Can Abe tap into Japan’s Olympic unity?
September 24th, 2013
09:20 AM ET

Can Abe tap into Japan’s Olympic unity?

By Takanori Sonoda, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Takanori “Tak” Sonoda is a senior fellow at the Mansfield Foundation.  He was previously a vice president of government relations for Honda North America based in the company’s Washington, D.C., office. The views expressed are his own.

Japan got a shot in the arm when it was chosen earlier this month to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, a decision that allows the Japanese people for the first time in decades to coalesce around a common national goal, namely the successful execution of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But while broadly welcomed, the announcement also highlighted a number of major challenges facing Japan’s government.

For a start, there is now even greater pressure on the government to bring an end to the leakage of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that the Fukushima situation was under control. But reports suggest that at least 300 tons of contaminated water has leaked into the sea from the crippled nuclear power plant site. Indeed, last month, the seriousness of the water leak was raised to a level 3 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), indicating a “serious incident.”  Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, has for its part repeatedly failed to provide the public with accurate information on the situation.

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Is Japan really back?
September 23rd, 2013
09:57 AM ET

Is Japan really back?

By Victor Cha, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, senior adviser for Asia at CSIS in Washington D.C., and author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. The views expressed are his own.

In August 1964, a nineteen-year-old track athlete ascended the long flight of stairs to light the stadium flame that would signal the start of the Olympic Games. The young man, Yoshinori Sakai, was born the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. There could not have been a more powerful way to demonstrate how the Tokyo Olympics marked the death of wartime Japan, and the re-birth and re-emergence of the country on the international stage as an advanced industrial democracy.

Japan’s hosting of the 2020 Summer Olympics will be no less significant. In 1964, Tokyo stood as the first Asian site in the Olympic era. While many Olympics have since come to Asia (Sapporo, Japan in 1972, Nagano, Japan in 1998, Seoul in 1988, Beijing in 2008, Pyeongchang, Korea in 2018) it will have become the first Asian city to host the mega-event for a second time.

While offering the Olympics to a young, vibrant Muslim country for the first time (Turkey) would have been cool, the International Olympic Selection Committee’s choice of Tokyo seemed well-advised.   Japan’s technical bid was the strongest and the most realistically priced (at $6 billion to $8 billion, versus Turkey at an extravagant $19 billion and Madrid at a paltry $2 billion). Experience was on Japan’s side, having hosted three previous Winter and Summer Olympics.  Tokyo also offered a stable political environment, compared with Istanbul, for example, which borders the conflict in Syria. And, unlike the other two, Japanese world class athletes had not suffered from recent doping scandals.

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Topics: Japan • Sports
Why Fukushima is worse than you think
August 30th, 2013
09:02 AM ET

Why Fukushima is worse than you think

By Mycle Schneider, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Mycle Schneider is an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy based in Paris. He is the coordinator and lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. The views expressed are his own.

“Careless” was how Toyoshi Fuketa, commissioner of the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority, reportedly described the inspection quality of hundreds of water tanks at the crippled Fukushima plant following the recent discovery of a serious radioactive spill. China’s Foreign Ministry went further, saying it was “shocking” that radioactive water was still leaking into the Pacific Ocean two years after the Fukushima incident.

Both comments are to the point, and although many inside and outside Japan surely did not realize how bad the March 11, 2011 disaster was – and how bad it could get – it seems clear now that we have been misled about the scale of the problem confronting Japan. The country needs international help – and quickly.

While the amount of radioactivity released into the environment in March 2011 has been estimated as between 10 percent and 50 percent of the fallout from the Chernobyl accident, the 400,000 tons of contaminated water stored on the Fukushima site contain more than 2.5 times the amount of radioactive cesium dispersed during the 1986 catastrophe in Ukraine.

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Topics: Japan • Nuclear
No, Abe's Japan isn't a threat
August 14th, 2013
10:42 AM ET

No, Abe's Japan isn't a threat

By Jeffrey W. Hornung, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

The anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, which falls today, has increased the focus on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with many wondering how he will commemorate the event. Such attention is not new. Since becoming premier in December, the dominate narrative is that Abe, a nationalist who is jerking Japan dangerously to the right, is pursuing an agenda that will result in relaxed rules on Japan’s military, thereby destroying the pacifist principles embedded in its constitution and angering those countries Japan invaded or colonized during World War II. Now that Abe’s party and his allies control both houses of parliament, Abe is free to reveal his true self and unleash this agenda.

But this is a simplistic caricature of Abe and his policy agenda.

