Japan A government of novices?

16 December 2009

Yesterday, a senior Chinese politician Mr Xi Jinping met the Emperor of Japan. Foreign dignitaries often meet the head of state of the host country during their visit, so there is nothing unusual in such a meeting per se. However, there are thorny diplomatic, political and constitutional questions as how, why and by whom this meeting was arranged.

Since the Emperor is quite old, there has been a convention, observed since 2004, that the officials of the Imperial Household would be informed at least one month ahead of the planned meeting. Chinese request for a meeting had gone through the usual channels, and both the Foreign Ministry and the Imperial Household had told the Japanese government that it wouldn’t be possible to arrange such a meeting, because the request was too short notice. However, the cabinet, and Mr Ozawa, the √©minence grise of the DJP-led coalition government, requested to the palace officials in quite strong terms to accept a meeting as an exception.

Mr Ozawa and other members of the Hatoyama cabinet are keen to improve Japan’s relationship with China. Some see this at the cost of the ties between Japan and the US. In any case, Mr Ozawa and the government made a case for an exception to this one-month rule for Mr Xi. And, as indicated above, the Imperial Household relented.

This came into light, and has caused political consternation from some quarters and outrage from others. Political outrage mostly came from the right, who are still seething with rage about the DJP forming the government, and dislike China and Chinese almost pathologically. However, the unease is much more widely shared, and this is because the Imperial Household ought to be above politics, and should not be dragged into the political arena.

Was this overriding of an existing convention an act of politicization of the Emperor’s position? The answer is probably yes. It was the government’s decision to prize a better relationship with China than respecting the convention. It seems that this one-month rule is still in place, however, it is a bad precedent to set, since other countries will be rightly aggrieved that China was favoured in this way.

Also worrying is the apparent lack of respect towards convention by Mr Ozawa, who staged an extraordinary press conference, in which he was rather aggressive. Governments change, and policies change, but conventions and rules should not be discarded. China is an important country, esepcially for Japan, but Mr Xi’s visit was not a state visit, or so urgent as to cast aside an established convention. It seemed like flexing of political muscle and a bad judgement call.

Taken together with the muddled thinking and inconsistent policy announcements over the US bases in Okinawa, Mr Hatoyama’s cabinet is giving an impression of indecisive and amateurish government. Will this change soon?