Playing up a national asset

April’s anti-Japanese demonstrations in China offered various lessons. Let’s examine what really happened. About month earlier, the Chinese Communist Party had launched a movement opposing Japan’s attempt to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. The April 9 demonstration, obviously inspired or approved by the government, was part of that movement.

The ostensibly anti-Japanese demonstrations, however, turned into a kind of popular event that the Chinese government had not expected. Concerned that they might create internal confusion, or take on an antigovernment tone, Beijing banned further demonstrations.

It is reasonable to expect that such demonstrations will not be repeated for the time being. I don’t think Beijing would allow them even if Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

It’s easy to imagine a popular anti-Japanese movement escalating into a nationwide campaign of mass riots beyond the control of the government. After all, the Chinese government has conducted anti-Japanese education since its 1989 bloody crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. It has tried … with some success … to replace popular aspirations for democracy with nationalism. The vehement rhetoric that Beijing has leveled against Koizumi’s trips to Yasukuni over the past year or so exacerbate the situation. If, as seems likely, such demonstrations were limited in scale amid tight security, they would have no impact. In that case, one could easily guess who was pulling the strings.

This restraint on the Chinese side would likely encourage well-intentioned Japanese to insist on discontinuing any unilaterally provocative acts, such as Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits, or leaving Beijing a way out by building an alternative (neutral) memorial for Japan’s war dead.

But showing such sympathy would send the wrong signal to Beijing that its past tactics had somehow succeeded. As a result, strained relations between the two countries would soon re-emerge over new problems. As long as China sticks to those tactics, the prospects for a new Sino-Japanese friendship will not open up.

China’s opposition to the Japanese bid for a permanent Security Council seat is essentially a diplomatic issue. As such, the issue should be dealt with openly through diplomacy. For China to create a show of popular anger in the form of street demonstrations … as was the practice in semicolonial days … is unbecoming to a modern-day power of China’s stature. I don’t think Beijing will do it again, given its latest experience.

China may yet try to prevent pilgrimages to Yasukuni by applying pressure on political, business and media circles here, but such an approach would likely backfire because, here again, it would be easy to see what Beijing had up its sleeve. The upshot would be that domestic support by groups such as Izokukai (War Bereaved Association) for Yasukuni visits would be reaffirmed.

The Great Depression taught a vital lesson: Removing barriers to free trade is key to revitalizing the global economy and improving living standards worldwide. The postwar world has made assiduous efforts in this direction under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the International Monetary Fund, with the United States taking the lead.

The World Trade Organization, of which China is now a member, operates in the same spirit. Any action that restricts economic activity for political reasons is subject to international condemnation. Some deplore the present state of Japan-China relations calling it seirei keinetsu (politically cold, economically hot). Such a catchphrase is irrelevant. International economic exchange aims to promote the well-being of people the world over; it should have nothing to do with bilateral political issues.

In retrospect, the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China had a silver lining for Japan in that international opinion generally favored this country. The message was clear: More than half a century since the end of World War II, Japan is viewed as a liberal democracy in its own right, and there is no possibility whatsoever of its reverting to militarism and wars of aggression. This opinion strongly reflects that of those who know the real situation in Japan. The recent demonstrations in China have reminded Japanese that this favorable international opinion of Japan is a national asset.

In the 1920s, Japan was already enjoying democracy comparable to the present one, thanks to spontaneous popular movements that began in the Meiji Era. Few people in the world today seem to remember this. This memory was intentionally effaced during the period of militarism in the 1930s as well as during the American occupation, when lower-ranking occupation authorities asserted that democracy was a special gift of the occupation forces.

However, senior American statesmen like Henry L. Stimson and Japan experts were well aware of this history. Thus a “revival” of democracy was a condition imposed on Japan in the surrender document it accepted at the end of World War II. Japanese ought to be proud of this.

Japan has been shy about promoting liberal democracy. From now on, though, we should behave confidently as a standard bearer for liberal democracy. Basically, that is how Japan should play its international role in the 21st century.