LEE’S VISA REQUEST Shame on the Government

April 20th, 2001

The Mori administration and the Foreign Ministry in particular have been taking an ambiguous attitude toward a request for a Japanese visa from former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. I must criticize this attitude categorically.

Lee said at a press conference at his Taipei office on April 15 that he had applied for a visa on April 10. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and the Foreign Ministry told reporters that the government had not yet received a visa application from him, and that it was therefore irrelevant to discuss whether or not to grant him a visa.

Three of the four Liberal Democratic Party candidates for LDP president, when asked by newspapers whether they are in favor of issuing a visa, said yes. But former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto would not answer the question for the same reason that the government refused to discuss it.

Exactly what is going on? To begin with, which side is telling the truth? Lee’s side says a visa application has been filed. But the Japanese side says it has not received his application.

According to Lee’s side, his proxy applied for a visa on April 10 by submitting the necessary papers to the Interchange Association in Taipei (Japan’s de facto embassy in Taiwan), including Lee’s passport. It appears the papers are still with the association. Lee has accused the Japanese government of telling a lie.

In light of common sense, Lee is probably right. When a Japanese wants a visa issued, all he or she has to do is submit the necessary papers to the office in charge. The application may be rejected, but that happens only after it has been accepted and examined. There is no reason to reject the application on the spot unless the papers are found to be inadequate.

If the office turns down the application immediately, it means that an official who receives the papers has the authority to determine at his or her discretion the applicant’s right to travel abroad. In this case, accepting the papers should be construed as an administrative obligation, not the prerogative of the office in charge. About the only thing the office does procedurally is issue the applicant the serial number of the application.

The interpretation could be made, however, that the obligation to accept the application could be avoided for the highest political considerations, although it is highly doubtful whether such a decision is legally or constitutionally valid. So the decision itself could become a big issue.

If the government actually made such a political decision, who made it? Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said repeatedly that nobody gave such instructions to anybody. The frontline official in charge could not have taken such a high-level decision. If anyone took such action, who was it? Was it the foreign minister, the bureau director or the association chief?

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono reportedly ordered an investigation into the visa issue. I hope this issue will be fully investigated to establish responsibility. If it is impossible for the government to find out the truth, the Diet could invoke its own right of investigation.

The need for an investigation should be clear enough. The question at stake is whether the government could violate individual rights in an arbitrary and ambiguous manner without recourse to legal means. It is a question that involves international trust in Japan and its government.

Lee is one of the greatest men in the world today. He has brought freedom and democracy into Chinese society — which has existed for several thousand years under entirely different political principles. Compared with Taiwan, Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, for instance, retains some of the ideological trappings of a paternalistic state.

Lee’s liberal and democratic thoughts are not a product of accident. He is well-versed in Chinese classics and Oriental philosophy, perhaps more deeply than other Asian leaders of the 20th century, including those of Japan and China. A devout Christian, Lee is also dedicated to the Western ideals of love and individualism. His thinking derives from his profound Christian faith.

Now Lee is angry at the Japanese government. He has been in a similar situation several times before, but each time he yielded to pressure from the Japanese government and politicians and voluntarily withdrew his visa application, believing in the good will of the Japanese side.

When Lee withdrew one such request last October, his anger seemed to be on the verge of exploding. His patience was reaching its limit. This time around, for five days after the application was filed, the Japanese government repeatedly said it had not received the papers and Lee concluded that the Japanese side was untrustworthy. No wonder he has run out of patience.

It is a shame that the Tokyo government has been called a liar by such an important person. I wonder how it will respond. Of course, this will leave a big blot on the Mori administration’s legacy. It could leave a stain on Japan’s reputation as well.