Japan, a middling power in the Far East, struggles to be great and behaves as if it is in the Conceptual West, especially in Africa. Emerging from the Great War, 1914-1918, on the side of the victors, it even thought it could fit into the club of great powers. Instead, it was humiliated at Versailles when the white powers rejected its suggestion that the treaty include a clause on equality of races. It thereafter tried to assert itself by building its military, considered Asia to be its sphere of influence, started promoting the concept of Asia for Asians, and tested the League of Nations resolve by invading parts of China.
As in Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, the League of Nations’ failure to act prepared grounds for World War II during which Japan practically chased European colonialists from Asia. While making Britain to beg colonial subjects to save its empire in Asia, Japan gave the US official reason to enter the war. American racist mentality made Japan the target of the atomic project and in August 1945, Washington atom bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and turned Japan into a postwar American surrogate. Japan would want to stop appearing like a US geopolitical proxy.
While playing subservience to America, postwar Japan penetrated and created global markets for itself. It conquered the world, increasing its presence in Africa, as supplier of vehicles, especially the Toyota that Joseph Kamaru popularised in Kenya in the 1960s. Japan was involved in establishing Kenya’s National Youth Service, mostly as part of Cold War power play. Its industrial and commercial success occasionally gave it temporary privileges, like when apartheid South Africa made the Japanese ‘honourary whites’. Its public relations, however, remained comparatively so poor that it repeatedly loses to China, its rival neighbour. Appearing like an American proxy in the Cold War and after, it rarely got geopolitical attention. It would like an image change and receive recognition as an independent global player. Africa can give that recognition.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is pushing to change Japan’s image of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as symbolising fear of bombing which subdues Japan into perpetual subservience to every American geopolitical wish. Born in July 1957 and raised in the Hiroshima, Kishida rose to become Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under Shinzo Abe and to participate in determining Japan’s position in global realignment.
A crusader for countries to denuclearise, Kishida persuaded US President Barack Obama to visit the Hiroshima horror site. As prime minister from 2021, Kishida tries to make Japan visible and felt rather than to remain on the sidelines of global decision making. He has managed to turn the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Western sense of guilt into an instrument of advancing Japan’s foreign policy. He also, in May 2023, hosted leading capitalistic countries, called G-7, at Hiroshima to stress his concern for nuclear disaster and also to assert his presence as player.
Kishida suffers no pre-World War II sense of guilt for Japanese aggression, feels the pain of the bomb, and took the Hiroshima Summit as an opportunity to make statements on nuclear horrors and assert his global presence. Seemingly competing with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for global influence, he has much geopolitical catching up to do. In wishing to avoid the proxy label, he would like to link up with West European countries that are increasingly ‘independent’ of the United States and discard the impression of Japan as surrogate.
He travels widely as player rather than supplicant and in reaching out to Africans in four African countries of Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique, he hoped to boost his global standing, Kishida promised many goodies to Africans where he went and he received respectful hearing on what he wanted. He has yet to prove that Japan can deliver, and that it is not surrogating for the Conceptual West’s predatory activities in Africa.