When she visited Japan for the first time in seven years earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the importance of working for reconciliation with former enemies and questioned his policy of restarting nuclear power plants. After Merkel abruptly brought up the important but sensitive issues, the atmosphere at the talks became noticeably chillier.
Following her talk with Abe, the German chancellor said at a press conference on March 9, "I didn't come to Japan to offer any advice, but I can talk about what Germany has been doing" to restore its relations with its former wartime enemies. In fact, she told Abe how Germany has apologized for its wartime past. It was clear that she wanted Japan to mend its ties with China and South Korea, which have been severely damaged because of war-related issues.
Merkel brought up the issue of the war because she felt compelled by the opinions of many Germans, who think the Japanese government has become quite right-wing. While reporting on Merkel's visit to Japan, Germany's public broadcaster ARD called the government of Abe "right-wing conservative." It sounded as if the broadcaster equated the Japanese government with a right-wing party that helped the Nazis take power before World War II. In other words, the German media is taking quite a harsh view of Abe's government.
On the other hand, many Germans are genuinely concerned about the rifts between this country and China and South Korea. Many German politicians worry about the risk of military confrontation in East Asia. Merkel appears to have talked about the war because she genuinely wants to see East Asia remain at peace.
When the Abe government was formed, however, Germany was more interested in Abenomics, or a set of new economic policy measures implemented by the Japanese government, as it feared that Japan's colossal government deficit might create turmoil in the world's financial markets. When Abe and Merkel met in April last year in Berlin, they talked about the results of Abenomics and hardly discussed the wartime history.
That began to change last autumn when Japan's row with South Korea took a turn for the worse over so-called wartime comfort women. At the same time, Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper came under a tidal wave of criticism from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japanese public for running stories about comfort women based on a false account of an "eyewitness" who said a large number of those women were summarily rounded up to be forced into prostitution. This fueled concerns in Germany that the freedom of the press is at risk in Japan.
This prompted Germany to take up the issue of comfort women. Speaking at the Asahi Shimbun's auditorium, Merkel said, "I think [a government] needs to listen to various opinions." Then the German media picked up on this and reported on "Merkel issuing a warning toward Japan."
Merkel is perceived by the Germans to have done well in Japan on the grounds that she confronted the Abe government, which has fallen out with neighboring countries and is trying to restart nuclear power stations despite public opposition.
Meanwhile, the bilateral relations appear to have become less friendly. I first went to Germany in the 1970s as a child and in the nearly 40 years since have traveled there regularly. Never before have I experienced a chillier attitude toward Japan. When I was flying back to Berlin on a business trip on March 11, a German university lecturer, whom I had never met, sat next to me on our plane and disparaged Japan. "I feel nauseated when I think of Japan because it's a male-dominated country where the status of women is low," the lecturer said. It is natural to take such a view if you are exposed almost every day to media criticism of Japan.
While both Japan and Germany do not do much to communicate with each other, the Germans have grown highly critical of the Abe government's fiscal, financial and energy policies as well as its stance on Japan's wartime history. Many other northern European countries share the opinions aired in Germany. Indeed, it is also true that there are many things Japan can learn from Germany, looking at the way Berlin pushes ahead with structural reform to revitalize the economy, improves the government finances and faces up to war crimes the country committed in the past.
Still, three errors
Merkel's visit to Japan was more conducive to criticism about Japan than friendship. She discussed with Japanese experts her country's policy to end nuclear power generation. She talked about the wartime history when she visited The Asahi Shimbun and met with Abe. She also talked with Katsuya Okada, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party. Her schedule in Japan was filled with events that could help foment criticism of Japan. Friendship was promoted only when she visited a factory run by a German company and shook hands with the Japanese humanoid robot Asimo.
Her second mistake was to air direct opinions at a time when Japan and Germany are not on a solidly friendly footing. She probably thought she would make no waves as long as she did not directly criticize Japan in mentioning the wartime past. She probably thought she was politely criticizing Japan without naming and shaming it. So the German government was dismayed when Japan reacted so sensitively to her remarks.
Her schedule in Japan also showed that she did not understand the sentiment of ordinary Japanese. Britain's Prince William, who visited Japan in late February and early March, traveled to the country's northeastern region, which was ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami four years ago, and warmed the hearts of many Japanese. But Merkel only visited places in and around Tokyo on March 9 and 10 and left Japan a day before March 11, the anniversary of the disaster. A German government official said her schedule was too tight. But if she had delayed her departure by half a day and prayed for the victims, she would have left a better impression in Japan.
Her third and bigest mistake was to bring up the issue of history, although she was not well prepared for its outcome.
After meeting with Merkel, DPJ president Okada said that Merkel had urged Japan to resolve the comfort women issue and said that it is important that Japan and South Korea reconcile because the two countries share the same values. The German government began to fear that this remark might embroil Germany in a row between foreign countries, and a German government spokesman denied that Merkel had made the statement. Germany must have known that if it brought up the wartime past, it could be exposed to vitriolic spats between the ruling Japanese political parties and the opposition, as well as among Japan, China and South Korea. Germany was not ready for that conflict.
Abe is going to travel to Germany in June to attend a Group of Seven summit, after which Merkel will visit Japan again to take part in next year's G-7 summit. Whether the two will discuss the war on these occasions could weigh on relations between Japan and Germany.
One good thing came out of Merkel's visit to Japan, however. It has become clear how Germany and Japan differ with each other. Until now, Japanese were not aware of these differences. Japan should listen to what Germany has to say, and Germany should do more to improve its diplomatic skills in dealing with Japan. The two countries should promote mutual understanding and compromise to forge closer bilateral ties. SHOGO AKAGAWA, Nikkei staff writer