The Contradictions of “Protest Diplomacy” in East Asia


The Takeshima dispute and the question of Japanese apologies for colonial rule have led to renewed political and diplomatic friction between Japan and South Korea recently. There are also serious problems in the relationship between Japan and China, where domestic interests in both countries have turned the dispute over ownership of the Senkaku Islands into a knotty political mess.

Severing Communications as a Form of Protest

Territorial disputes and differing views of history can easily stoke nationalist sentiment. Because of this, there is a tendency to prioritize the short-term interests of domestic politics over long-term diplomatic strategy. All too often, the result is that diplomacy descends into tit-for-tat protests and recriminations, leading to injured feelings on both sides. This tendency has again been in evidence in Japan’s recent relations with both South Korea and China.

A particularly alarming aspect of this trend has been the readiness of political leaders to take aggressive steps such as cancelling visits by VIPs, refusing to hold meetings, and calling off scheduled cultural exchange events. Essentially, governments have sought to express their protest and displeasure by breaking off communications. One might say that they have communicated their political grievances by severing communications.

But the effects of this “protest diplomacy” go beyond politicians and senior government officials, and it is not only important diplomatic meetings and visits that have been affected. Cultural events have also been cancelled or postponed, and there have even been several boycotts of sporting events.

Politics Must Not Affect Arts and Sports

There are serious risks involved when political and diplomatic frictions start to affect cultural exchange and sporting events in this way. Surely no one wants to see political problems spill over to the arts and sports. These things exist for their own sake; it is the artistic expression or the sporting feat itself that gives these activities their meaning and value. They represent contributions to the shared goals of all humanity, rather than any narrow-minded pursuit of national interests.

Globalization has made this truth clearer than ever. As the globalization process continues, it is artists and athletes who are leading the way in working across national borders—even more so than business people and corporations. They perform not as representatives of a particular country but as global talent, and enjoy their success in that context. To throw the constraining net of “protest diplomacy” over these people, who might otherwise enjoy a global stage for their talents, and to attempt to limit their activities by cancelling or boycotting events, is a self-defeating and contradictory stance to take in a globalized world.

Unlike culture and sports, which have the power to cross national borders, “protest diplomacy” is by its nature hemmed in by national borders and constrained by parochial political interests. We must ensure at all costs that politics is not allowed to infringe on the cultural and sporting sphere.

There are many problems on which political leaders in East Asia struggle to see eye-to-eye. But on this point at the very least, they should be able to come to a basic political consensus.

(Originally written in Japanese on October 31, 2012.)

Japan China politics Ogoura Kazuo culture arts sports Takeshima Senkaku