It probably wouldn’t take much to put the chill back into thawing ties between Japan and China. And on Thursday, Tokyo may have pushed the thermostat down a couple of notches.
The first move that could end up cooling recent progress between the two at least a little was Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s comment in a Diet budget committee session that it would be ‘desirable’ for China to release Liu Xiaobo, the new Nobel Peace laureate.
Knowing how his words could be taken by China, Kan exercised caution and refused to say whether Japan would make a formal request for the dissident’s release, as the likes of the European Union and the United States have. Kan added that he made his remarks in consideration of bilateral ties.
The government’s top spokesman, Yoshito Sengoku, made similar comments Wednesday, criticizing China for detaining Liu’s wife (such is Sengoku’s influence on the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration that a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun’s weekly news magazine asked whether he was running the show).
The opposition Liberal Democratic Party has for its part used budget sessions over the past few weeks to slam the government’s every move on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue. (Aren’t they supposed to be discussing a critical budget in these sessions?) And, by falling short of making an official demand to Beijing for Liu’s release, Kan could find himself being accused again of letting Beijing wear the trousers in the Sino-Japanese relationship. But if the government’s intention is to patch up differences with China, then Kan may have done well to play down the issue.
The second problem has come courtesy of Google (itself no friend of the Communist Party of China), which has provided the platform for the second potential cold shower on ties.
On Wednesday, the LDP complained to the Japanese arm of Google that its mapping service uses both the Japanese and Chinese names of the disputed isles. The party told Google that it’s ‘clearly wrong’ to list both names due to the territorial dispute with China and it should only use the islands’ Japanese name.
The next day, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara followed suit. Japan’s top diplomat praised the LDP’s action as ‘sensible and justifiable,’ and said the government would ask Google to erase the Chinese language name.
The government, though, is making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s doubtful that more than a handful of people actually looked for islets on Google Maps before the territorial spat. And what is the problem with using both names for disputed territories? The Falkland Islands are also called the Islas Malvinas (in parenthesis) on Google UK. And while the context differs, even the most nationalist of Britons would probably accept that these islands also have a Spanish name.
If the government or the LDP went online to look at how Google Japan portrays the Takeshima (or Dokdo) islets claimed by both South Korea and Japan, they would find a marker (in Roman, Japanese and Korean scripts) that gives the name of the two specs in the ocean as Dokdo, without any mention of Takeshima. Does this mean that politicians will call on Google’s Tokyo offices the next time Tokyo and Seoul squabble over these islets?
Again, the issue is now how China reacts. But given Beijing’s disregard for Google, it may just choose to airbrush this out of the narrative.