Whether it is Abe’s desire to revise and reinterpret Japan’s constitution or make changes to Japan’s military, his actions are consistently interpreted as leading Japan away from its postwar pacifism. In fact, while Abe is pursuing several significant changes in Japan, the truth of his agenda is often distorted or completely lost by the nationalist narrative. While Abe’s personal views on Japan’s role in World War II are questionable, the policies he is pursuing do not lead to the militaristic slippery slope his critics fear.

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Is Abe ready for Japanese expectations?
July 19th, 2013
06:40 AM ET

Is Abe ready for Japanese expectations?

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of the global economic attitudes project at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

Japanese voters head to the polls on Sunday to elect half of the members of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s Diet, the national legislature. The ballot is shaping up as a referendum on the seven-month tenure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government.

Abe is riding high in the polls, and pre-election public opinion surveys show the ruling Liberal Democratic Party prevailing in the upper house vote. Victory will enable the prime minister to pursue his domestic economic reform agenda, dubbed Abenomics, which entails monetary and fiscal stimulus and regulatory reform to improve Japan’s competitiveness.

But an LDP victory would also bring high expectations. After more than two decades of economic turmoil and political transition in Japan, the public’s mood is on the upswing. Satisfaction with Japan’s direction is at its highest level since the Pew Research Center began regular surveys of the country in 2002. Economic sentiment in Japan, for example, has improved 20 percentage points in just the last year, while optimism about the nation’s economic trajectory over the next 12 months is second only to that found in the United States among publics in advanced economies. This may help explain why about seven-in-ten Japanese have a favorable opinion of Abe.

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Topics: Elections • Japan
How to revive Japan
June 24th, 2013
11:05 AM ET

How to revive Japan

By Fareed Zakaria

The G-8 summit was meant to be Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's moment. Under his leadership, the land of the rising sun seemed ready to rise again, ready to breakout after twenty years of stagnation. The stock market rose nearly 40 percent in his first five months in office, businesses in Japan were talking about expansion for the first time in decades, and Tokyo's property market, long moribund, was stirring to life.

It is all part of Abe's bold break with the failed policies of the past. Past Japanese politicians had danced around the country's problems. Now here was someone to take them on. But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Japan's stock market began falling sharply, businesses pulled back and serious observers wondered if this was one more false start in Tokyo.

So, what's going on?

In launching his term in office, Abe had announced that he would fire three arrows to revive the Japanese economy. The first was a more expansionist monetary policy – buying tens of billions of dollars of Japanese bonds each month, to try to move from inflation to inflation...taking a cue from policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke. The second arrow was fiscal expansion – a $116 billion stimulus plan.

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Topics: Economy • Japan • What in the World?
No, Japan’s defense plans aren’t scary
June 11th, 2013
07:45 AM ET

No, Japan’s defense plans aren’t scary

By James Holmes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: James Holmes is professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, and writes at The Diplomat. The views expressed here are his alone.

From the mouths of students comes wisdom. Of Imperial Japan and its depredations, a former student wisecracks: before there was Pokémon, there was Hegemon. This jest should be the watchword for Japanese diplomacy as Tokyo explains its move to a more offensive-seeming military strategy, and its acquisition of more offensive-looking weaponry, to Asian peoples mindful of its imperial forerunner's transgressions. What Japan appears to be doing – amassing the wherewithal to strike back at missile launchers and other enemy sites after riding out an initial assault – makes eminent operational and tactical sense. Convincing foreign audiences of that will be the hard part.

The image republican Japan projects of itself – one of a strictly defensive great power, intent only on keeping what now belongs to it – is something that demands constant upkeep. This is the bequest, and the burden, of the past for contemporary Japan. It will take a convincing, long-term, oft-repeated message to banish lingering memories of Hegemon from discussion of Japanese foreign policy and strategy.

The problem before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his lieutenants is that debates over the offensive or defensive character of a nation's strategy take place on multiple levels.  What seems commonsensical on one level may prove controversial or even self-defeating on another.

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Abe's unhelpful historical interventions
May 27th, 2013
09:46 AM ET

Abe's unhelpful historical interventions

By J. Berkshire Miller, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum. The views expressed are his own.

“Japan is back,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced to a packed room at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington back in February. The remarks came during his first visit to the United States since he returned to power in a landslide election in December. But while Abe’s aggressive stimulus policies have sent his approval ratings soaring at home, Japan’s neighbors have been watching much more warily.

Abe, regarded by supporters as a pragmatist, but as a dangerous nationalist by many Chinese and South Koreans especially, is no doubt aware of the trepidation his return to office has engendered in East Asia. Indeed, he took the opportunity during his CSIS speech to temper fears that his hawkish campaign statements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with China would be put into action, declaring “I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder.”

