Monday, June 23, 2008

On the national interest

In the 20 June edition of his column in Yukan Fuji, an evening newspaper, Nakagawa Shoichi tackled recent developments in Japan's relations with its neighbors.

Not surprisingly, he wrote that the government should be taking a harder line in negotiations with North Korea over the abductee problem, China over East China Sea gas rights, and Taiwan over possession of the Senkakus.

What is of interest is how he advanced these positions. In discussing the negotiations with China over the East China Sea gas fields, Mr. Nakagawa emphasized the importance of defending the national interest. "When I was METI minister, I gave prospecting rights in the East China Sea to Japan's private oil companies," he said. "The government, in order to defend the national interest, should support this prospecting work." (国益, こくえき, national interest.)

The "national interest" is a popular term not just among Japan's conservatives, but among Japanese intellectuals at large. As Japan struggles to find its place in a changing world, this phrase is used to justify any number of foreign policies. But it is rare that the people using the phrase define exactly what it means. It is often used as a bludgeon; when the speaker or writer uses the phrase to describe a policy he or she is advocating, the implication is usually that anyone who disagrees with said policy is acting against the national interest and thus betraying Japan. After all, who could be against the national interest?

The national interest, however, is not a given. As Ishizuka Masahiko argued in Nikkei Weekly in April, it is not exactly clear what the "national interest" means. Mr. Ishizuka was addressing comments by Komori Shigetaka, chairman of NHK's board of governors, in which Mr. Komori suggested that NHK programs "targeted at audiences outside the country should be more assertive about 'Japan's national interest' on issues where the Japanese point of view differs from that of other nations." In response, Mr. Ishizuka wrote, "The source of the controversy arising from Komori's remark seems to be that what exactly dictates "national interest" as he calls it is not clear at all, and it tends to be identified with the establishment to which he obviously is considered to belong. Making the issue more complicated is that national interest and its perception can change from issue to issue." He goes on to argue that Japan will be best served by emphasizing the multiplicity of voices within Japan — in short, that there is no single national interest for NHK to beam abroad.

The phrase "national interest" is (or should be) the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one. An example of the former usage is US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's essay in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled "Rethinking the National Interest." The first sentence of Ms. Rice's essay poses the question, "What is the national interest?" She spends the rest of the essay trying to answer it. Not only does she try to posit a definition of the national interest, she also considers whether the US has the means to defend its national interests. I have yet to see a Japanese policymaker or commentator make a similar argument for Japan, clearly articulating not only what Japan's national interests are, but, more importantly, listing them in descending order of priority and explaining what means Japan needs to secure them (or what it needs to do domestically to ensure it has to wherewithal to secure designated national interests).

I am in full agreement that Japan needs to give more thought to its national interests, but simply repeating the phrase does not equal giving the matter more thought. The way it is used now stifles rather than encourages a debate to define Japan's national interests.

1 comment:

Noah said...

"He goes on to argue that Japan will be best served by emphasizing the multiplicity of voices within Japan"

To me, this seems like the single most important idea that the Japanese political system, media, and civil society need to embrace in order to function properly. In the U.S. we take it for granted that there are a multiplicity of viewpoints within the country, but it seems like Japanese people often mistakenly assume that Japanese opinion is unified (even when the various people making that assumption are on opposite sides of an issue!).

All too often, as Ishizuka points out, this faulty assumption of consensus is simply used by establishment elites to enrich and empower themselves ("Japanese national interest is monolithic, and I represent Japanese national interest, so give me money and power"). Of course, this can happen in America too, but it seems like more people buy this line in Japan.

If the DPJ is going to convince Japanese voters to switch parties, it has to also convince those voters that it's OK to disagree with ruling elites.