Behind the New Abe Diplomacy: An Interview with Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shōtarō (Part Two)


In the second half of our interview with Special Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shōtarō, the veteran diplomat speaks out about key foreign-policy challenges facing the Abe cabinet, including controversial plans for the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, resolution of the Northern Territories dispute with Russia, and the negotiation of multiple free trade agreements.

Yachi Shōtarō

Special advisor to the cabinet of Abe Shinzō. Born in 1944. Received his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Law and Politics at the University of Tokyo in 1969. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served as vice-minister for foreign affairs from January 2005 to January 2008. Now teaches at Waseda University, Keiō University, and the University of Tokyo. Began his current position in December 2012.

(Continued from part one.)

Commenting on Japan-Russia relations in the second half of our exclusive interview, Special Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shōtarō called on the government to enter into negotiations regarding the Northern Territories dispute with a determination to resolve the issue once and for all under President Vladimir Putin and stressed the need to keep a broad range of options on the table. Speaking to Putin’s suggestion that the issue could be resolved with an agreement resembling a hikiwake decision (a draw) in jūdō, he urged the Japanese to consider the possibilities for an acceptable hikiwake instead of rejecting the notion of a compromise out of hand. Regarding basic security policy, Yachi emphasized the need for major changes in the National Defense Program Guidelines and for measures that would free Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense under international law.

 Abe’s Post-Election Security Agenda

INTERVIEWER During Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visit to the United States last February, the main focus of the discussions was Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. After winning a concession from Washington on the treatment of farm products in the negotiations, Prime Minister Abe announced that Japan would be joining in the talks. This struck Japanese observers as a big step forward for Japan-US ties after the beating the bilateral relationship had taken during the three years the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. On the other hand, there are still quite a few unresolved issues, including the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. What should be our top priorities for Japan-US relations going forward?

YACHI SHŌTARŌ One is relocation of the Futenma air base, and on that front, the government has filed a landfill permit request with the governor of Okinawa Prefecture to open the way for construction of replacement facilities in Henoko Bay in Nago. Another priority is revising the government’s interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can legally participate in collective self-defense, and I believe the government will lose no time attending to this once the House of Councillors election is over.

A third item is the creation of a national security council to centralize and integrate decision making in foreign affairs and defense policy. The government submitted a set of bills on that during the ordinary session of the Diet that ended June 26, and those bills will carry over, so we can expect action on that front in the upcoming extraordinary session, after the upper house election. This is something the United States is very eager to see happen, although it can’t come out and say so publicly.

Steering to the Right?

INTERVIEWER Around the time Prime Minister Abe visited the United States last February, some American observers expressed concern over Abe’s revisionist views of Japanese history and the possibility that Japan was tilting to the right. A report released in May by the US Congressional Research Service referred to Abe as a “strong nationalist.” These concerns seem to have subsided a bit of late, but they haven’t been completely dispelled.

YACHI Yet, there’s been a lot of talk about Prime Minister Abe’s supposed rightist tendencies, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. But this is a misconception that needs to be corrected. Ever since the end of World War II, Japan’s overall political orientation has been liberal and leftist by international standards, and the Abe cabinet is simply trying to steer it closer to the middle. If exercising the right to collective self-defense and establishing a national security council amount to a rightward tilt, then the United States has been tilting to the right for a long time. And what about South Korea? This is a politically polarizing way of talking about the government’s policy goals.

INTERVIEWER But the Japanese people still don’t have an overall picture of where Japan is heading in terms of security policy. What vision is the Abe cabinet offering for Japanese security?

YACHI This is exactly what the government is working on right now. In addition to setting up a national security council as soon as possible, it intends to draw up a national diplomatic and security strategy in a form that people can understand. Part of this effort is likely to focus on drafting a new edition of the National Defense Program Guidelines. The idea is to draw up a basic framework for the nation’s foreign policy and defense policy with current conditions in mind.

INTERVIEWER Going back to the Futenma base controversy, you say the government has applied to the governor of Okinawa for a landfill permit, but local opposition still raises formidable obstacles to relocation. It’s beginning to look as if the Abe cabinet will be around for a while, but will it be time enough to reach a genuine resolution on this? What could happen to break the impasse?

YACHI I think it will depend in part on the governor’s decision. To be honest, there are no good alternatives to Henoko at this point. If the governor refuses permission, do we just abandon plans to relocate the base? I can’t see that happening. It would be Prime Minister Abe’s call, but at this stage we’re just hoping that the governor issues the official go-ahead.

Resolving the Territorial Dispute under Putin

INTERVIEWER When Abe traveled to Moscow last April, it was the first state visit to Russia by a Japanese prime minister in ten years. Now the bilateral relationship seems to be moving forward again after all these years in suspended animation. But dispute over the Northern Territories is still a big stumbling block to full-scale diplomatic relations. Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about the possibility of a compromise solution, such as the return of two of the four islands. In 2012, Putin used the jūdō term hikiwake [tie] to suggest that the two sides should meet each other halfway.

YACHI I think the results of the House of Councillors election could influence how seriously Moscow approaches the negotiations. My own personal view is that Japan needs to go into the negotiations with a strong determination to settle this issue once and for all while Putin remains president. If Putin broaches the idea of a hikiwake, we shouldn’t reject the idea outright. We should explore the possibilities of a hikiwake in a form that would be acceptable to Japan. No solution is going to win unanimous popular support in either Japan or Russia. An acceptable compromise would be one that a majority in both countries can support. But that will entail a larger agreement embracing cooperation in areas like energy and the environment. Hopefully, people will see it as a win for both sides once all of those elements are taken into account. The key is putting together an agreement that doesn’t give one side a clear victory over the other.

