chinese activities, in line with American policy.
That said, the Japanese public, which may like Putin and Russian girls, has a long-standing bias against Chinese (along with Koreans), who they tend to regard as third-class Japanese. Asians, yes. But not Japanese.
As usual Japanese attitudes are ambivalent.
Once again, the Japanese have territorial disputes which generate such mixed feelings—in this case, a slanging match over the Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkaku’s in Japanese, a group of five islands just off Taiwan, which were taken from China during the first Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese control these islands: the Chinese say they are theirs under the accords that ended WWII. The islands themselves are just rocks and would be unimportant but for the natural resources in the area, which would be hard for the Japanese to exploit without Chinese cooperation.
Once again, there is a lot of rhetoric aimed at convincing the US that Japan hates the Chinese as the Americans do.
Yet, this spat over islands is just a blip in the big picture: the US and European markets are in decline and China is…again…rising.
Japan needs China. It also needs Eastern countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines – all of which are wary of the US.
The Belt and Road: China and Russia Together
More recently, the Japanese have joined RCEP, the Chinese trade agreement that forms a massive trading block catering to a quarter of the world’s population—but excludes the US. Let us keep in mind that this agreement was designed to facilitate the Belt and Road Initiative which is Eurasian, and also to function as non-exploitative alternative to the now defunct TPP initiative.
BRI (the Belt and Road Initiative) will, at some point, have to include the European Asian Economic Union, which is Russia, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Russia itself has FTAs with Vietnam and is apparently negotiating other FTAs with ASEAN countries. It has a strong cooperative relationship with China with trade on track to double by 2024. It was never excluded from RCEP; rather its development of the EAEU, links the RCEP agreement to the Belt and Road initiative. Its task is to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and get Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in line, while dealing with Islamic terrorism in Syria and Russia’s soft underbelly, the legacy of decades of American meddling.
Beginning in 1979, the CIA, operating with the ISI Pakistani Intelligence Service and Saudi money, funded and equipped reactionary Mujahedeen forces in Afghanistan to bring down a revolutionary government there. The U.S. cultivated and promoted extreme religious fanaticism, based in Saudi Arabia, against progressive secular regimes in the region. This reactionary force was also weaponized against the Soviet Union and an anti-imperialist Islamic current represented by the Iranian Revolution.
For four decades, the CIA and secret Pakistan ISI forces in Afghanistan sought to recruit and train Uyghur mercenaries, planning to use them as a future terror force in China. Chechens from Russia’s Caucasus region were recruited for the same reason. Both groups were funneled into Syria in the U.S. regime-change operation there. These fanatical religious forces, along with other small ethnic groups, formed the backbone of the Islamic State group (IS) and Al-Qaida.
Uyghur jihadism is extreme and now threatens Turkey and even the Arab oil states. But CIA support remains steady, as long as US interests are not overtly threatened.
The Russians have made a lot of progress in promoting regional consensus and deterring jihadism – which is another reason for both the Japanese and the Chinese to maintain good relations with them. There can be no BRI without Russia.
In another move, unremarked about in the media, Japan has signed a medical agreement with Cuba in tacit defiance of US sanctions and policy. This is the COVID era. Cuba is a world leader in immunology and vaccines and in the age of “novel” viruses, Japan does not want to be left behind. Japan has signed on for the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, in preference to the much cheaper and equally efficacious Russian Sputnik V vaccine, simply because Japanese Pharma wants access to American mRNA technology which has a huge range of applications in drug manufacture.
As it was mentioned above, the Japanese have no principles. They don’t care about ideology, only getting along. As time goes on, it needs the US less and less. Their loyalties depend on the situation.
For example, Japan recognized Juan Guaido as interim president of the Venezuela, just as most of the US’s allies in Europe did. Venezuela didn’t have anything it wanted. If that country had had something to offer, you can be sure, the Japanese would have pretended to be neutral.
The US bases in Japan are not really essential to Japanese security. Japan has the fifth strongest military in the world – and unlike Iran, could, if it wanted, go nuclear in six months due to advanced delivery systems, large stores of weapons grade plutonium and nuclear technology.
The American bases allow the Japanese, however, to pretend to a kind of pacifism and yet remain loyal to the Americans. They can say to the Chinese and Russians — “It isn’t our fault—we are de facto occupied by the Americans and we can only follow orders”.
Therefore, the Japanese can belong to the “Quad”—a semi-formal anti-Chinese strategic alliance of Japan, India, Australia, and the US, without generating the same animosity from the Chinese as its three partners. Leverage—again. Dependency—again.
The Japanese made the appropriate noises about China’s HK Security Law and quickly let the matter slide. With the recent jailing of HK pro- “independence” activists funded by American semi-governmental bodies, Japan voiced “grave concerns” using a lower level spokesperson, whose comments received little notice. The US, NZ and other countries voiced outrage of Chinese graphic artist Wuheqilin’s depiction of an Australian soldier slitting a child’s throat – in response to reports of many such atrocities by Australian soldiers. The Japanese remained quiet, not that they are in any position to talk about wartime atrocities. A rather convenient excuse.
Japanese Speciesism: Winners and Losers
As it was said above, the Japanese see themselves as a different species, literally Homo Sapiens Iaponia.
In their world, each culture represents a different species of human, with evolutionary hierarchy defined by proofs of power. As an archipelagic people, they see each culture is an island in which human beings evolve differently, just as animals tend to do in ecological niches. The Japanese won wars against the Russians and Chinese and attribute their final losses in WWII to superior American power, which impeded Japanese ability to resist the Russians and Chinese on the Asian mainland. But for the war with the Americans, they still think they could have triumphed in China and Siberia.
