Pygmies and monsters
The author is a rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Yukio Edano, head of Japan’s main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, pleaded for support for the united opposition to pass a verdict on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for “neglecting the people” in a campaign rally at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station over the weekend. The campaign rhetoric sounded overly civil and calm to me, being used to the harsh and spiteful language of Korean politicians. Of course, the benefit goes to the LDP. The odds of the opposition winning governing power in a lower-house election on Sunday are nearly zero. Japanese politics has remained predictable.
Partly owing to a weak opposition, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shows little sign of apprehension, or the need to do anything novel to appeal for votes. Kishida’s three-week-old government is not much different from the times of Shinzo Abe. Kishida faithfully upholds Abe’s legacy of appreciating the United States while being strict with China. There is no Kishida vision on foreign affairs. Some mockingly call his government “Abeshida, a hybrid of Abe and Kishida.
Such sneers at the LDP trace back 40 years when Yasuhiro Nakasone came to power. The head of a minority faction in the ruling party became the prime minister through the backing of kingmaker Kakuei Tanaka, who commanded the majority faction of the LDP. Nakasone’s cabinet was so stuffed with people from the Tanaka cabinet that it was dubbed the “Tanakasone” cabinet.
But Nakasone bided his time and eventually separated himself from Tanaka and began to speak in his own voice. While upholding ties with the U.S., he emphasized Japan could not exist without amicable relations with other Asian countries. Nakasone also tried to improve ties with South Korea. That was possible because he had vision based on a knowledge of history. He stayed resolute. When Yasutaka Nakasone paid a visit to his ailing 101-year-old grandfather upon winning a seat in the lower house in 2017, Nakasone had simple advice: “Learn history.”
Whether Kishida could one day find his own feet as Nakasone did cannot be known. No Japanese prime minister since Nakasone were terribly engaging to others beyond the U.S. They were high-handed, shrugging off any offer from other nations and never attempting an overture first. They would only return a ball when it came into their court. Such a reactive approach to foreign affairs is partly the result of the mass production of small-minded and self-conscious politicians following the electoral change to a single-member district system. Sei Shonagon, the great writer of Japan’s Heian period (794 -1185), said, “All things small are beautiful” to describe Japan’s penchant for details. Whatever it may be, Japan’s diplomacy has become mundane and petty without any integrity or magnanimousness.
According to an episode I heard from a source in Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked a senior Japanese official during a private conversation why Japan, with its greater economic power, would not concede on the wartime labor compensation issue to resolve the conflict with South Korea. The Japanese official snapped back, saying South Korea was richer in terms of purchasing power. As Blinken pushed on, reminding him that Japan as a G7 member nation had greater experience in world affairs than South Korea, the Japanese official said, “We don’t think so.”
But South Korea is not at as big as Japan thinks. The language coming out of presidential candidates’ mouths is depressingly vulgar. Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, a leading candidate from the main opposition, seems to make a slip of the tongue nearly every day. Former Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate for the ruling party, is as light as a feather in his behavior and rhetoric. There is little sense of historical awareness, dignity, a respect for others.
They compete to describe over how poor they were when they grew up and threaten to send rivals to prison. They lash out with whatever spitefulness comes into their heads in hopes to hurt their opponent. They are like the monstrous players of “Squid Game,” who must kill others to survive. If Koreans can still hold dignity and become world-class citizens under such substandard leaders, it could be a miracle. The two neighboring countries have at least one thing in common: little luck with their leaders.