The Multinational Monitor

November 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 11



As JAPAN TAKES on an increasingly visible and important role in the world economy, its obligations to act within the constraints of internationally-accepted mores will mount; at the same time, its opportunities for advancing the common good will become more significant.

The trick for Japan is to meet both challenges. Japan's potential is great, but its performance has been lacking. Too often in the past, Japan has allowed domestic economic and political factors to stain its international reputation. For example, Japan has failed to demonstrate that the primary goal of its foreign aid program is development, not economic gain for Japanese companies. As Ellen Hosmer notes in her article on aid in this issue, Japan has frequently "tied" development assistance to requirements that supplies be purchased only from Japanese companies. Some projects, furthermore, give the appearance of being designed solely for the benefit of Japanese companies, with little regard for their development potential, while others are actually detrimental to development.

Adopting a less imperialist attitude on foreign aid would stifle criticisms and counter the impression that the country is neither prepared nor able to assume moral leadership in the industrialized world. Japan also needs to display a greater understanding of and concern for the environment. This should be easy for a nation blessed with exquisite natural beauty and a cultural heritage marked by a strong regard for unity between humanity and environment. In that context, it is difficult to imagine Japan's motivation in pushing ahead--in the face of intense public opposition--with its plan to raze more than 700 acres of forest in Ikego to provide housing for U.S. military personnel. (See story, Paradise Paved)

The government's actions display a perplexing sense of priorities, and suggest that the country is still willing to subjugate its own interests to those of the United States. The same disturbing traits are apparent in the plan to build an airport at Miyakejima for U.S. Navy pilots to practice night landings. (See story, Noise by Night) The citizens of the island, although initially supportive of the scheme, have since then made their opposition resoundingly known. Again, the government's refusal to back down or seek a compromise is worrisome.

On another front, Japan will have to work hard to overcome the stigma of its record as a voracious consumer undaunted by the finite nature of the world's resources. The recalcitrance of the Japanese on commercial whaling is a particularly reprehensible example of how domestic considerations can undermine Japan's efforts to gain status in the world. Japan has for years flouted the International Whaling Commission ban on killing whales for anything but scientific purposes or local, indigenous consumption. Only two other countries--Iceland and Norway-- continue to hunt whales in violation of this ban. Continuing whale hunting in the face of mounting scientific and public criticism displays a callous disregard for international opinion.

The same can be said of the country's appetite for endangered wildlife. Japanese per capita consumption of wildlife and wildlife products is the highest in the world. And Japanese trade in products made from endangered species, such as sea turtles, crocodile skin and snake skin, surpasses that of all other nations. If it is to succeed on the international front, Japan must come to terms, first and foremost, with its split political ideology. The imperial attitudes of pre-World War II are still present in much of the popular consciousness, while the democratic ideals of the post-war era have not yet permeated the government or reached its citizens in a meaningful way.

Yet there are indications that Japan can meet the responsibilities that come with power. First, Japan used the occasion of the Toronto summit in June to announce a plan to provide financing to debt-ridden countries at a level equal to their loan payment obligations, effectively rolling over their debt. Japan has also declared its intention to dramatically increase its development assistance funds, a move befitting and acknowledging the country's new status. As it becomes more important economically, Japan should seek a greater role diplomatically. The country's perspective on international affairs, particularly military affairs, can be compelling in matters of war and peace. Japan can make a significant contribution to the world, but the process has to begin at home.