Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Shoichi Nakagawa’s Choice of Regrettables Is Not by Accident

The English-language media seized on the “extremely regrettable” comment that Shoichi Nakagawa, Finance Minister and well-known hardliner, made with regard to the U.S. delisting of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and took it as the expression of Japanese displeasure. There was one article that even speculated that Japan might stop the U.S.-DPRK agreement at the Six-Party Talks. In fact, Mr. Nakagawa’s words had served only to let off steam. That should have been clear from the circumstances and the wording.

First, the easy one. The Finance Minister does not speak for Japan on North Korea’s nuclear issue. He has as much authority with regard to the Six-Party talks as the death penalty. Or reproductive rights. And the list goes on.

Second, for “regrettable”, he used, “残念”, more a show of disappointment than “遺憾”, the word used in officialdom to register a protest or issue an apology. (It totally depends on the context; I know, that’s weird and somewhat weasely, but no more so than the “I’m sorry if you were offended” apology favored by American public figures.) “残念” lacks direction; it does not make any demands, explicit or implicit, on the Bush administration. In today’s Upper House Budget Committee Q&A, Prime Minister Aso used the word “不満”, or “dissatisfied”. Mr. Aso also avoided the most obvious choice of words if he had intended to register an official protest. The two political veterans knew what they were doing; “不満”, like ”残念”, are emotive words. What the two men did was to use words that are high on emotion but low on action in order to soothe local discontent while minimizing friction with the Bush administration.

What all this means is that North Korea is now a nuclear pseudo-power; China and South Korea will provide its upkeep, but Japan will not, and the abduction issue will recede into the background, until North Korea sees a way to use it to its economic advantage. That is the new status quo, the new equilibrium.


Janne Morén said...

Agree with the thrust of your post. One quibble, though:

"The Finance Minister does not speak for Japan on North Korea’s nuclear issue. He has as much authority with regard to the Six-Party talks as the death penalty. Or reproductive rights."

And that amount of authority, realistically, is "some". A cabinet is a group; when discussing, say, North Korea, the PM is not going to be discussing one-on-one with the foreign minister and ask all other ministers to please leave the room. Other ministers' opinions do carry some amount of weight even on matters not on their own table. How much is highly variable of course, and depends on the issue and on their personal standing among their peers and with the prime minister especially.

So no, of course he does not speak for Japan in this matter. But as a cabinet member he's not exactly completely out of the loop either. This kind of off-topic statements are frequently used as a form of trial balloon; a deniable way to testdrive an official response.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dude,

Regrettable is the English way of saying it's just a disappointment. It is quite weak sounding to Western ears. Them foreign journalists are but again poking fun at the prissy Japanese by focusing on the word "regrettable."

And as Miss Condi said, now get outta my way before I stomp all over you with my spiked boots...

Regrettable, indeed.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: You’re right. Perhaps I should have used a more nuanced wording than “let off steam”. But that’s what it essentially was, and conveyed the sense that the Japanese authorities would not be standing in the way.

Annoynymous: As I said, it’s “weird and weasely”, but that’s the way it is. Oddly, 遺憾 has taken on a sense or remorse through repeated use that probably was not there when they began using it. And remember, Mr. Nakagawa didn’t say “regrettable”, he said 残念. And your reading of the reporters’ minds is in this case totally off the mark. Don’t worry, my view of the facts are colored by my value judgments all the time too, though I do try to be careful. That’s why I never go undercover, by the way. That way, I’m more careful. And I don't feel small afterwards.