Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sakutaro Tanino

I went to a talk yesterday by Sakutaro Tanino, the former Japanese Ambassador to China and India (1995-8 India; 1998-2001 China) at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Berkeley. It was one of those local events departments put on when somebody of note comes to town, and not a major speech event. No media involved, an afternoon coffee-chat venue with fewer than fifty people.

Tanino was introduced by T. J. Pempel, professor of political science, who mentioned that Tanino was at Todai during the radical 60s days and he was looking forward to getting more information about that out of him at dinner.

Tanino began with the usual, “Thank you for your very kind introduction…” and I looked for an exit. Just another platitude salad, I said to myself, with little bits of the obvious thrown in as they seemed appropriate to say.

It was that, actually, and I wondered at my naïveté in thinking it could have been much of anything else. Since Tanino is now retired and free to speak as a private Japanese citizen, I was hoping he might take advantage of that freedom. Apparently all those years of training as a diplomat have dictated otherwise.

Which is a tragedy. After the “very kind introduction” bit, which of course I’m being unduly harsh about, he said, “Visiting the campus here brings back some very fond memories. Berkeley and Hong Kong as a young man were the highlights of my life. It has been downhill since. Many wasted times.” The potential for interesting observations was clearly there.

But that was the last of it. What followed was what I have come to think of as a “typical wretched Japanese presentation.” The man coughed and cleared his throat loudly into the microphone, read from notes with reference to “what it says here” on his handout, and alternated between the obvious (China has a very large population and is ruled by a single party) and the obsequious (I am intimidated today to be speaking before the illustrious Professor Scalapino; Prime Minister Singh is a very fine gentleman). All those habits are speech conventions, of course, and seeing duck and expecting swan is my problem. But, I kept thinking, he’s now got total freedom to speak his mind. If not now, when?

The talk was a report of facts available in any encyclopedia introduction to China and India – Japanese investment in India’s stock market is very active; India is trying to tackle environmental issues, the mass media has a role to play…. The kind of fact spewing that makes people bound from the room. Yali Café is only five minutes away, I kept thinking.

Something kept me in the chair. Perhaps it was the image of the man himself. He didn’t look like a diplomat. His hair was shaggy, his clothes were those of a frumpy academic. Would have liked to have him as a grandfather. Or a neighbor to have conversations over the fence with.

At one point, when he was done, a Chinese in the audience asked about the comfort women situation. He prefaced his response with the reminder he was not speaking officially and was now “just a normal Japanese citizen.” He then turned quite sober and said, “The honor of Chinese women is at stake… Japan needs to show deep feelings of remorse, including individual letters to the women concerned.” When the Chinese pressed the issue, however, he retreated into the diplomatic hedge, “I’ve stated my position. For the answer to your question, you need to ask the politicians.”

Made me wonder whether he was feeling a sense of irrelevance in retirement. Wonder to what degree he might have been banished from the village by the power structure before he left. There was a bitterness in his voice.

There were bits of information that were useful to me. The reminder of how annoyed Japan is at being excluded from the UN Security Council. China is the only country representing Asia in the Security Council. All of Asia, especially India and Japan, are not happy about that. It is also the only country representing the developing world. Brazil is not happy about that. Japan can work with India on this issue, he said. Sounded like a talking point for his first meeting with the Indian Prime Minister.

Japanese politicians should avoid careless remarks such as “Japan should work with India to counter the rise of China.” That is “nonsense” (perhaps his first non-diplomatic word.) This is not a zero-sum game and we all have something to contribute. Yeah, yeah.

He defended US support for India’s nuclear development. In a hedge, of course, rather than a statement of personal conviction. “All the Japanese media except for the Keizai Shimbun opposed the development as a double standard. How are we to address North Korea and Iran when they complain?” And then he slipped in the answer. India is desperate for energy development and currently among the world’s biggest burners of coal. What choice do they really have?

He then went off the record. Abe will approve, he said. “And this is off the record… Don’t let this out of this room…because he is a great admirer of India.”

Watching him leak government party line, watching him talk the talk of his country’s diplomatic representative to India, I was watching a man still at work. He may look as if he has been put out to pasture, and he may roundly protest it in indirect language, but he still talks the talk.

Japan still goes to China to outsource its software technology, he said. “We need to address this aggressively.” Why? I wondered. Why choose India over China here? How about a little argument!

China and Japan share the same demographic threat of an aging population. They both look longingly at India which has a “beautiful pyramid” of lots more youth at the bottom than old folk at the top. It also has a predicted 6% growth rate for the indefinite future. If it doesn’t go to war with Pakistan. Its problems are still tremendous. The Japanese Embassy needed its own generator to assure electricity which went off in Delhi sometimes as long as three hours a day with regularity.

China is another story. It’s on its seventh ring road around Beijing already, the envy of Tokyo city planners. All without tolls.

Fitting totally into the Japanese male stereotype, Tanino’s talk was sprinkled with references to golf. When he first went to China, his golf balls used to get caught in water traps all the time. No longer. The water tables have sunk and that doesn’t happen any more. Commenting on China’s growth, it now has hundreds of golf courses, Tanino announced.

Another “almost private citizen” remark – “I am irritated by Chinese oversensitivity (to the Taiwan issue – China has accused Japan of training Taiwanese in Japan to fight a war of independence)” became clearly a position statement: “Taiwan is simply too big economically to be excluded.”

There was a great deal more political cant. “The upcoming visit by the prime minister (of China to Japan) is a sign of positive change.” And the support for government clarity on the comfort women issue was sabotaged when he slipped in the remark, “We thought it was important to involve the average Japanese in the issue.” I had not given much thought to the possibility the Japanese government’s decision to throw the problem into the private sector has grounds other than the need to assuage the right wing by not going too far officially. The fact that three hundred plus women have been given payment and medical assistance was unfamiliar. It illustrates the habit of saying one thing and doing another as a means of providing cover, having your cake and eating it too. And missing the target.

Tanino appeared to endorse Deng Xiao Ping’s remark that the Soviet Union failed because it attempted glasnost and perestroika simultaneously instead of consecutively. China will do it the Chinese way and it will succeed, said Deng. Tanino didn’t come down on one side or the other. He simply cited Deng and moved on.

I came away from listening to Tanino with the usual reaction I have to officials giving talks. You go with very low expectations, pick up a tidbit here and there as they are dropped into the conversation, and try to polish your skills at reading between the lines. You get an idea, at least, of what the talks in official meetings in the foreign ministry are about and some of the actual dialogue. Good that China and Japan have started an exchange program of high school students. Important to show respect for comfort women. Government steps so far are appropriate. China is a challenge. India has a very long way to go. China is to be respected. India is a place you can grow fond of. Japanese desperately need courses in public speaking. Diplomats are not supermen.

Retirement gives lots of time for reflection. How do you rip off the governors on your mind that have entrenched themselves like a counterproductive civil service bureaucracy? How do you rise to the level of a freethinker if you weren’t one before?

T. J. Pempel:

Robert Scalapino:

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