Japan's Delicate Balance: Western Allies, Russia

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`HOW far we are from Europe!" a character muses in Tolstoy's play "The Powers of Darkness."

To Western-minded Russians of the 19th century, life under a ruler who called himself "Autocrat of all the Russias" seemed unbearably stifling, a legacy of medieval Mongol domination that cut the country off from its European roots and denied its people the liberating, enriching experiences of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

This week, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin came to Munich to join leaders of the seven richest Western democracies at their annual summit. He's not yet a member of the club, but he represents a people who at long last have been freed from autocracy, whether of the czarist or of the Stalinist variety, and have plunged into the confusing, frightening, exhilarating experiment of democracy and a market economy.

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I spoke of the seven richest "Western" democracies, but one of them actually is geographically much further east than Russia. That country is, of course, Japan. (The others are Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and the United States. Collectively, these seven are often known as the Group of Seven, or G-7.)

Politically and economically, Asian Japan is part of the Western lineup, a concept dating back to the days when the communists were the "East," and their democratic opponents the "West."

Japan has been "Western" since defeat in World War II, when it forsook militarism and autocracy and, under American tutelage, adopted the institutions and practices of democracy - universal suffrage, a free press, individual rights.

Some people question whether Japanese democracy is genuine, whether Japanese capitalism is not a monstrous perversion of the spirit of free enterprise. Even more than in Russia's case, they note that Japan has experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation, to say nothing of the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian heritage.

Yet the difference between prewar and postwar Japan is as clear and sharp as between night and day. There would have been no Sony or Honda in prewar Japan, no middle-classization of society. Without the energies released by postwar freedoms, neither bureaucrats nor business leaders could have orchestrated Japan's climb into economic superpowerdom.

It's ironic, therefore, that among the Munich summiteers, Japan is widely perceived as the most reluctant to open the club to Moscow.

As an economic superpower, Japan has participated in G-7 economic aid packages for Russia, but it shares some of its partners' fears about Mr. Yeltsin's stability and about how useful money alone can be, given the chaotic state of Russia's economy.

A more important factor is Tokyo's territorial claim on four islands off Hokkaido seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

As long as the cold war continued, Japan got general Western support for this claim, even though Europeans who had lost far more territory to Moscow than Japan - Germany or Poland, for instance - accepted the permanence of post-World War II boundaries.

But today, when the Western nations as a whole, including Japan, are critically interested in the question of what it will take to ensure the solidification of democracy and a market economy in Russia, Tokyo seems out of step in pressing its territorial claims.

No G-7 member says these claims are unjustified. But there's a strong feeling that Tokyo's priorities are wrong, that the return of four small islands with a total population under 20,000 should not take precedence over preventing the collapse of the Russian economy and the survival of the democratic experiment.

Yeltsin is coming to Tokyo in September to discuss the territorial issue, and his sharp rejoinder to Japanese efforts to involve the G-7 was that this is purely a bilateral matter.

Indeed, it would seem that, in an age of dangerously rising nationalisms all around the vast perimeter of the former Soviet Union, the more Japan tries to enlist its partners on its behalf, the greater the risk of rousing or exacerbating other territorial demons.

So then, what are the Japanese to do. Give up their claims? No, but surely Tokyo can see that a common appreciation and enjoyment of what used to be called "Western values" - democracy, individual rights, economic freedoms - is a far better basis for a mutually beneficial relationship with a close geographic neighbor than dealing with an autocratic non-Western regime as it did for so many years - even if this means some delay in settling emotion-rousing territorial issues.

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