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Japan Political Pulse: Power of words key to future diplomacy independent of US

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani are seen shaking hands ahead of a bilateral leaders' meeting at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Dec. 20, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

Over the around 30 years spanning the previous Heisei era (1989-2019), Japan's position in international politics has improved by leaps and bounds. When this country was an economic powerhouse revving on all cylinders three decades ago, it was regarded as an "economics only" acolyte to the United States. But now things are different.

With the new year barely underway, the United States military killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a targeted drone strike in Baghdad. Japan does not condone the use of such tactics. The Japanese government will deploy Maritime Self-Defense Force troops to the Middle East at the end of January to protect ships related to Japan and its interests, but their operations will be separate from U.S. forces operations

As the second year of the Reiwa era begins, Japan will take a more noticeably independent position on the world stage, and this year is likely to see it strengthen its messaging.

In the spring, Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to make a state visit to Japan. But international criticism of China is growing amid continuous reports of detention, torture and abuse allegedly carried out on between 800,000 and 2 million of the around 8 million Uighur minority people living in China.

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are also focusing attention on China. Both houses of the U.S. Congress showed their support for the movement by passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump.

China's current state of affairs brings to mind the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which were suppressed by the Chinese military, causing many deaths and injuries.

The events prompted a web of international sanctions against China, but Japan was quick to relax its measures. This caused it to be labelled an unprincipled, obsequious economics-driven nation by some western countries, where human rights issues are treated very seriously.

Under these conditions, the decision to invite President Xi to Japan has been strongly condemned both in and out of Japan. To respond to the criticism, the Japanese government must clearly explain its intentions to the international community. I want to ask the Japanese side to work toward getting China to improve its human rights situation.

There are expectations too that Japan, which has tried to work as a diplomatic bridge between the U.S and China as well as the Washington and Tehran, could also be an intermediary between nuclear and non-nuclear states. At the end of April, the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will convene in New York, as it does once every five years.

In exchange for recognizing the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France and China's possession of nuclear arms, the treaty seeks to encourage reductions in the number of weapons, and forbids other states from possessing them. This year marks 50 years since it came into effect. But currently, proliferation of nuclear equipment is advancing in countries including India, Pakistan and North Korea, and nuclear arms expansion among states with the weapons are contributing to a sense the project is stagnating.

But regardless of these hindrances, efforts to stop nuclear arms proliferation and to reduce weapons stockpiles must continue.

In January 2000, a panel of experts released a statement saying, "From now on, we are in a time of word politics," as part of reports put out by then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century, chaired by Hayao Kawai.

To paraphrase the report's explanation behind the statement, it asserted that international relations in the present day would not be animated by military or economic power, but by words. They continued that words cannot be used to physically threaten other nations in major international meetings, and that they cannot be bought.

Military force and money have never been powerless in international politics. However, Takao Suzuki, writer of the 1985 bestseller "Words as Weapons," a sociolinguist and Keio University professor emeritus, told me, "I think word politics is a very good idea. It's just that mass media has yet to take any interest in it at all."

In "Words as Weapons," he writes, "The very existence of economic superpowers is a form of attack. We must wake up to the idea that this causes harm." He says that if Japan wants to preserve itself as a country of peace, it must lose its preoccupation with English and study many languages, and work to collect information so it becomes a country that is actively outgoing, rather than a passive recipient of information.

Although the book shifted copies, it didn't gain much attention in the government. After 35 years, its era has come; the age of word politics is upon us.

(Japanese original by Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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