Dalai Lama cuts little ice in
Japan By Catherine Makino
TOKYO - Ignoring the fact that Japan has a
sizeable Buddhist population, the government of
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda cold-shouldered the
Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, during
his 10-day visit that ended last Friday.
Not one government official met one of the
world's best-known personalities either at the
airport or at his prayer sessions and meetings
where he confined speeches to spirituality.
The official ignore contrasted sharply
with the Dalai Lama's visit in
October to the United States
where he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal,
the highest civilian award. US President George W
Bush attended the ceremony and personally handed
over the medal.
Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the
opposition Democratic Party, pointedly met the
Dalai Lama before he left the country and
expressed support for the Tibetan's leader's
concept of "greater autonomy" for Tibet within
The 72-year-old Nobel Peace Prize
laureate was in Japan at the invitation of a
Buddhist group, to tour the famed Shinto shrine of
Ise Jingu, visit local schools and give speeches
on spirituality. In fact, he was allowed to visit
the country on condition that he would not engage
in political activities.
China, which sent
troops into Tibet in 1950, objects to the
international travels of the Dalai Lama. It
accuses him of fomenting Tibetan independence. The
Dalai Lama escaped from the Tibetan capital of
Lhasa, in 1959, after a failed uprising and
crossed the border into India after a 15-day
journey on foot over the high Himalayan mountains.
Thanks to the official aloofness, most
Japanese were not even aware of the spiritual
leader's presence in their country. "I didn't know
the Dalai Lama was in Japan," said the head priest
of Ichijoji Buddhist temple in Tokyo Jushoku
Kaneko. "I don't understand why the Japanese
government refuses to accept the Dalai Lama as a
VIP [very important person]."
rarely mentioned in the national newspapers or
shown on television. The reason, according to
Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political
science at Sophia University in Tokyo, is that,
unlike in the West, there are no celebrities in
Japan promoting the Dalai Lama.
stars often champion political causes, while
Japanese celebrities almost never take
controversial political positions publicly,"
Nakano says. "Nobody of prominence in Japan is
drawing any importance on the Dalai Lama, whereas
in the US there are celebrities who are
instrumental in raising public awareness about
Human-rights issues, particularly
those in foreign countries, rarely ever draw the
attention of the ordinary Japanese. "Criticism of
the Burmese dictatorship, for example, has been
very muted even when a Japanese journalist was
shot dead recently. Nobody goes about supporting
the human rights of the Tibetans at the risk of
antagonizing the Chinese," says Nakano.
But there was another reason for the
indifference. The Japanese government under Fukuda
is strenuously trying to mend relations with
China, soured during the tenure of Fukuda's
predecessors Shinzo Abe and, before him, Junichiro
However, according to Gregory
Clark, vice president of Akita International
University in Akita prefecture, many observers
make the mistake of thinking that Abe wanted
better relations with China because he flew to
Beijing soon after becoming prime minister. "They
were wrong. Abe was always anti-China. Like the
hawks around him and on whose ideologies he was
raised, Abe has a virulent dislike of the Chinese
regime - and North Korea - and was relying on the
US to be equally anti-China. He proved this with
his hurried efforts to cement an anti-China
alliance with the US [over Taiwan], Australia,
India and even NATO [North Atlantic Treaty
"The rushed China visit
was simply to get rid of the damaging block to any
China relationship caused by Beijing's one-sided
obsession with the Yasukuni issue. The block was
unpopular with both the electorate and within the
ruling Liberal Democratic Party," Clark said.
"Fukuda clearly wants to move to a more balanced
China has expressed
regret about Japan's decision to allow the Dalai
Lama to visit the country. "We expressed our
regret over Japan's permission of Dalai's entry
into Japan and his visit to the country," Chinese
foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao was quoted
as saying at a regular press conference.
As he prayed at Ise Jingu, western Japan,
the Dalai Lama said he only wants "autonomy", not
independence for Tibet and will not accept China's
allegation that he is a "separatist", local
newspapers reported. "But the Chinese government
officials still continuously accuse me of being a
separatist," he was quoted as saying.
Lhakpa Tshoko, a representative of the
Dalai Lama's liaison office in Tokyo, said they
understand the Japanese government's diplomatic
principle, but it was sad that the Dalai Lama was
not given the respect he deserved in an Asian
country with a sizeable Buddhist population. Japan
has 93.5 million Buddhists, including a high
percentage of important people in education and
Buddhism was brought to
the country in the 6th century and has had a
profound influence on its intellectual, artistic,
social and political life. Most funerals are
conducted by Buddhist priests, and many Japanese
visit family graves and Buddhist temples to pay
respects to ancestors.
Unlike his previous
trips, Japan did not offer him security this time.
The Dalai Lama's liaison office was forced to hire
private body bodyguards.
succeeded Abe as prime minister in September,
never talked about the Dalai Lama's visit to his
country. Instead, he often speaks of improving
Japan's ties with China and has already built a
close relationship with top Chinese politicians.
"Japan is too conscious of China's
reaction and it is losing its solvency and
independence," commented Pema Gyalpo, a former
representative of the Dalai Lama and professor at
Torin University in Yokohama. "Among the
democratic nations Japan is the only one that
refused to meet His Holiness."
replaced the US as Japan's largest trading
partner, which signifies Beijing's growing
economic influence and the role that the
flourishing Chinese market plays in the global
In January 2005, Japan's Finance
Ministry indicated that China had surpassed the US
as its largest trade partner for the first time
since 1947. This year, Japan's trade with China
stood at 25.4271 trillion yen (US$230.61 billion),
while its trade with the US was about 25.1608
Japan's relations with China
deteriorated during the tenure of Abe's
predecessor Koizumi. A major reason was Koizumi's
insistence on making regular visits to Tokyo's
Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 convicted war
criminals among Japan's 2.5 million war dead.
Japan's neighbors see the shrine and visits as
glorification of the country's militaristic past.
Fukuda has said he would not visit the
shrine. He has even suggested removing the
irritant of Yasukuni altogether by building a new
"Fukuda realizes that Japan
needs better relations with China not only for its
own sake but also for US-Japan ties," says Robert
Dujarric, director of contemporary Japanese
studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "Bad
relations with China make some Americans think
Tokyo is responsible for tensions in the region.
Japanese officials worry the US is making China an
important partner/stakeholder in Asia.
"For Japan to play a role in the region it
now needs better ties with China as well as good
relations with the US," Dujarric said. "Fukuda
historically has been more of a China guy than his