A country where slowness is the virtue
The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.
Kazuko Watanabe, a Catholic nun and one of the most beloved modern writers of Japan, sold more than 3 million copies of her 2012 bestseller “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” Personally, I remember the quote “to place trust 98 percent, not 100 percent, in others even if they are your closest.” The remaining 2 percent is not distrust, but tolerance. The more you trust in others, the more you can get angry when you feel they have betrayed your trust. So, she advises you to leave the 2 percent in your heart to forgive them for later faults.
I feel Japan has taken the sage’s advice in its response to the United States. The U.S. under former president Donald Trump walked out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the two countries had designed, and his successor Joe Biden started an alternative platform, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Tokyo has not protested or criticized the move, but willingly joined it. The 2-percent tolerance on Tokyo’s part could be stronger than the 98 percent trust in Washington.
Last week, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs in the National Security Council — a new role under the Biden presidency — praised Tokyo for its “glue”-like role on the international stage through its initiatives in support of U.S. policies. In fact, Japan appears to be more active and assertive on the global stage than when was an economic superpower in the 1980s. Japan has gained diplomatic power while losing its No. 2 economic rank to China.
Japan’s bigness, however, disappears when it addresses South Korea. The foreign ministry’s press release on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s summit talks at the NATO conference in Madrid is an example. It disclosed Kishida’s exchanges of short greetings with leaders of Slovakia and Australia at the dinner hosted by King Carlos of Spain. The ministry also said the prime minister shared a “very brief” greeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Why it needed to add “very brief” in mentioning his encounter with the South Korean president raises questions about whether Tokyo has any intention of mending ties with Seoul or has any trust or engaging feelings towards South Korea.
We cannot entirely blame Japan for being sensitive towards Korea. Korea’s diplomacy with Japan had hardly been refined. The foreign ministry had been oblivious to a recent maritime survey conducted by the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Agency in waters off the Doko islets under territorial disputes with Japan or a visit to the islands by the former police chief. Government officials scrambled only after Tokyo lodged a public complaint. A joint press conference scheduled to be held after a trilateral summit of the leaders of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan in Madrid was cancelled as Tokyo chose not to believe Seoul’s explanation that it was not aware of the happenings in the East Sea. Whether it be the presidential office or the foreign ministry, Seoul urgently needs to set up a command body on Japanese affairs. Leaving all the sensitive and tricky issues related to Japan in the hands of about 10 officials at the Asia-Pacific division at the foreign ministry and our envoys to Japan cannot be right. Touchy issues can break out between the two countries any time when the judiciary and executive branches take totally incoherent positions on volatile issues on Japan.
Japan is innately slow. It took Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor, 10 years to remove 67 advisory titles, even though he was the eldest of the founding family. South Korea is the opposite and prizes speed. The same applies to its diplomatic relationship. Since the conservative administration under President Yoon Suk-yeol was started in May, Seoul is pushing for fast results in improved relationship. But frustration can only build up in Korea against slow-moving Japan.
Bilateral relationships cannot change dramatically by Seoul’s hastening. There are many in the Japanese government who would shake hands to work on improving ties and later say they must not yield to South Korea. There is no magic solution actually. Both sides must work towards building trust without losing patience. If they do not stop, they would in the end address one another with 98 percent trust and 2 percent tolerance.