By Magnus Lundström
The plane took a sharp right turn over Tokyo Bay and the afternoon sun was reflected in its left wing. After a few minutes of precision manoeuvring, the plane’s landing gear touched the tarmac of Haneda Airport’s landing strip. I had never previously been in Japan, despite an enduring interest in East Asia. The main purpose of the journey, orchestrated and organized by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs through JICE (Japan International Coordination Center), was to learn about Japanese culture, politics and security issues. There were forty of us; students from various European countries with an eagerness to learn more about Japan.
Our stay in Tokyo began with a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we received a lecture on current security issues which the Abe administration seeks to address. In the air conditioned and calm lecture hall of the ministry, we were briefed on pressing Japanese security issues. Among territorial disputes with Russia and securing energy supply, two other issues held a more prominent place.
Firstly, North Korea and its nuclear ambitions. The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea constitutes a major concern for the government in Tokyo. The antipathy partly stems from the DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic capabilities; Japan is well within reach of North Korean ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). To be so close to an unpredictable dictatorship armed with such destructive weapons is indeed very unsettling for any Japanese official. However, Tokyo’s political issues with North Korea go somewhat deeper than mere ballistic missiles. In the 1970s and 1980s, North Korean agents abducted seventeen Japanese citizens from the Japanese mainland and brought them to the DPRK. The “abduction issue” has been on the table ever since 2002, when the then DPRK leader, Kim Jong-il, admitted North Korea’s responsibility. Japan has demanded the safe return of its citizens, but according to most analysts, this is very unlikely. While visiting Mar-a-Lago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that President Trump raise the abduction issue prior the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. Whether Trump adhered to his ally’s pledge is unclear.
Secondly, there is the rise of China. Whereas China’s economic advances are rather beneficial for commerce, Japan feels threatened by its neighbour’s increasing regional dominance and military build-up. This issue was emphasized, both by officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by academic scholars we met at Keio University in Tokyo. Initially, however, it is important to stress that the picture of the two states’ relationship tends to lack nuance. It is often reduced to China’s rise and Japan’s response. In fact, Japan and China have strong commercial ties and common interests. However, to go further than that would be misleading. There is without doubt a rather contentious rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing. The issues range from territorial disputes and intrusions in territorial waters, to a more large-scale competition about influence in the region as well as the countries’ shared and infected history which remains unsolved.
Our stay in Japan did encompass much more than politics: we participated in traditional tea ceremonies and calligraphy lessons; experienced proper Japanese food and culture as well as visits to historic places such as Hiroshima’s “A-Bomb Dome.” Nonetheless, the focus of this interesting and rewarding journey was politics and security. I left Tokyo a week later with a much more profound knowledge of Japanese security politics and regional issues, but also of the distant country’s rich culture and history.
Magnus Lundström is, apart from editor-in-chief for Uttryck Magazine, a master student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and consuming large quantities of coffee. He is also a big enthusiast of trekking in the Swedish mountains. Major interests are East Asia, international politics, foreign policy and sauna bathing.