Yet despite the soothing words, a series of clumsy remarks over the past few months – and a botched effort at handling the controversial Yasukuni Shrine issue – have eroded much of any benefit of the doubt Abe may have enjoyed on coming to office.

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What Japanese and Americans think about each other
March 20th, 2013
07:53 AM ET

What Japanese and Americans think about each other

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

What a difference a generation makes! Japan’s decision to join negotiations to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership with the United States and other Pacific nations reflects, in part, the sea change in public opinion that has transformed U.S.-Japan relations. A quarter of a century ago, ties between Washington and Tokyo were characterized by public distrust and animosity. Today, there is support for deeper integration of the two economies through greater trade. The upcoming TPP negotiations will be contentious. But the political context in which these talks will take place is far more supportive than ever before.

In the last few decades, despite periodic trade tensions, Americans have generally held a favorable overall opinion of Japan. In 1990, near the high point of  the Washington-Tokyo battles over trade in autos, rice and other goods, almost two-thirds of Americans nonetheless thought well of Japan, according to a survey by the Times Mirror Corporation. By 2009, 67 percent of Americans still felt favorably disposed toward Japan, according to the Pew Research Center.

But trade relations have long been a neuralgic irritant in bilateral relations. In 1989, 63 percent of Americans believed Japan practiced unfair trade, while a little more than half wanted to increase tariffs on products imported from Japan. In 1995, 61 percent of the American public approved of President Bill Clinton’s decision to impose import duties on imports of luxury Japanese cars.

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Topics: Japan • United States
March 11th, 2013
10:51 AM ET

Why Japan should join the TPP

By Matthew P. Goodman and Michael J. Green, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew P. Goodman and Michael J. Green are based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Both have worked on Asia policy in senior positions at the White House. The views expressed are their own.

Since the first merchant ship of the new American republic set sail from New York for Canton in 1784, trade has been at the heart of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Deepening economic exchange with the world’s most dynamic region has not only promoted American prosperity; it has also been an essential underpinning of the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the region.

This is why President Bush launched the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and why the Obama administration is redoubling its efforts to conclude a TPP agreement by the end of this year as a central part of its “pivot” to Asia. And it is why the administration should welcome Japan, Asia’s second-largest economy and America’s leading ally in the region, into TPP following Tokyo’s historic decision to seek entry into the talks.

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Topics: Economy • Japan
March 3rd, 2013
01:07 AM ET

Should Kerry be visiting China, Japan first?

By Fareed Zakaria

Beijing’s response to the Obama administration’s initial diplomacy was cool, sometimes even combative. Meanwhile in Asia, many of the continent’s other powers had begun worrying about a newly assertive China. From Japan to Vietnam to Singapore, governments in Asia signaled that they would welcome a greater American presence in the region, one that would assure them that Asia was not going to become China’s back yard.

The Obama administration shrewdly responded with its “pivot” in 2011, combining economic, political and military measures, all designed to signal that the United States would strengthen its role in Asia, balancing any potential Chinese hegemony.

The result of the pivot, however, was to further strain relations with Beijing. Today China and the United States maintain mechanisms, such as the strategic and economic dialogue between senior officials, but they are formal and ritualistic. No American and Chinese officials have developed genuinely deep mutual trust.

For more on this, read the Washington Post column here.

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Abe looks to redefine U.S.-Japan ties
February 22nd, 2013
09:09 AM ET

Abe looks to redefine U.S.-Japan ties

By Shihoko Goto, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Shihoko Goto is the Northeast Asia associate for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Asia Program. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

After seven prime ministers in almost as many years, Japan looks like it may have a leader with more staying power. That alone should be enough motivation for President Obama to be fully invested in his meeting on February 22 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, with the growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region – from the East China Sea territorial disputes to the North Korea conundrum – it will be in the United States’ best interests to nurture strong personal ties and build a partnership capable of meeting emerging challenges.

As the United States looks to rebalance its military capabilities towards Asia while grappling with ongoing uncertainties about its longer-term defense budget, Japan has increased its defense budget for the first time in 11 years. Granted, the 0.8 percent increase to $52 billion, with a 1.9 percent rise in the Coast Guard budget, is more symbolic than significant. Yet, the nominal increase signals recognition that Japan must step up efforts to build up its defense capabilities in light of the growing threats from neighboring countries. That, in turn, would dovetail with the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region as it looks to solidify existing alliances not just with Japan, but also with South Korea, Australia and Southeast Asia.

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