JIIA President Yukio Satoh
Japan’s former U.N. ambassador talks about the closure and re-emergence of the JIIA’s website commentaries
Last August, Yukio Satoh, a highly regarded former ambassador to the U.N. and president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), a think tank funded in part by the Foreign Ministry, closed down the Commentary section of the JIIA website. The move came after an article by Washington-based Sankei Shimbun columnist Yoshihisa Komori attacking the JIIA for using taxpayers’ money to criticize Japanese government policy with “leftist” views. Satoh, however, denied closing down the site because of outside pressure. The Commentary section was recently restarted in conjunction with three other think tanks: the Institute for International Policy Studies, the Japan Forum on International Relations and the Research Institute for Peace and Security. The group calls itself the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies (AJISS). Following the re-launch of the commentaries, Satoh agreed to talk to Number 1 Shimbun about the issues involved.
Fred Varcoe: Please restate the original purpose of the JIIA and the JIIA’s website commentaries.
Yukio Satoh: JIIA was created (in 1959) by retired Prime Minister (Shigeru) Yoshida. The idea was to create something similar to the Council for Foreign Relations or Chatham House (Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs).
When I came here (JIIA) four years ago, my major concern was reform – from a financial basis to the orientation of studies and other activities. I took this job with a promise from the Foreign Office [sic] that they would give me carte blanche as I engaged in this reform process.
I started with improvements of our financial position. Although this institution is subsidized by the Foreign Office, we must raise a lot of funds for our use from the private sector. It is important for us to have private funding in order to show our independence, although the Foreign Office said it wouldn't interfere with what we do.
I started with the financial aspect and then restructured our own arrangements, including the number of staff. We had so many administrative staff – too many – so I cut the number by 12 or 13 positions.
On the function side, I started to improve what is known as the JIIA International Forum. This forum started before I came here, asking Japanese speakers to speak.
I changed the style and decided to use simultaneous translations and to ask visiting dignitaries to speak on the forum. Now we have around 40 a year. A number of visiting foreign ministers come to speak to us and I am glad many embassies here have noticed the merit of this forum for their own public relations, but also for us to provide different opinions from different countries to the members and the mass media. This was a priority issue.
In the meantime, we have restructured our study programs and also revitalized many institutional exchanges with other countries and similar institutions.
Thirdly, I wanted to send a Japanese view abroad.
As part of my financial review, I suspended the English quarterly magazine, which this institution had published for some time, because I found that it was not read. In order to prioritize our limited funds, I wanted to concentrate on a few areas that I wanted to improve.
I thought of a concept of sending a commentary via e-mail, because I thought it would be easier to reach people this way. So last year, after about a year of preparation, I started a test run.
So why did you have to close it down so suddenly?
As you know, after we published the fourth installment, I suspended it because I accepted the point that Mr. Komori had made. After his column, I read the third commentary and found it had not gone through the review process I had organized.
When I started this, I asked (Commentary editor Masaru) Tamamoto to ask many people to write, and I created an internal review board. The important thing was to have many people contribute and to have different views expressed through this commentary. I was later told that Tamamoto-san asked many people to write but they weren’t cooperating by providing material. Maybe he aimed too high. I used to say even (Yomiuri Giants star Shigeo) Nagashima hit .300, so if your average is good, you don’t need to hit a home run.
In the third column, which I read after Komori-san raised certain issues, I noticed some wordings and expressions that I wasn’t comfortable with, like using “cult” in reference to Yasukuni Shrine. If you read them in their full context, perhaps the usage might have been defendable, but I thought it could lead to a misunderstanding.
I also found out that the internal review board didn’t function properly, so I suspended the Commentary for review.
Did you have to close the commentaries down after Komori’s article?
I did not close it down; I suspended it. Someone dropped the entire thing [from the website], so it gave the impression it was closed down. My instruction was to suspend it pending our review.
Mr. Komori’s article in the Sankei Shimbun drew my attention to article No. 3. Then I read it and noticed it shouldn’t have been sent out. Then I learned that it had not been cleared by our internal mechanisms, which I found out were not functioning well. There were lots of arguments as well as conjecture and speculation in blogs. I thought there was no point for me to be involved in that; I just thought about restarting this project of sending out commentaries.
Did you feel you were under pressure from anyone? The Sankei? The government?
I never felt pressure from Sankei or from the government. It was on my own judgment that I thought it better to reorganize everything. In the first series, it was a test case and all the rules were not well established. I thought each piece was very long. I was thinking more of op-ed length pieces. This is not an academic journal.
How did you go about fixing things?
As I wrote in response to the Sankei Shimbun, I was determined to revive it in a better form. I thought very carefully about what lessons we could learn from this first experience. One of the things I noticed was that it is very difficult to get many people to write, especially in English. So I reached out to some of our similar institutions who are interested in foreign policies.
