The gulf between Japan and Russia is widening

Japan and Russia lie so close together geographically that there’s even been discussions about building a bridge between them.

A rail bridge to join Cape Crillon on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Cape Soya at the northern tip of the Japanese island of Hokkaido would stretch about 30 miles. There are many longer bridges elsewhere in Japan.

However, there is an enormous political gulf between Russia and Japan and it is getting wider. President Vladimir Putin made this plain in an interview before he travelled to Osaka for the G20 summit last week, when he declared that “liberalism is obsolete.”

“Liberalism is obsolete” – Vladimir Putin

He told the Financial Times that liberal ideology has “outlived its purpose” and praised the rise of populism in Europe and America, saying that ideas like multiculturalism are “no longer tenable.”

Liberalism and democracy

Many articles in the press contrasted the Russian approach with “western liberal values.” For example, the BBC said that liberalism “has underpinned Western democracies for decades.”

The British Prime Minister Theresa May lashed out at what she called Russia’s “irresponsible and despicable behaviour” and her likely successor Boris Johnson said that the Russian president was “totally wrong; our values – freedom and democracy, the rule of law and free speech – those things are imperishable and they will succeed.”

As host of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was carefully not to clash with Mr Putin publicly. Instead he spoke of his desire for a “peace deal” with Russia.

One of his dreams is that Russia will one day return to Japan some of the islands which were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.

Danger Zone

They form part of a chain of islands which are known as the Northern Territories and a few years ago this was the preferred location for the friendship bridge. However, it has now become one of the most dangerous regions in East Asia.

The Russians have been carrying out missile tests, which Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kano has called “unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, many Japanese businesses still work with the Russians. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that companies cooperate in the energy and medical sectors and engage in joint activities such as tourism, waste disposal and vegetable farming.

None of that matters much to the Japanese economy. What is far more significant is the liberal economic values which underpin Japan’s society.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which Mr Abe leads, states clearly on its website that it is a liberal political party which advocates democracy and basic human rights and “strives to make positive contributions to world peace and prosperity of mankind.”

Party politics

Rival parties – such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People – have different policies but share similar ideas about the importance of parliamentary democracy.

According to an opinion piece in the Financial Times which responded to the Putin interview, countries with liberal market-based democracies generally enjoy high standards of living, driven by a “dynamism” which generates prosperity.

The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese business newspaper Nikkei, so it seems to be stating a view which is widely held in Japanese business and political circles.

There are some notable dissenters, such as the Japanese Communist Party. But even if it uses a political process based on elections to get its voice heard.

And even though many people say they are tired of Mr Abe and the LDP, it is a party which nearly always wins elections – a sign that liberalism is far from obsolete in Japan, even though Russia and China advocate rival systems of government.