The Japanese Ambassador

Japan is one of those countries you catch a bug for and it never really leaves you. I caught my bug for this endlessly fascinating country in the early 1990s when I taught English there for nearly two years. So it was with anticipation and pleasure that I stepped into Japanese Ambassador Nogami’s football-sized office in the Japanese Embassy on Piccadilly to talk about the latest issues in Anglo-Japanese relations.What did he think of Sir Christopher Meyer’s revelations in DC Confidential, I asked as an opener (Nogami served twice in the United States). “Along with most Europeans he has not appreciated that the centre of gravity in the US has shifted outside the beltway. Gordon Brown likes going to Rhode Island, but has he ever been to Arkansas? In Europe everybody hates the neocons, but in reality people like Paul Wolfowitz are very intellectual.”Nogami’s route to being Japanese ambassador to the Court of St. James was unconventional. He was appointed as Permanent Secretary by Prime Minister Koizumi to baby-sit the “problematic” Foreign Secretary, Makiko Tanaka. As a woman and the daughter of a former Prime Minister she was very high profile in Japanese politics, and according to Nogami extremely headstrong. He ended up testifying to the Japanese Parliament against her, forcing both of them to resign. He was told to keep his head down, coming to the UK to study at Chatham House. “It was political exile financed by the government,” according to Nogami. Just over a year later his reward came when he was reappointed back to the Foreign Ministry as Ambassador to the UK, a plum job for any Japanese diplomat.“This January, we had more Japanese cabinet members visiting London than anywhere else in Europe or even the US. I think they find the atmosphere in Washington too aggressive. Japanese feel very comfortable with the political and intellectual landscape here,” he observed. None the less he is worried that complacency is creeping into Anglo-Japanese relations. “When Tony Blair or Gordon Brown talk about Asia, they always mention China or India, never Japan. They seem to have forgotten the largest economy in Asia. Japan’s economy is three times larger than China and ten times larger than India. There is not enough intellectual tension in the Anglo-Japanese relationship,” he commented.Nogami thinks this has led to confusion in UK foreign policy. “When France and Germany were pushing for the end of the arms embargo to China last year, the UK initially jumped on the bandwagon. Then the US and Japan objected and the government changed its position.”Will European countries have to choose between having a strong relationship with Japan or China? “That depends on the basic principles of their foreign policy. Is it directed purely by the potential size of market and perceived economic opportunity? Or is it directed by principles such as democracy, human rights and rule of law?”The relationship between Japan and China is clearly something that occupies centre stage in Nogami’s thinking. Last year the Chinese government condoned a huge demonstration in China outside the Japanese Embassy and has constantly criticised Japan for not facing up to its wartime history. “When they talk about Japan’s history, it is really a cover for the fact that they won’t accept Japan is no longer a political dwarf. China’s attitude is ‘this village called Asia ain’t big enough for two of us.’”Nogami’s view, on the other hand, is that for the first time in history Asia has two big powers living side by side. What makes this so significant is that Japan and China have radically different views of how Asia should develop. Japan does not think Asia should be defined ethnically or geographically, and wants significant roles for countries like India and Australia. It also recognises the growing force of democracy in countries like Singapore and Thailand, which China can never accept because of its own one-party system. “The battle between Japan and China is not over history, but over the future,” adds Nogami.He does however accept that Japan is not very good at facing up to its own past, but says that actions speak louder than words. “We have been involved in no military action and have dispensed large amounts of development aid to Asian countries. We are the most pacifist country in a good sense of the word.” Nogami places Japan firmly in the Anglo-US axis, distancing it from continental Europe. “Other European countries are less interested in Asian political and security scenes than the UK. Chirac says he wants a multi-polar world, which actually means more people to stand up to the US. That’s why he’s chosen China. Japan on the other hand has 650 troops in Iraq and was fully supportive of the US position after 9/11.”Overall he thinks there are many cultural similarities between the UK and Japan. “We are both big countries adjacent to a continent. We are both international trading and seafaring nations that are also very insular. You think we are “polite but inaccessible.” I think we could say the same about you.”