Open Forum

Japan’s relations with China and Russia have shifted in important ways in the final months of 2018, but each bilateral relationship needs to be differentiated into multiple dimensions. Below, drawing on Japanese newspapers and articles, I consider five dimensions: 1) politics between the national leaders; 2) national identity issues, including territorial disputes and history; 3) trade and cooperation on economic challenges; 4) regional security architecture and the role of the United States in Asia; and 5) the framing of the relationship as understood by the Japanese distinction between the two poles of tatemae and honne. Some consider the changes recently set in motion far-reaching, crediting Abe’s persistence. Some attribute at least certain parts of the recent transformation to the precedent-shattering impact of Trump. Still others doubt that change is genuine, pointing to contradictory outcomes and to ongoing, overwhelming polarizing forces. This article concludes with arguments pro and con Abe’s “new approach” to Putin, which easily outweighs Abe’s summit with Xi Jinping as the focus of debate about where Japan is heading.

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