Can Japan’s ‘Invisible’ Diplomacy Help Solve the Myanmar Crisis? -- Apr 23
More than two and a half months have passed since the coup in Myanmar. Although other countries are responding to this situation, they have not been able to have a concrete impact toward stopping the bloodshed that is happening in Myanmar, sparking harsh criticism from observers like the BBC.

Likewise, there has been criticism toward Japan for its ambiguous position compared to other countries, especially since it has not imposed aggressive economic sanctions. The Japanese government’s response is attracting attention both at home and abroad, raising questions about how long it can continue its current stance.

On April 2, the Japanese government was asked about future sanctions in an open letter of inquiry by a group of Myanmar people living in Japan and Human Rights Now, the international NGO. The government’s reply was, “We will consider it in the future.” Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu gave a similar response when asked at a press conference about the possibility of suspending Official Development Assistance (ODA).

During the press conference, Motegi quoted a line from “The Little Prince” by saying, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” In its response to the earlier open letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited the example of the Japanese ambassador meeting the foreign minister appointed by the junta, and said that Japan would continue to play its “unique role” in the crisis.

Motegi was asked in the Diet this month about Japan’s response to the situation in Myanmar. This time, he cited one of Aesop’s fables: “Like the north wind and the sun, it will be difficult to overcome this severe situation without a combination of various means.” The fable recounts the north wind and the sun competing to get a traveler to remove his cloak. The north wind is unable to achieve the task, no matter how angrily he blows – the sun wins the contest by shining warmly down upon the traveler until he willingly takes off his cloak. The moral: “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

This position of the Japanese government has been met with criticism. Major Japanese media reported that the Japanese government’s response to the above-mentioned open letter was met with disappointment from Myanmar citizens living in Japan. Criticism has also come from some of Japan’s academic and political community.

Despite this criticism, why has Tokyo not joined other countries in imposing economic sanctions? In his poetic statements, Motegi might be suggesting the existence of diplomatic efforts that have not been revealed to the public. If we listen carefully to the answers given by him and others from the Foreign Ministry in the Diet, we can see that Japan’s actions toward the Myanmar military are based on cooperation with other countries, including the United States. The “unique role” that the international community expects Japan to play might be to act as the “sun” out of the fable, and to bring the Myanmar military junta into dialogue through gentle persuasion. In this case, Japan’s ODA will be the key. Suspension of ODA by Japan, the largest contributor to Myanmar except for China, would be a major diplomatic card to play, and Tokyo will probably use it as leverage to seek dialogue.