It is well known that Japan does not have a strong voice on the global stage. Japan is a member of the G-8 and frequently holds a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
However, in the most important discussions in those international arenas, Japan supports or simply follows the directions of the United States, leaving the impression that it has no independent opinions to contribute to global discussions.
As a loyal ally of the superpower and a recipient of security protection, Japan appears satisfied with its second-class status on the international stage.
Given the miserable memories of WWII and the prewar years, the Japanese people may have come to the conclusion that Japan should never have robust foreign policies and should play a modest role in the world. We can complacently say the economy, rather than political power, is the proud achievement of the Japanese nation.
The lack of political influence, though, irritates some Japanese. When Korean American organizations succeeded in building “comfort women” statues in local cities in the United States, or when foreign observers show sympathy to China on its territorial dispute with Japan, conservative Japanese groups complain vehemently that we should strengthen our public relations and push the international media to publish Japan’s narratives.
It is not only the conservative groups but internationally oriented Japanese who now say Japan should play a more robust global role and promote its own ideas on various international platforms.
Supported by these globally active Japanese, some new arenas are starting to enhance Japan’s weak public voice. Genron NPO, a private think tank based in Tokyo, has recently established the World Agenda Council.
The purpose of the WAC is to awaken Japanese people to global issues, such as the prevention of terrorism, the fight against infectious diseases, global warming, and migration, which are not necessarily of immediate concern to Japan.
Genron NPO President Yasushi Kudo said,
“We want to wipe out the impression that Japan is only interested in its own concerns and is insensitive to tragedies in foreign countries.”
Another merit of the WAC is that it is a private think tank. In the international sessions, government participants must speak according to official policies and tend to turn discussions into tedious, sterile debate about official government positions.
Such debates neither deepen intellectual insights nor do they foster understanding of possible solutions. Successful global sessions, such as the Davos Forum in Switzerland or Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore are privately organized.
Genron NPO has been selected as a member institution of the Council of Councils created by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. The COC comprises distinguished think tanks from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Genron NPO hopes that many participants from COC member think tanks will contribute to generating high-quality discussions. “The key to this kind of dialogue is a solution-focused approach. We want to initiate dialogue leading to solutions,” Kudo said.
The Tokyo Foundation, another private think tank in Japan, has organized Japan-U.S.-Europe forums since 2013. The Trilateral Forum Tokyo, jointly organized with the U.S.-German Marshall Fund, facilitates dialogue in which opinion makers from Japan, the United States and Europe participate.
The Trilateral Forum started with the notion that global issues should no longer be the sole basis for transatlantic or transpacific cooperation. The forum is unique in inviting world-class intellectuals to interact with Japanese participants, allowing them to exchange views about global issues.
What are the conditions for such discussions to achieve fruitful outcomes? History provides some indicators.
More than 100 years ago, Japanese business tycoon Eiichi Shibusawa traveled around the world and was infuriated at the absence of articles related to Japan in foreign newspapers.
He called on senior officials of Japan’s Foreign Ministry to establish a news agency whose task was to deliver Japan-related news to the foreign media. In spite of this, little Japanese news was published because Americans and Europeans showed scant interest in what was happening in a Far Eastern country.
They were especially not keen to read propaganda stories produced by the semigovernmental news organization. News from Japan contained increasingly more propaganda as the country deepened its invasion into the Chinese continent, inviting derision from the international audience and confinement of Japan into complete isolation.
At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese delegation kept silent when the conference discussed how to keep the peace and uphold the universal rights of nations, only raising their voice on the issue of territorial claims in North East Asia.
Due to its apparent lack of qualification to talk on global issues, Japan lost its status as a major negotiator in the middle of the Paris conference. Before WWII Japanese intellectuals did not speak of independent ideas and proposals in the international arenas. The only institution to express Japan’s thinking was the government, which was out of touch with global trends, and which was despised or ignored.
It is not only prewar Japan that invited this negative response from the international audience. Nowadays, when the Chinese government makes loud speeches for territorial claims in the South China Sea or for the suppression of ethnic minorities, we feel that China is out of step with world opinion.
My reaction to George W. Bush was similar when he tried to legitimize the unilateral war in Iraq, even after we knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country.
With all such past experiences, we can assert that only privately organized dialogue can achieve mutual understanding between foreign opinion leaders and serve national interests.
(Hiroki Sugita is the managing senior writer of Kyodo News.)