Diplomacy of Symbolism

Wednesday, February 18 2009 @ 01:46 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

In diplomacy, you sometimes turn to exchanges of symbolic gestures and nice but unbinding words. But if you overdo it, or let the other side indulge in it, you will not only reduce international relations to a ritual, but can endanger your own interests, typically by swallowing prohibitively high costs today for benefits you may or may not reap tomorrow. This is how the Japanese reacted when Hillary Clinton chose their country as the first leg of her first overseas trip as U.S. Secretary of State.

The Tokyo government flipped out over her maiden visit because deep inside it felt Japan didn't deserve the honor especially when the political turmoil and social unrest do not seem to come to an end anytime soon.

For one thing, it came to the surface on Saturday in Rome that a wino was at the wheel of Japan Inc. Shoichi Nakagawa, Japan's Finance Minister, was supposed to brief the press corps on the outcome of the G-7 Finance Ministers' Meeting. But he repeatedly fell asleep, and whenever he came to, all he could do was to mumble incoherent responses to reporters' questions in heavily slurred speech.

When forming his cabinet last fall, Prime Minister Aso handpicked Nakagawa as his Finance Minister although he knew very well the man had repeatedly made a scene because of his alcoholism. The media were also determined to hush up his mental illness. Amid Clinton's stay in Tokyo, Aso and Nakagawa tried to dodge criticisms by giving implausible explanations such as jet lag, overdose of cold medicine, etc. But finally he had to step down because the news had been repeatedly aired on TV and YouTube all over the world.

In early stage of the global crisis, Nakagawa was giving the likes of Henry Paulson a lot of lectures on how his country could "recover" from the burst of the bubble in the 1990s. Obviously the wino thought, like all of his intoxicated fellow countrymen, that the current distress was attributable solely to the sabu-puraimu mondai, or subprime woes, and the riiman shokku, or Lehman shock. The empty-headed Aso shared the same opinion that the crisis had long been gotten over in Japan with the ¥46.7 trillion (more than $500 billion) bailout measures taken by Koizumi and thus the current crisis is not homegrown. Based on the same misperception, he kept saying Japan would be the first to come out of the depression this time around. But, in fact, their country now seems to be the last in getting away from the crisis, either with or without a drunkard sitting at the wheel.

According to the data released on Monday, Japan's GDP shrunk by an annualized 12.7% in the last quarter of 2008, while the U.S. and the Euro-zone countries only suffered a 3.8% and 6% setback, respectively, in the same period. By now everyone has realized that the Japanese government has been disseminating complete hogwash, while doing absolutely nothing to counter the deepening crisis.

Aso administration's approval rating had already sunk below 10% but now it is expected to further come down to a near-zero level. To the Japanese, there is nothing new in all this fiasco. They are quite used to having incompetent persons sitting at the helm. Koizumi was, and still remains, a habitual sex offender and known to have a close yakuza affiliation in his former constituency of Yokosuka. Abe mentally collapsed in the face of a crisis which he had invited himself. Now, after another mediocre person exited through the revolving door of the cabinet office, the manga-loving dumb is clinging to the top job. You have to redefine the word democracy if you still want to call it a democracy.

Against this backdrop, Clinton's Tokyo mission was a piece of cake. The only thing she had to have was physical toughness that, in fact, far eclipses Nakagawa's. The first thing in the morning, she visited Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine downtown Tokyo, to show her "respect for this culture." There, she only had to exert her power to suppress a big yawn when undergoing an exotic "purification" ritual.

Then she had separate meetings with the Foreign and Defense Ministers. If there was a substance in her Tokyo visit, it was the signing of the accord on the planned relocation of 8,000 marines from Futenma, Okinawa to Guam at the expense of Japan's taxpayers. Yet, it bore only a little more than a ceremonial significance because thus far the Tokyo government has failed to convince the Diet of its proposal for the funding necessary for the relocation, and the Okinawa prefectural government of its argument that the realignment will ultimately benefit the Okinawans.

At best, the accord between the two governments is yet another example of the bilateral arrangements that only accelerate the process of the seemingly unavoidable failure of this country. If and when its Far Eastern ally ultimately fails, as it looks quite likely, America's ailments will certainly worsen. The entire security arrangement, therefore, is the surest way to undermine both in the long run.

The two meetings were followed by a brief talk with several representatives of the families of the Japanese citizens who were allegedly kidnapped by North Korean agents more than a quarter century ago. Clinton just repeated Bush's empty promise that the U.S. will never forget the abductees, but now it looks as though the nuclear umbrella has been extended as far as to cover ordinary citizens of Japan dealing with malicious foreigners as if theirs is not a sovereign country. It is a telling evidence of American preference for weak and reliant figures that she opted to see the family members of abductees over a meeting she could have had with the Okinawa Governor and residents there who have been voicing their strong opposition against the Okinawa part of the realignment of the U.S. forces. Clinton's earlier visit with her counterpart was to make sure the dupe heading the Foreign Ministry is still determined to override the outcry in Okinawa.

After giving the Empress a pretentious hug at the Imperial Palace and fielding polite and predictable questions preplanted in the students of Tokyo University in an equally polite and predictable manner, she closed her hectic Tokyo excursion with a meeting with Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan. At that meeting, the trickiest person in Japan's political world reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State that he thinks the 49-year-old security treaty "has delivered good results for Japan as well as [the rest of] Asia," and "hopefully, we will enhance our alliance for the next 50 years." This was quite predictable because he was the biggest stakeholder in the congruous military alliance between the two nations. There are signs that still he is one of the biggest.

During her stay, Clinton invited Aso to become the first foreign leader to make a pilgrimage to the White House next week. This has put Aso in an awkward situation to be likened to the one facing former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He mentally collapsed when he knew he couldn't keep his word to Bush that Japan would continue playing the role of a free gas station in the Indian Ocean. Aso's headache this time is that it looks unlikely the bills concerning the budget for fiscal 2009, which are meant to be his version of stimulus package, will pass the Diet by the time he has an audience with Obama.

At any rate Clinton's mission was completed. I can't but express my respect for the hard-working woman who proved extremely skillful at getting around the real issues.

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