I made a proposal to them to create the Association of Japanese Institutions of Strategic Studies, and we restarted this series of commentaries under the name of “AJISS Commentaries” from April this year. At the moment, we plan to send out at least two commentaries of op-ed size a month. It’s up and running now, but it is still in the process of establishing itself. But the response from those who have read our commentaries has been quite positive; some wanted to use them in university classes, while others wanted to refer them to newspapers. The response varies according to each commentary. As I said, batting .300 is the aim; perhaps eventually we'll hit like Ichiro.
Apart from these commentaries, I would like to expand further for us to publish things in English. Also, I would like us to improve our English home page. Also, the four institutions would like to expand our activities together. All of us are very small institutions.
When I got this job four years ago, one of the first things I did was to organize lunches among the heads of the four institutions to propose working together on an informal basis. When I restarted the commentaries, I immediately thought of this.
Are your commentaries meant to reflect the views of the government?
To be in line with the government, although I cannot speak for the editorial board.
We created a board of editors – there is one from each of the four institutions – with Professor Akio Watanabe in the chair. I am publishing the articles.
If you ask my personal view, I think we would accept views that are different from government policy, but if you are going to use this forum as a place to criticize government policy, I am rather reluctant, because this is a secondary objective. If we are going to criticize Japanese policy, we should start in Japanese. Our readers are foreigners, and the main purpose of the commentary is to share Japanese views in international issues with foreign readers. Although I am comfortable with different views – views that are different from government positions as well as writers’ views – I would rather avoid allowing Japanese writers to use this venue as a place to criticize the Japanese government, because that’s not the major purpose of this commentary. But to show there are plural views about certain policy issues is important.
We have a monthly meeting to decide on a subject and then we think about which writers to ask. We are still in the process of establishing the format, but eventually we will ask others to write on whatever they want to write on. For now, we have to show others what we are doing.
Was the decision to group together with other institutions a form of self-protection?
No, I don’t think anybody has such a view about this. From my point of view, we wanted to expand the basis and get more writers and ideas, because we are small institutions.
Do you think the right-wing media is too strong in this country?
They might be vocal, but how do you measure this? I don’t want to comment on this.
Do you think the Japanese public is badly served by the media? For example, do you feel there is a lack of debate on issues, a lack of information or even a lack of truth? And is there too much self-censorship?
I think major issues are well-debated. If you follow the changes of public opinion towards the Constitution issue, you can easily detect an increasingly cautious approach on the part of the public with regard to the substance. So the issue is well-discussed and gradually digested by the public.
Is there anything about the media that you don’t like?
When I joined the foreign service in Tokyo, my first job was as press officer; ever since, I have worked with foreign correspondents. I have always trusted press people. I have always regarded press people as a window for me to know the outside world – I don’t mean only in foreign countries, but even in Japan, regarding other aspects of this society. The mass media people know a much broader world than me, so I enjoy talking to them. It’s a sort of learning process for me.
And also, for professional reasons, without understanding the mass media, I know I would not be able to talk to the public because they [the public] only understand or see what the government or I are thinking about through the mass media.
When I was in the Foreign Office, I almost cherished my relations with mass media people, so I have no prejudice against the mass media. But I know sometimes mass media people have a different, fixed perception – different from mine – and sometimes I see no point in arguing with them.
When you were at the United Nations, you were the ultimate diplomat and maybe the ultimate spokesman for Japan…
Well, in that forum, yes. So at that time, for example, I used to speak to the foreign correspondents there and I was invited to speak to their club in New York. I thought to gain their understanding about our positions was very important.
Was that easier in New York than in Tokyo?
Yes and no, because their interests and my interests could have been often very different. For example, when I was interested in Security Council reform, their interest was in Bosnia – something like that.
With regard to kisha clubs, the Foreign Ministry is open to foreign correspondents while other ministries aren’t. Do you think this shows that the Foreign Ministry is open and that these other ministries are closed?
This is not a matter between the ministries and the foreign correspondents; it’s between the Japanese press and the foreign correspondents. In the case of the Foreign Office, for a long time there have been regular press conferences specifically for foreign correspondents.
Don’t you think it’s bad for Japan to limit the information that foreign writers get?
Personally, I think it is very important to open ourselves to foreign correspondents for access to all sorts of press conferences. But my initial answer to you is that since it is an issue between the Japanese press and foreign correspondents, there is very little the government can do. That is the way I have felt.
I think that as far as our foreign policy is concerned, it is important for us to keep ourselves open for access by foreign correspondents, because it’s another means of foreign diplomacy – public diplomacy – to explain to foreign correspondents and to ask them to write what we have to say or report on what we have to say. ❶