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Posted at 3:13 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

The real scandal in the resignation of Japan's foreign minister

By Fred Hiatt

Japan's latest political scandal, which has weakened an already reeling government, is ostensibly about foreigners giving campaign donations. But the true scandal is what the episode shows about the continuing reluctance of the Japanese to welcome or assimilate anyone who doesn't look and talk like them. And that has sad implications for Japan's future.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan moved quickly Wednesday to name a new foreign minister after the incumbent, Seiji Maehara, was forced to resign Sunday. For a country that has been changing prime ministers yearly and consuming its own with nasty political infighting, the resignation is one more dreary milepost on a road to apparent ungovernability. It also sidelines, at least temporarily, one of the ruling party's more sophisticated and sensible leaders, with an appreciation for the U.S.-Japan alliance not shared by all of his colleagues.

As Sheila A. Smith wrote in an excellent post for the Council on Foreign Relations Tuesday, Maehara "is one of Japan's brightest political stars, and for virtually all outside of Japan, he was a reassuring presence in a party that came to power with few foreign policy experts in its ranks."

And what was Maehara's sin? As opposition legislators charged with ferocity in a Diet session last week, he had accepted campaign donations from a foreigner -- namely, about $2,400 from a 72-year-old woman who lives in Kyoto, operates a barbecue restaurant there and has known Maehara since he was in second grade.

Japanese news stories described the woman as "Korean," which could mean she was born in Korea and moved to Japan decades ago, or that she was born in Japan, of Korean parents. Before and during World War II, when Korea was a colony of Japan, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were induced, coerced or conscripted to come to Japan to work, often in terrible conditions.

When the war ended, they became essentially stateless, and some half a million of them -- or their descendants -- remain "foreigners" in Japan to this day.

For decades, Japan made it almost impossible for them to naturalize, asking them, among other things, to take Japanese surnames if they wanted to become citizens. The Korean associations that ran schools and community centers, meanwhile -- particularly the one affiliated with North Korea -- also discouraged assimilation. So these Korean "foreigners" continue to reside in Japan, more than a half-century later, in a second-class netherworld.

Recently naturalization has become easier and more common, as has Korean-Japanese intermarriage. But the fact that the ruling party had to sideline one of its stars, at least temporarily, for the innocent mistake of accepting a small donation from an elderly restaurant owner (who uses a Japanese surname) suggests that xenophobia remains close to the surface.

Why does it matter? The same unwillingness to integrate Koreans is playing out now with an inability to assimilate Filipinos, Vietnamese and ethnic Japanese from South America who have come to Japan in relatively small numbers to work -- and with Japan's refusal to welcome immigration in larger numbers.

That refusal, in turn, is a key factor in Japan's stagnating economy. As Japan's Central Bank chairman Masaaki Shirakawa recently told the Wall Street Journal, Japan's declining population is one of the main reasons Japanese are reluctant to spend and invest. Its aging population can't reverse that trend; only immigration could. And, as one of the more forward-looking ministers leaves the government, that looks less likely than ever.

By Fred Hiatt  | March 9, 2011; 3:13 PM ET
Categories:  Hiatt  | Tags:  Fred Hiatt  
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Comments

If you had been able to look at this issue from a perspective other than through your convenient "ethnic homogeneity" pigeonhole, you might see that what really is going on here is naked power politics of the most cynical kind. The donation, in fact, came from a woman who is a third-generation resident, who has a Japanese name, and thus, who could not be otherwise distinguished from any other Japanese. She indicates that she never felt like naturalizing, preferring the sense of "ethnic pride" that comes with her Korean passport, but that she now is reconsidering because she just discovered (due to this incident) that she cannot make political donations.

The problem is, this woman is no different from a half-million or so other zainichi Koreans. And many of them have donated to politicians too. Some of the vernacular "weekly magazines" (which tend to be a bit more investigative than broadsheets, and less "cautious" in what they print) have printed stories suggesting that a very quick check identified "foreign" donors on the donor lists of every Diet member they checked. ANY diet member would probably fall afoul of a detailed investigation. Indeed, there was a high-profile story back in the 90s where a former LDP prime minister had to return several million yen because it was received from a Korean-owned pachinko parlor (but in his case, he didnt step down because the LDPs control on power was too strong to be challenged by that sort of a smear). Despite the fact that it was LDP politicians who orchestrated the "hit" on Maehara to weaken the ruling DPJ, many in the LDP are now furious because they see that they could ALL be dragged down by the precedent of Maehara's resignation.

Maehara, meanwhile, is playing the issue with as much cynicism as the LDP. He surely could have ridden out the scandal if he chose to do so, because the vast majority of citizens view the ban on donations from zainichi Koreans and other foriegn permanent residents as silly. (on a side note, Japan is considering, and may soon pass, legislation that allows permanent residents to vote or hold local govt. office - something that not even the "liberal", "multicultural" US would consider)

Maehara thinks that by stepping down, he can expose the veniality of the LDP, and weaken Kan (who is by no means his "ally") at a single stroke. When the dust clears he can then step into power as the new PM, carried along by a sympathy vote.

In short, the political drama playing out in Japan right now is AT LEAST as ugly, sordid and strategically complex as your article suggests. But not for the reasons you suggest.

Pity that the easy explanation of xenophobia deflected you from a more careful investigation.

Posted by: km2112 | March 10, 2011 2:43 AM | Report abuse

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