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Japanese Prime Minister on the Global Stage

Posted on the 04 August 2021 by Shahalexander
Japanese Prime Minister on the Global Stage

This June was a monumental season of big diplomatic events, from the G7 Carbis Bay to the US-Russian summit. However, it appeared that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga behaved clumsily and unconfidently during informal interactions with foreign leaders at the G7, which somewhat disquieted Japanese people and media. They worry that his mediocre knowledge and experience in foreign affairs, and furthermore, his moderate proficiency in English are hurdles to boost Japan's political presence on the global stage. But in my view, what really matters is neither English nor the diplomatic experience, but awareness sharing of every global agenda that is discussed at the G7.

Japanese media are exuberant with the communiqué that mentions the Taiwan Strait for the first time in G7 history. This is a memorable achievement of long Japanese effort to persuade Western allies to raise alert over China. However, this issue is stated in a few lines in clause 60, and more words are spent on other global issues, such as the environment, the digital economy, development and empowerment in the third world, human rights, and infrastructure initiatives to counter China's BRI, in the joint statement. Not all of those agendas are necessarily familiar to Japanese politicians in their daily work, compared with G7 counterparts in the Atlantic sphere. For example, third world issues in the Middle East and Africa, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict, are relatively unfamiliar to Nagatacho politicians.

Russia was also an important agenda, particularly when US President Joe Biden was meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, shortly after the G7. However, besides Crimea, it is quite doubtful whether Suga shared common awareness on human rights and election interference with other leaders. That is not simply because Putin did not interfere in Japanese elections. Postwar Japan has prioritized economic relations with foreign nations, and embraced third world autocrats, under the Yoshida doctrine. Russia is also no exception. More noticeably on human rights, Suga worried that hardline denunciation against the Uyghur oppression, would fatally damage Sino-Japanese relations.

Nevertheless, any Japanese prime minister shall not have so much difficulty to discuss global issues in the formal talk, with the help of bureaucrats. But without sharing common awareness by him or herself with foreign leaders, unofficial talk would be extremely difficult, no matter how fluent he or she is in English or other foreign language. It is the mindset that really matters. A narrow-sightedly Japan First politician would behave awkwardly at international conferences, and fail to win credits from the global community.

Domestically, Suga may not be flamboyant and charismatic, but he is consummate in Nagatacho politics and a calm and steady executive. This was typically seen in his job as the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Abe administration. As the prime minister, he shows a kind of political ideal in his words, "self help, family help, and public help", which can be interpreted a small government philosophy. Whether big government or small government, this is quite uncommon in Japanese politics, which is predominated by fractional power politics, rather than ideological rivalry. However, Suga's handling of the Tokyo Olympics is too clumsy to meet the global criteria, as it is scandalized with misogynist and anti-Semitist gaffes by some administrative staff.

Other Japanese leaders also failed to share a common awareness with the global community. Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is the most notorious example. As the President of the Organising Committee of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Mori carelessly made a gaff, ""If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying," which forced him to resign ( "Facing Backlash For Sexist Remarks, Tokyo Olympics Chief Apologizes But Won't Resign"; NPR News; February 4, 2021). It is not just misogyny that matters. In the face of harsh criticism from the world, Mori made an excuse that he was terribly scolded by his wife and daughters to show that he was neither paternalistic nor machismo at home ( "The Tokyo Olympics; Shukan Bunshun; February 11, 2021). Clearly, he did not understand the point. The global community questioned his views on gender issues as a public official, but he confused his private life with public affairs, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Even some Western leaders failed to meet international credential. Typically, Republican candidate's running mate Sarah Palin disappointed the global audience during the US presidential election in 2008 with her comment on Russia, which hurt the prospect of Senator John McCain's victory. The Republican Party claimed that Palin had a unique foreign policy experience as the governor of Alaska, adjacent to Russia and Canada. But that was taken skeptically among the public ( "Palin not well traveled outside US"; Boston Globe; September 3, 2008). Katie Couric asked her about this point in "CBS Evening News" ( "New Sarah Palin Clip: Keeping An Eye On Putin"; CBS News; September 25, 2008). She stressed that Alaska was the first target when Russia attacks the United States. That was not American allies and others in the world wanted. In those days, America and Russia were bickering each other, regarding missile defense system deployment in Eastern Europe, the election in Ukraine, and the conflict in Georgia. Clearly, she failed to share understanding and awareness with foreign policy makers in the United States and allies.

In view of these examples, Japanese politicians and opinion leaders should exonerate themselves from an inferiority complex about English. It is already the 21st century, and we have to evolve from the mindset of the 1970s and the 1980s. Nevertheless, we do not have to worry about it so much. On daily job, American and European leaders are also preoccupied with domestic affairs, as typically seen in the case of Palin. However, a substantial portion of G7 agendas, such as development, empowerment, public health, and so forth, are strongly related to the quality of life of individual citizens, rather than state-to-state relations. Therefore, Suga, or any other Japanese prime minister, would be able to behave a little more confidently, if he or she could interrelate daily domestic affairs to global agendas. Finally, it is a pity that Mori failed to utilize his skill of managing domestic issues in his family for the global public interest.

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