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Japan - Foreign Relations

Japan is the world's third-largest economy and a major economic power both in Asia and globally. Japan has diplomatic relations with nearly all independent nations and has been an active member of the United Nations since 1956. Japanese foreign policy has aimed to promote peace and prosperity for the Japanese people by working closely with the West and supporting the United Nations.

In stark contrast to European countries, which managed to achieve post-war reconciliation and harmony based on a universal and unambiguous interpretation of historical events and the willingness of Germany to take responsibility for its Nazi past, the nations of East Asia are still waiting for Japan to fully accept accountability for the tragic events of the past.

Ever since the end of World War II, the issues of repentance and forgiveness remain a source of diplomatic tensions between Japan, China and South Korea, hindering their efforts to establish a trilateral free trade zone. The Chinese government regularly voices criticism of Tokyo’s policies, making use of both the historical memory of the peoples of Asia who do not see Japan in a positive light, and the occasions Japanese politicians themselves provide (like history textbooks distorting or omitting certain events and facts and senior officials visiting a temple honoring war criminals - among others).

On 14 August 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed feelings of “profound grief” and “sincere condolences’ to those who suffered and died from Japan’s past military aggression while making his highly anticipated public statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The prime minister upheld apologies made by his predecessors, including the Murayama Statement in 1995 that apologized for the damage and suffering caused by Japan during World War II, but offered no new apology of his own. The prime minister’s statement did not satisfy Japan’s regional neighbors, especially south Korea and China.

The controversy over the past came as Prime Minister Abe has embarked in efforts to make Japan’s military more proactive by reinterpreting the country’s postwar pacifist constitution. New security measures being considered in the Japanese parliament would give the military more latitude to defend its people and interests, to participate in collective self-defense and defend allies like the United States.

While maintaining its relationship with the United States, Japan has diversified and expanded its ties with other nations. Good relations with its neighbors continue to be of vital interest. After the signing of a peace and friendship treaty with China in 1978, ties between the two countries developed rapidly. Japan extended significant economic assistance to the Chinese in various modernization projects and supported Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Chinese President Hu Jintao's May 2008 visit to Tokyo, and subsequent high-level exchanges, helped improve relations with China.

In recent years, however, Chinese exploitation of gas fields in the East China Sea has raised Japanese concerns given disagreement over the demarcation of their maritime boundaries. A long-running boundary dispute among Japan, China, and Taiwan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu Tai) Islands also continues. After a Chinese trawler collided with a Japanese ship in September 2010, Japan detained the Chinese skipper for more than 2 weeks, causing a strain in Japan-China relations. Japan maintains economic and cultural but not diplomatic relations with Taiwan; they have a thriving bilateral trade relationship.

A surprise visit by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang, North Korea on September 17, 2002, resulted in renewed discussions on contentious bilateral issues--especially Japanese citizens' abductions to North Korea--and Japan's agreement to resume normalization talks in the near future. In October 2002, five abductees returned to Japan, but soon after negotiations reached a stalemate over the fate of abductees' families in North Korea. Japan's economic and commercial ties with North Korea plummeted following Kim Jong-il's 2002 admission that D.P.R.K. agents abducted Japanese citizens.

Japan strongly supported the United States in its efforts to encourage Pyongyang to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2006, Japan responded to North Korea's July missile launches and October nuclear test by imposing sanctions and working with the United Nations Security Council. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea closely coordinate and consult trilaterally on policy toward North Korea, and Japan participates in the Six-Party Talks to end North Korea's nuclear arms ambitions. Japan and North Korea reached an agreement in August 2008 in which Pyongyang promised to reinvestigate abduction cases. However, the D.P.R.K. has failed to implement the agreement. Continued North Korean missile tests and bellicose language is viewed with serious concern in Japan.

In recent years, Japan and the Republic of Korea have stepped up high-level diplomatic activity and coordination, resulting in an improved tone in their relationship. However, historical differences, including territorial disputes involving the Liancourt Rocks and Japan’s role in Korea during World War II, complicate Japan's political relations with South Korea despite growing economic and cultural ties.

Japan's relations with Russia are hampered by the two sides' inability to resolve their territorial dispute over the islands that make up the Northern Territories (Southern Kuriles) seized by the U.S.S.R. at the end of World War II. The stalemate over territorial issues has prevented conclusion of a peace treaty formally ending the war between Japan and Russia. The United States recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the islands. During his initial meeting with Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev in September 2009, DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama said he wanted to resolve the issue and sign a peace treaty, but it has not come to fruition. This remains the position of the DPJ government. Despite the lack of progress in resolving the Northern Territories and other disputes, Japan and Russia continue to develop other aspects of the overall relationship, including two large, multi-billion dollar oil-natural gas consortium projects on Sakhalin Island.

Japan has pursued a more active foreign policy in recent years, recognizing the responsibility that accompanies its economic strength, and has expanded ties with the Middle East, which provides most of its oil. In 2006, Japan's Ground Self Defense Force completed a successful 2-year mission in Iraq. The Air Self-Defense Force's (ASDF) airlift support mission in Iraq formally ended in December 2008. In January 2010, the Diet also ended the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law that allowed for Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force refueling activities in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in the Indian Ocean. Since 2009, Japan has been an active partner in international counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa.

Japan increasingly is active in Africa and Latin America--concluding negotiations with Mexico, Chile, and Peru on Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs)--and has extended significant support to development projects in both regions. Japan's economic engagement with its neighbors is increasing, as evidenced by the conclusion of EPAs with Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, and India.

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Page last modified: 06-06-2021 18:22:01 ZULU