Japan hopes that one day soon it will take a permanent seat on the United Nations security council, confirming its position as a true global leader. They are unlikely to be successful because UN security reform is one of those things that is always talked about in diplomatic circles but will never actually go anywhere.
And that’s a good thing. Japan shouldn’t be in such a position of global power because it doesn’t deserve to be. Shinzo Abe may want to have a more active foreign policy but so far he’s done little to suggest that the rest of us are going to like it. Japan is simply too nationalistic, too petty-minded and its diplomats – with some honourable exceptions – too mediocre to be taken seriously. If Japan wants to be a global leader it should start acting like one.
As we report in the new issue of Monocle there are some within the ministry of foreign affairs that are trying to put the nation on a better diplomatic footing, but if anything is going to improve, Japanese politicians will need to change their mindset. They can begin with improving relations with their closest neighbour, which should also be Japan’s closest ally.
The failure of Japan and South Korea to become true allies is a disgrace. They are two of the world’s wealthiest nations, both democracies, both with designs on growing their international influence. Yet despite officially re-establishing relations 50 years ago, the two nations simply don’t get on – a recent poll showed South Koreans trust the North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un more than Abe. The shared animosity is self-destructive. Adverts for South Korean companies are rarely seen in Japanese newspapers and vice versa.
The issue of “comfort women” and, as South Korean president Park Geun-hye puts it, Abe’s inability to “break away from denial of the past”, looms large. Abe will have an opportunity to make that leap later this year when the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is commemorated. It is a chance he must be bold enough to take.
For inspiration Japan should cast an eye at Germany. Following the end of the Second World War Germany didn’t just make peace with its former enemies in Europe, it made friends. It grew to become a key player in the European Union and is now the continent’s undisputed leader. It hasn’t been easy. Some in Germany, not to mention many elsewhere in Europe are still uncomfortable with the idea of German leadership, while the country’s military involvement overseas has been limited to peacekeeping activities. But there is a model and Japan should follow it.
A Japan that is friends with its neighbours is a Japan that is ready to be taken seriously on the world stage.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s executive editor.