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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (November 21, 2003)

Anti-foreign Rhetoric Risks Isolating Tokyo

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A week after ending what many observers consider to have been an unusually xenophobic election campaign, Japan has just floated a proposal for the creation of an East Asian Community. Tokyo envisages this as Asia's version of the European Union. The ambitious plan will be formally announced in mid-December at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering in the Japanese capital.

However, Japan's future vision for the region is likely to get a fairly frosty reception. Many neighboring countries are still fuming about the barrage of anti-foreigner slurs generated by the Lower House election. These have badly dented Japan's already tarnished image and are inhibiting Tokyo's influence over regional developments. Unless some elements in the country's political establishment can rapidly learn the art of self-restraint, Japan risks becoming a regional pariah.

Despite a relatively short two-week campaign period, a small band of lawmakers made a high volume of offensive comments. In the vanguard of controversy was Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a man with a solid track-record for uttering derogatory remarks.

Governor Ishihara kicked off the election campaign by rehashing an old rightwing argument for justifying Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The governor was quoted as saying, "The annexation of Korea was made with the agreement of nations worldwide. The Korean people had to choose between Russia, Japan or Shina [a derogatory prewar term for China]." He continued, "They decided to seek help from the Japanese, who had the same facial color as their own." Not surprisingly, this highly contentious interpretation of history caused uproar in Korea and angered Japan's Korean population. About 400 South Korean residences living in Japan immediately staged a rally to protest Ishihara's assertion that their country chose to be annexed in 1910.

Most alarmingly, reaction in South Korean viewed Ishihara's comments as reflecting a wider feeling common amongst ordinary Japanese citizens. It is this kind of impression that is so damaging to Japan's regional image. After characterizing Ishihara's comments as a form of verbal terrorism, a Korea Herald editorial observed: "What worries South Korea, China and other Asian countries most is the sentiment of the Japanese people implicitly backing such extreme-rightist opinions" made by Ishihara." North Korea appears to have vented its anger by suddenly referring to the Japanese as "Japs" during a United Nations General Assembly session.

A decidedly unrepentant Ishihara shrugged off the protests and at an election rally a few days later ignited fresh controversy with a remark about China's fledgling space program. He mockingly observed, "The Chinese are ignorant, so they're overjoyed about that spaceship of theirs. That craft was outdated. If Japan wanted to launch a space-capsule, we could do it in one year." Needless to say, most Chinese did not enjoy being referred to as "ignorant" or hearing their first manned spaceflight rubbished. Ishihara's words inflamed large swathes of Chinese public opinion and increased resentment towards Japan.

While Ishihara's comments were the most prominent, others were closely following in his footsteps. Kanagawa Governor Shigefumi Matsuzawa informed an election rally, "Foreigners are all sneaky thieves. He added, "There is a marked increase in the number of cases in which some foreigners who enter Japan on working and other visas remain in the country illegally to commit heinous crimes." He subsequently toned down his comments, clarifying that he had not intended to say "all foreigners," but had merely meant "some foreigners." Blaming Japan's soaring crime figures on non-Japanese has become fashionable, even though government statistics clearly show that the vast majority of crimes are committed by the Japanese nationals.

Rising crime rates and past abductions by North Korea are the two basic ingredients irresponsible politicians blend to create a potent xenophobic mix. An election address by Shingo Nishimura, a Democratic Party of Japan candidate, illustrates the formula. At one of his rallies Nishimura said, "Crimes by foreigners in Japan are on the rise. We have to make Japan safe again, and make it a strong country where our citizens will not be abducted."

During the election, both main political parties bitterly competed with each other to be tough on North Korea. Failure to be anything but merciless on the abduction issue risked political oblivion. One of the primary reasons behind the almost total electoral extinction suffered by the Social Democratic Party was the perception that it was soft on North Korea.

On the domestic front, anti-foreign rhetoric made great election capital, but regionally the tactic was a complete disaster. In recent years, many ordinary Japanese have invested a lot of effort in building up good connections in both China and Korea. Thoughtless remarks by a handful of right-wing politicians can easily destroy these hard-forged bonds and in some cases even put Japanese citizens at risk.

One incident that occurred during the election period highlights the dangers of inflaming Chinese public opinion. A few Japanese students put on a raunchy skit during a cultural festival at Northwest China University in Xian. In the performance, the students reportedly wore bras, fake paper-genitals as well as Japan and China name-tags. Due to heightened anti-Japanese sentiment, this was considered to be an affront to Chinese pride and dignity. Following the performance, a large crowd gathered and quickly grew into a demonstration comprising thousands of people. This then developed into a three-day, large-scale anti-Japanese protest. Two Japanese students were beaten by a crowd who broke into their university dormitory and all Japanese students had to be evacuated from the Xian campus. While the Japanese press attempted to downplay the incident, it demonstrates how insensitive remarks by figures like Governor Ishihara can create explosive tensions abroad.

From a regional perspective, the 2003 Lower House election has been a public relations disaster for Japan. Needless anti-foreign rhetoric has harmed the country's long-term regional interests. If some Japanese politicians do not begin to realize the consequences of their actions, then Tokyo will eventually become completely isolated and its grandiose schemes for an East Asian Community will come to naught.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 20 November 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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