India and the Middle East

INTERVIEWER Let’s turn to South Asia. In late May, Prime Minister Abe received a visit from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

YACHI Yes, and the talks went quite well by all accounts. India is very supportive of Japan, and there are no serious sources of conflict between our two governments. Of course, India is a rising star economically, not far behind China. It’s an extremely important country, and there’s no question we need to strengthen bilateral ties. The government considers India to be a major pillar of its multifaceted strategic diplomacy.

INTERVIEWER A few weeks before that meeting, Prime Minister Abe traveled to the Middle East. I understand that his talks with King Abdullah and Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia were particularly productive, not only in terms of energy issues but also in areas like people-to-people exchange and cooperation on development of nuclear power.

YACHI The Middle East is a region with some serious problems, including Iran and the conflict in Syria, and it has a complex history. It’s not as if Japan is going to walk in there and suddenly make things better. On the other hand, Japan is more or less unencumbered by historical baggage in the Middle East, and it has a very good reputation among many of the region’s countries. It’s time we got more involved. One very important Japanese initiative is the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity,” a joint development project near the Palestinian city of Jericho, involving Japan, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. This is one of a small number of projects in which Israel and Palestine are jointly involved, and if Japan can play an active role in making it a success, the ripple effects could be substantial. I’m hopeful that Prime Minister Abe will throw his support behind it.

A Pivotal Role in Economic Integration

INTERVIEWER Economic diplomacy is a key component of Prime Minister Abe’s plan for revitalizing the Japanese economy, and it seems the prime minister has decided to take on the role of Japan’s sales representative overseas. Can you talk about this strategy?

YACHI The centerpiece is participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Japan is now involved in all of the major multilateral initiatives for economic integration of the Asia-Pacific region, including the TPP, the sixteen-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the proposed trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea. Moreover, Japan is the only nation involved in all of these negotiations, and that gives us a pivotal role in the whole integration process. Of course, trade liberalization poses serious challenges to certain sectors of Japanese industry, especially agriculture, so it will have to be accompanied by adequate measures to cushion the blow. But it’s important that we move proactively if we want to partake in Asia’s economic dynamism.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe is taking a very active role in promoting Japanese infrastructure exports, including nuclear power plants, as he did during his trip to the Middle East. Japan is still the world’s third largest economy, which makes us a force to be reckoned with. And we have all the economic and technological assets built up in the course of forty-three years as the world’s number two economic power. Japanese corporations are sitting on a goldmine, so I would say the fundamentals for economic growth are definitely there.

Europe, Africa, and Beyond

INTERVIEWER What about Europe, which seems to be recovering from the debt crisis of recent years? The prime minister received high marks for the speech he gave in the City of London promoting Abenomics following the Group of Eight Summit in Northern Ireland. Does the administration have any big future plans for European diplomacy?

YACHI After World War II, Japan and the countries of Western Europe were bound by natural ties as democratic nations and members of the non-communist bloc. And Japan has great respect for Europe as the birthplace of democracy. But as Europe’s relative position in the world changes, I think we need to work on developing an equally close but more forward-looking relationship. The Europeans are very hopeful that Abenomics can finally revive the moribund Japanese economy. Now is the time to cultivate deeper ties, both economically and politically.

In June the city of Yokohama hosted the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development [TICAD V], during which Prime Minister Abe conferred with the leaders of thirty-nine African nations. European influence is very strong in Africa, and I think the Europeans would welcome greater involvement by Japan in the region’s economic development. Japan should be coordinating closely with Europe to help Africa meet its great potential.

INTERVIEWER And Latin America? 

YACHI The countries of Latin America are very important to Japan. Mexico, Peru, and Chile are part of the TPP process. But the Abe administration has yet to flesh out the role of Latin American diplomacy in its “global bird’s-eye” foreign policy. Positioning Japan for more active engagement in the region will be a key item on the government’s diplomatic agenda going forward.

Abe’s Diplomatic Travels (January–June 2013)

Dates Destination Highlights
January 16–19 Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia Abe affirms commitment to stronger relations with Southeast Asia in his “five new principles for Japanese diplomacy.”
February 21–24 United States
February 22: Japan-US bilateral summit
Leaders reaffirm commitment to Japan-US alliance and announce a joint statement on the TPP negotiations.
March 30–31 Mongolia Governments affirm “strategic partnership” between Japan and Mongolia.
April 28–May 4 Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey First state visit by Japanese prime minister in 10 years. Abe and Putin issue joint statement on development of bilateral partnership.
Agreement reached to build stronger ties on multiple levels (energy, economic cooperation, security, culture, people-to-people, etc.) between Japan and the three Middle Eastern nations.
May 24–26 Myanmar First state visit by Japanese prime minister in 36 years. Agreement reached on economic aid and stronger bilateral relations.
June 15–20

Poland, United Kingdom, Ireland

June 16: Visegrade Group (V4: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) plus Japan Summit Meeting in Warsaw, Poland

June 17–18: G8 Summit at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland

June 20: Japan-Ireland bilateral summit

Agreement reached on “partnership based on common values for the 21st century” at meeting commemorating 10th anniversary of V4+Japan cooperation.
Prime Minister makes case for “Abenomics.”

(Based on a June 27, 2013, interview in Japanese. Interviewer Harano Jōji is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. Photographs by Hanai Tomoko.)

diplomacy United States India politics Abe Shinzō Russia TPP Europe Okinawa Africa collective self-defense National Security Council Northern Territories Vladimir Putin Israel Middle East Jordan Saudi Arabia Palestine free trade Yachi Shōtarō second Abe cabinet Futenma Air Station Latin America