In the Japanese public mind, Americans are therefore superior, which no doubt is why the ubiquitous manga heroes and heroines more often than not look Western. White people are considered somehow physically superior, but especially Homo Sapiens Americanus represented in Japan by Hollywood.
Koreans and the Chinese are still seen as inferior. Once the Japanese went to war to subjugate their neighbors — but now all wars are economic. Not just the balance of power is changing but the manner in which power is applied. China’s obvious military and economic superiority generates ambivalence on the Japanese side, as does Korea’s leadership in certain technological areas.
Japanese quasi-racist nationalism is easy to see with regard to territorial issues: the Diaoyu Islands (China), and Dokto Island (Korea), but also Japanese ambivalence. Japanese diplomats try to use a kind of cultural judo with their Chinese and Korean counterparts – and also the US –characterized by evasion, circular movements, and judicious application of leverage but it is all talk not action.
There are some basic rules.
- When in doubt, blame the public. Of course, the public consensus is directed by the media, which are in turn controlled by that “Iron Triangle” that Wolferen talks about, with Press Clubs performing stenography for government and business. But Japan, like other members of the American imperium, must pretend to be a democracy.
- Otherwise, blame your weakness as an American quasi-colony. The Americans are forcing us to do this. A good example is the recent decision of Japanese banks to abide by US sanctions on Carrie Lam and presumably others in HK and China. Lam herself describes these sanctions as essentially meaningless. Japan should not want to scare away Chinese investment in Japan when its economy is sinking. The Japanese statement is clearly, “Our businesses operating in the US under US law must abide by it”. Unstated is what they are probably also telling the Chinese: “Japanese law is another matter”. Wink, wink. Nod, nod.
- If the Americans become insistent, the Japanese will blame a host of factors and just say their favorite word: “muri”—which means “difficult”, in the sense of “impossible”. “We’d like to do it but it is too “muri”.”
- Smile and bow.
Biden and the Post Covid Economic Slump
Biden’s cabinet is full of neoliberal and neocon war-hawks from previous administrations. You can expect this new President to continue Obama’s attempt to stall Chinese and Russia’s economic growth, just as Trump did, although in a different way. The style will differ but not the substance.
But the fact is that China is the only country showing solid economic growth, even with optimistic predictions for Western economies.
American sanctions have actually benefited the Middle Kingdom–just as they benefited Russia by forcing economic and technological independence. America’s 21st Century attempts to maintain its empire are rather like Rome’s in the 4th Century: they foster the independence –and the power–of other nations. The US tried to interfere in HK, which merely prompted the Chinese to assert greater control of HK as a Chinese state. American and Turkish efforts to encourage Islamist separatism in XinJiang led to greater Chinese development of the region, the encouragement of moderate Islam and secularization.
For American businesses including the tech sector, to survive, they need China, which puts them at odds with the so-called “Deep State” in the US, which consists of officials in government agencies, the military, thinktanks and the like. After all, in 2009, China was the economic engine that dragged the rest of the world, including the US out of the Great Global Recession of 2008.
In Japan, the ministries aka the “Deep State” work in close cooperation with Business. The Japanese are considered “conformist” but this is only in a “Western” sense. This country is racially, ethnically and regionally very homogeneous. Unanimity is therefore easier to establish than in America’s melting pot, which is full of stuff that just refuses to melt. Simply put, in Japan people find it easier to work together for practical goals, which benefit the common good, not against it each other as is often the case in America, where the “common good” must genuflect to the individual.
In Japan, don’t think conformism—think unanimity.
A Placeholder President
Biden is just a placeholder President. He must do as he is told. His policies are dictated by his teleprompter. But who writes the script?
A good indicator of Biden’s status is the sudden media interest in his son Hunter, whose dealings were redacted from news coverage before the election and are now in the spotlight, although still “sanitized” as ”tax issues” rather than as corrupt dealings with foreign agents. There is no talk in the media of prison time for Hunter as there is for Trump. Although it is quite clear that Biden must have known about his son’s dubious dealings, and undoubtedly enabled them, there is no mention of this either. One can expect the FBI to wrap Hunter’s knuckles and exonerate Joe, just as they did with Hillary Clinton and her illegal server back in 2016.
Another indicator of a red line for Biden is Russiagate Part II, with Russia accused of cyber terrorism.
These two events may be regarded as warning shots. It happened to Trump, too – except in his case his feckless attempt to talk to the Russians and Xi led to an endless barrage of heavy guns, forcing him into Russophobic and Sinophobic policies to prove his allegiance to the flag.
Since Hunter Biden was clearly involved with the Chinese, Biden cannot go soft on the Chinese, who are a target for the Deep State. Hunter’s involvement with Ukrainian Nazis is not a problem because they are a CIA creation. Biden will toe the line. In any case, Kamala is waiting to pounce since given Biden’s age and obvious cognitive issues; there is little chance of his making it to the end of a second term.
On the Japanese side, Abe has been replaced by Suga, another placeholder without real support from any of the major factions. He will be replaced in 2021, after taking the blame for Japan’s COVID crisis, the ultimate fall guy for interregnum troubles and anything that Abe set in motion. Therefore. Je has neither the power nor the inclination to challenge the existing consensus which favors trade with China and positive diplomacy with Russia to ensure access to central Asia. But he must still genuflect to the US. That relationship must remain paramount – for the time being. The US is at war with the world but eventually it will defeat itself.
The Chinese have made clear that they are going to take a harder line against American aggression, both economic and otherwise and that will include Japan, if the Japanese get too far out of line. They are increasingly more assertive regarding the Daioyu Islands, which could easily end up as Chinese bases just as the Dokto (Liancourt Rocks) which ended up occupied by the South Koreas.
Japan will tread carefully. Pretending to be pro-American but in reality promoting closer relations with China and Russia. They need Eurasia more than they need the US and the EU.
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