[Viewpoint] Bracing for a new Northeast Asia

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[Viewpoint] Bracing for a new Northeast Asia

The statistics bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is conducting a national census in the country. Japan compiles population data every five years, and the current effort marks the nation’s 19th census.

The government has launched a large-scale promotional campaign this time around, as it is the first census since the country’s population began to decline.

A Japanese daily newspaper recently examined the changes in the national census over the years, focusing on how the government’s slogans for each effort reflect the social landscape of the time.

This year’s slogan, which revolves around the idea that the census is a “self-portrait of Japan that all the people draw together,” illustrates the country’s diminishing power as it grapples with a low birthrate and an aging population.

While the census serves as a way to get a grasp on Japan’s current population dynamics rather than a method for assessing the nation’s vigor, its slogan this year certainly lacks energy and spirit compared with those from the 60s and 70s, when the country underwent a rapid growth spurt.

The slogan for the 1960 census focused on how the effort was the “basis and power behind the development of the nation,” while the theme in 1970 was that the census would “pave the way to the future for 100 million Japanese.”

But we don’t have to dig up dusty old documents about census slogans to see how much things have changed in Japan. It’s evident in so many other ways.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo provided Japan with an opportunity to make a huge leap on the world stage, while the 1980s saw the country’s major corporations begin to dominate global markets. The good times came to a screeching halt in the early 1990s, when the country entered into a prolonged economic slump that continues to this day.

Average wages of workers at private companies have dipped for two years in a row, and the country’s pride took a huge hit when leading Japanese carmaker Toyota announced massive recalls involving millions of vehicles over the past year and found itself exposed to numerous investigations and lawsuits.

Japan suffered another blow this year when China surpassed it to take its spot as the second-largest economy in the world. In the second quarter, China’s gross domestic product amounted to $1.3 trillion, surpassing Japan’s total of $1.2 trillion. Many global corporations moved their regional headquarters out of Tokyo long ago to set up new Asian bases in bustling metropolitan areas in China such as Beijing and Shanghai.

The latest diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, has added to Japan’s woes.

Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat on charges of obstruction of public duty after the vessel collided with two Japanese patrol ships. It then released the captain without even putting him on trial.

Tokyo essentially surrendered to increasingly powerful Beijing.

Russia, of course, fully supported China. But the United States - a traditional ally of Japan - did not criticize China too harshly.

The discord between Tokyo and China triggered by the incident goes far beyond the level of old territorial disputes. It signals that China has begun to pursue a reorganization of the regional order in Northeast Asia in earnest.

After the incident, it began to dawn on Japanese citizens that all the government’s talks about the friendly relationship between Japan and China doesn’t necessarily hold water in reality.

Conservatives have said it is delusional to think that Japan’s relationships with its neighboring countries will improve just because the country’s new prime minister refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Some lawmakers released a statement suggesting a permanent stationing of Japan’s Self Defense Forces in the Senkaku Islands. Such an extreme move might lead to a struggle for regional hegemony.

Japan still is a very powerful and influential country that Korea cannot ignore. But, tucked between two giants, Korea needs to contemplate how it can survive as China and Japan clash. It will be too late if we start planning after the balance of power in the region has already been decided.

*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Park So-young
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