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The Truth Behind the Secret Talks Between Nippon Keidanren's Okuda and Chinese President Hu

12, 01. 2005

Citing the Beijing Bullet-Train Project, and Energy Conservation and Environmental Technology Cooperation, Hu Warns that Koizumi's Visits to Yasukuni Shrine are Blocking Economic Relations

   Details of the secret talks held at the end of September by Hiroshi Okuda, Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), and Chinese President Hu Jintao were revealed on December 1, 2005 by reliable sources within Japanese financial circles. According to these sources, Hu asked that the Japanese prime minister be persuaded to stop making visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead including men judged to be Class A war criminals are enshrined, on the grounds that they were "blocking economic relations." Up till then, the talks had been held in a cordial spirit.

   Okuda met with the Chinese president in China on September 30, 2005. Their talks were also attended by Nippon Steel Corporation President Akio Mimura, chairman of Nippon Keidanren's China committee; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. Chairman Yoichi Morishita; Sumitomo Corporation Chairman Kenji Miyahara, vice chairman responsible for international relations at Nippon Keidanren; and Ryuko Wada, Director General of Nippon Keidanren.

Chinese President Hu Jintao implied that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine is an obstacle for ordering rapid-transit railway (Shinkansen) system in Beijing.
Chinese President Hu Jintao implied that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine is an obstacle for ordering rapid-transit railway (Shinkansen) system in Beijing.

   "China needs Japan's economic cooperation," Hu said at the meeting, "and would like to develop amicable relations into the future. China would like to introduce Japanese technology for its planned bullet-train railway line, and also work with Japan on energy conservation and environmental technologies, to foster more balanced economic growth. However, the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine have become an obstacle [to these aims]." Hu reportedly asked Keidanren to use its influence to persuade the prime minister to discontinue his Yasukuni Shrine visits, to spur improvement and development of bilateral relations.

   Japan's business leaders generally take a critical view of Koizumi's Yasukuni visits, and have urged the prime minister to show self-restraint. Immediately after his return to Japan, Okuda met with the prime minister and passed on Hu's message. However, the prime minister showed no sign of agreement, prompting Okuda to strongly urge that any further visits this year should be toned down. "China would appreciate it if you were to dress informally and use a taxi, not an official vehicle, to get to the shrine," he advised. In the end, Koizumi did not use a taxi, but Koizumi visited the shrine in informal attire and took a hundred-yen coin out of his pocket for the offertory box like any ordinary citizen paying his respects.

   In response, the Chinese government publicly blasted Koizumi, but sources said that "the Chinese leadership has indicated that, despite the show of protest mainly for domestic consumption, it appreciated the understanding shown by the prime minister for China's position, by making the shrine visits this year in a more toned-down way."

   The secret meeting was instigated by Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wang Yi, who was worried by the deterioration in bilateral relations. Wang has worked through diplomatic channels to end the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Outside diplomatic channels, he is relying on Okuda, seen as the person with the greatest influence over the Japanese administration. The two men dined together frequently, and exchanged information on a daily basis through a hot line. With the cooling of political relations between the two countries, only Japan's business circles appreciated the necessity to somehow maintain and develop bilateral contacts. Likewise, Wang felt that the only way to improve bilateral relations was to rely on Japan's business leaders.

   Initially, Wang proposed August 16th as the date for Okuda's China visit. He wanted to invite not only Okuda, but also all those connected with the Nippon Keidanren's China committee, and, because it was a private mission, arrangements were made with the Chinese government for Japanese foreign ministry and other government officials not to attend. However, for Japan, August 16th is the day after the end of World War II. If the prime minister had visited Yasukuni on the 15th, talks on the 16th would not have been possible. When it became clear that China wanted the meeting on the 16th as a way of discouraging a Koizumi shrine visit on the 15th, Okuda felt he was unable to go along with this and had to decline. Okuda proposed late August, but this did not fit in with Hu's schedule, and the meeting was again postponed.

   However, Wang moved fast. In the beginning of September, he said that if the meeting could be scheduled for the 30th of that month, time could be made to meet in the evening. The snag was that Okuda would have to visit China twice in a week, as he was due to meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a trip to China on the 26th with a mission from the Japan-China Economic Association. The fear was that things could go wrong if the media got wind and began digging, so measures were taken ensure that no details of the talks with Hu would be leaked. A particular worry was that the Chinese might cancel the talks in the event of a prior leak. In fact, there were some leaks, but journalists were asked not to report them, and there was no fallout.

   However, some observers noted the unusual way in which Okuda, having returned to Japan on the 27th, immediately headed back to China on the 29th. Because it was assumed the talks were not secret, there were some suggestions that the double visit reflected power struggles within the Chinese government. Okuda also denied that the talks had anything to do with the Yasukuni Shrine problem.

   Okuda steps down as chairman of Nippon Keidanren to make way for Fujio Mitarai, President of Canon Inc., in May 2006. Neither Mitarai or Canon has any experience in the kind of lobbying activities Nippon Keidanren undertakes. Mitarai also lacks informal connections with Japanese political circles, as he has always championed the separation of business and politics. He is very unlikely to lead Japanese business from the front like Okuda did, leading to worries that Nippon Keidanren's influence on relations with China will be reduced.

   Yasukuni Shrine is a large Shinto shrine in Tokyo that commemorates Japan's war dead. Because the enshrined include 14 men judged to be Class A war criminals, prime ministerial visits usually arouse anger in China and South Korea.

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