Western Japan experts and journalists have responded to the rapid rise of the formerly low-profile Yoshihiko Noda, who earlier this month become Japan’s sixth Prime Minister in five years, with a quick consensus: the self-effacing former Finance Minister may be a bland, uncontroversial choice* on domestic issues, but his conservative nationalistic views threaten to spark renewed tensions with Japan’s neighbors – particularly China.
This verdict has been primarily driven by Noda’s decision last month to stand by his October 2005 statement about WWII Class-A war criminals that "the honor of all 'war criminals' has been recovered in a legal sense. In other words, those people who have been referred to as 'Class-A war criminals' are not war criminals."
This statement notably positioned Noda to the right of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had at least acknowledged that these figures were indeed war criminals. Koizumi dealt a serious blow to Japan’s diplomatic relations with its neighbors throughout his unusually long tenure as by insisting on annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where these war criminals are enshrined, so Noda’s decision to stand by his 2005 statement understandably raised worries in China and Korea that he was signaling an intention to resume these visits.
Noda addresses concerns
However, in a move that has not been widely reported in the U.S., Noda addressed these fears head-on in his first formal press conference as Prime Minister on September 2, vowing that neither he nor his Cabinet members would visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
Noda followed this up with a call to Chinese Premier Wen (as well as calls to his counterparts in Russia on South Korea) on September 6. Japanese coverage of the Noda-Wen call highlighted the news that Noda intended to visit China in early October, shortly after his planned visit to the U.S. in late September to meet President Obama and address the UN General Assembly. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu immediately confirmed that China would welcome Noda’s visit.
China not looking for a fight
One year after a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese Coast Guard vessels sparked a major row between the two nations, the fishing boat captain, who was initially hailed as a hero when he was released and returned home, has been grounded, sidelined, and placed under close watch by Chinese authorities. Clearly, China does not want a repeat of last year’s incident.
The initial Chinese media reaction to Noda’s victory in the DPJ leadership race was, as Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, highly critical. However, according Asahi Shimbun’s sources, President Hu then stepped in and changed the tone – even before Noda's vow to abstain from Yasukuni visits. “At the behest of the Communist Party leadership under President Hu Jintao,” reported Asahi, “the state-run Xinhua News Agency carried a story Aug. 30 on Noda's election as prime minister” arguing that "Mr. Noda made remarks that caused controversies in the fields of domestic politics and diplomacy. But we should not label him at an early stage."
Asahi further reported that "Noda is determined to reach out to Chinese leaders and earn their trust, thereby establishing a sound footing for bilateral relations."
Senkakus still a flashpoint
It would be a mistake to view Noda as a pro-China politician. The son of a Ground Self Defense Forces paratrooper, Noda is aware of the possibility that some new, minor incident involving the Senkaku Islands could spark another major diplomatic row with China.
In a crucial August 27 speech as one of the five candidates jockeying for support in the internal DPJ party election to replace former Prime Minister Kan, Noda argued that “among neighboring countries, there is one that is using economic growth and nationalism to attract the people. […] For that country, next year is a transformation period as its leadership will change. There is a possibility that the country will take provocative action against Japan.” In a clear reference to last year’s Senkaku dispute, which was widely viewed within Japan as ending with a complete capitulation to China, Noda also expressed his fears that Japan “has instilled a weak image when it comes to territorial issues.”
If a territorial squabble between Japan and China does break out, there is good reason to believe that the Japanese public will rally round their Prime Minister – a fact that is unlikely to escape Noda’s attention.
Furthermore, DPJ Policy Research Committee Chairman Seiji Maehara’s decision to repeatedly call China a "game changer" looking to remake the international system during his September 7 speech to the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Washington, DC is clearly going to raise some hackles in Beijing.
Actions speaking clearly
But the fact remains that in the early days of the Noda Administration, both Tokyo and Beijing are making an effort to get along. For example, on September 6, when Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba announced that Japan and China would hold working-level negotiations to establish a marine crisis management mechanism to help prevent a repeat of last year's diplomatic row.
Maehara is an influential politician, but he holds a party post, not an administration post, and after his speech both Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura quickly distanced the Noda government by saying that he had simply been expounding his “pet theory” and denying any coordination with him.
As for Noda’s decision to stand by his 2005 statement on war criminals and his August 27 expressions of concern about China, they may well have reflected his true feelings, but they were also attempts to win the support of conservatives within his party and the opposition LDP. Although he might not back down from a fight with China if it arises, Noda’s actions since taking office – his plan for an early visit to Beijing and especially his quick, clear statement ruling out Yasukuni visits – have signaled to the Chinese leadership that he is not looking to start one.
APP Non-resident Fellow
First appeared in APP's September 12, 2011 Asia Policy Calendar.
* See, “Yoshihiko Noda’s vision for Japan” by Ryo Sahashi, Kanagawa University and GMF, East Asia Forum, September 13th, 2011. “Japan, for a long time, has had a strong desire for a leader with resolve and responsibility. The test of Noda’ most unexpected premiership will be not whether his policy approach makes a lot of sense but whether his humble style in fact allows him to deliver leadership the country still craves.”