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It is late on a wintry afternoon in Tokyo and Yasuhisa Kawamura, the press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is holding his first news conference. Kawamura took up his post only four days earlier but he has had to learn quickly. There is a crisis to be dealt with: Isis is threatening to kill another Japanese national and the 24-hour deadline is fast approaching. Foreign minister Fumio Kishida has sent a top Japanese envoy to Amman to confer with Jordanian officials. “In this very tough situation Japan continues to press for Jordan’s co-operation,” Kawamura tells a roomful of reporters. Rarely have Japan’s diplomatic corps been the focus of so much of the world’s attention. This is probably not what prime minister Shinzo Abe had in mind when he laid out his plan for a “proactive peace diplomacy” two years ago. What’s clear is that Abe wants Japan to step into a bigger role on the global stage. He has personally led the effort, keeping up a frantic travel schedule to more countries than any other Japanese leader.

The globetrotting is partly driven by concerns over China’s rise and North Korea’s sabre-rattling but also by Japan’s longstanding desire to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. “The security environment has changed: the international community is going through considerable transformation,” says Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute in Tokyo and a former high-ranking Japanese diplomat. “Japan needs to adjust to this.”

Fleshing out the details of Abe’s new direction falls on the 5,000 people who work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The heart of the operation, in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district, is an eight-storey building as big as a city block that dates back a few decades. Nobody seems to know who designed it, when it was built or when the bamboo garden and raked pebbles were added to the inner courtyard. The building’s interior is spartan to the extreme: grey walls, grey carpets, grey polished linoleum floors, grey desks. Hallways are dark with many lights switched off to save energy. There’s no art on display, no designer furniture. Even ambassadors who have returned to a post in Tokyo from the 139 embassies and eight permanent missions overseas occupy modestly appointed offices. To a visitor, these surroundings can make the work of Japanese diplomats seem extraordinarily unglamorous. The ministry would argue that it prefers to spend its budget of ¥685bn (€5.1bn) on policymaking, not gloss.

Until Isis entered the picture, the ministry’s top priority was China. For two years, ties between Tokyo and Beijing have been frosty. The region’s two biggest economies are close trading partners and fierce political rivals. China’s big increases in defence spending and the cat-and-mouse game since 2008 between the two sides’ ships and jets near the Senkaku Islands – a chain of uninhabited rocks that Japan controls in the East China Sea – have been a wake-up call for Tokyo. For the first time since the Second World War, Japanese officials have been faced with the very real possibility of an invasion by a foreign power.

Nobody at the ministry will say this openly though. The official line is that Tokyo considers China’s expansionist moves as a concern but not a threat. To keep a rising China at bay, Japan is throwing around its weight in the region, offering generous aid packages for Southeast Asian nations and selling used Japan Coast Guard ships to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. “The entire foreign ministry is doing some China-related work,” says Shunichi Inoue, the 37-year-old deputy director for China and Mongolia policy.

Inoue isn’t a career China expert as you might expect. His contacts from spending years in London are mainly with western allies but those are just as important in formulating a response to Beijing. Since joining the department last summer, his project has been to bring Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping together. It took four months of behind-the-scenes talks to arrange the one-on-one between Abe and Xi last November on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting in Beijing; the first since the leaders have been in office. “I had to spend my weekends secretly going to China, avoiding the press and my Chinese counterparts came here as well” says Inoue, touching his jacket and tie. “We didn’t want to be noticed. It was a rule that we shouldn’t dress like this during negotiations.”

By early January, Japanese and Chinese defence officials were in Tokyo exploring a possible hotline and a code of conduct that would help prevent an isolated clash from escalating. The day after Inoue spoke to Monocle he was off to attend a gathering in Yokohama for diplomats, defence specialists, coastguard and fisheries officials from both countries. “At this point, meeting for the sake of meeting has meaning because we exchange views face to face and eat and drink saké for two nights,” he says. It’s a classic bit of confidence-building that could pay off in the long run.

In Japan’s foreign-policy circles there is a sense that the nation has been too eager to defer to its closest ally, the US, and too quick to invoke strict pacifism despite threats on its own doorstep. Under Abe, the old rules are being rewritten. The government has loosened constitutional constraints on sending Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Forces, overseas for anything other than humanitarian relief and road building. And in a few months he is expected to push for changes allowing troops to defend themselves and allies under fire in what’s known as collective self-defence. Allies have applauded the moves. Not so much China or South Korea, which have criticised Tokyo for whitewashing its wartime past and remain wary of its intentions. “The way the media can write about what’s going on in Japan can make it feel as if this is a sudden swing,” says a Western diplomat in Tokyo. “But these are just incremental first steps.”

On the other side of the globe, Toshihiro Kitamura has been working another angle. The director for the ministry’s western Europe division is just back from London, where British and Japanese defence and foreign ministers staged a landmark meeting. The two sides are forging links between their armed forces and collaborating on target-tracking technology for air-to-air missiles less than a year after Japan relaxed its decades-old ban on weapons exports. The deal-making came about after Abe met with prime minister David Cameron in London last May.

Kitamura is quick to point out that British officials endorse the peace-promoting nature of Japan’s foreign policy. “Some countries have doubts about our new orientation. It’s no secret we’re talking about China, South Korea and North Korea,” he says. “They say these are the first steps on the path to militarism. In order to make these countries understand that’s not the case we need evidence that the international community, including the UK, fully supports and has no doubts about our new initiative.” It’s not always immediately obvious how the pieces of Japan’s diplomacy all fit together. Toshihiko Horiuchi, a soft-spoken veteran diplomat of 25 years, cites noblesse oblige as the driving force behind increasing ties with Africa. “Those who are fortunate should help those who are less fortunate,” he says.

Having done stints serving his country at embassies in Senegal, Zambia and Cambodia, 48-year-old Horiuchi now heads a division whose remit spans more than 30 nations in western and central Africa. Building roads and schools and stemming the Ebola outbreak are the priorities, he says. These days it’s also about opening doors for Japanese companies to do business in Africa, where Chinese companies are making inroads. “From an economic point of view the region enjoying the highest rate of growth is Africa,” he says.

There are political considerations, too. Having friends in Africa won’t hurt Japan’s push alongside other members of the G4 nations grouping – Germany, India and Brazil – for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. “There are 54 countries in Africa, one quarter of the world’s countries,” says Horiuchi.

Soft-power initiatives are the part of Abe’s diplomacy that are still getting ironed out. There’s a big push to extend aid to encourage countries such as Bolivia and Nepal in order to restore their Unesco World Heritage sites says Masashi Takahashi, whose Multilateral Cultural Co-operation Division deals with Unesco. For the first time in more than four decades Japan will endow a multi-million-dollar university post at Columbia University in New York. The foreign ministry’s budget for the next fiscal year sets aside funds for three new Japan houses in Los Angeles, London and São Paulo that would host cultural and technology exhibitions.

At times the PR push has been counterproductive. In December, Japanese diplomats petitioned US textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Education to make changes to a high-school history textbook describing how Asian women were coerced into working at wartime brothels run by the Japanese military decades ago. It was a reminder that Japan has been its own worst enemy when trying to move the dialogue beyond its wartime aggression. That’s gradually changing with a new generation of diplomats who recognise their shortcomings.

“Our colleagues from other countries are good at presenting their interests and culture,” says Takahashi. “Japanese diplomats are good at listening but we also need to focus on expressing our own opinions. We should talk more about ourselves, our country, our culture, our history.”

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