[FT.com Published: October 24 2005 03:00 | Last updated: October 24 2005 03:00]
Fresh from last month's resounding election victory, Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, is understandably piqued at his government's inability to secure a permanent seat for Japan on the UN Security Council.
Mr Koizumi has swiftly revived Japanese demands for a cut in the country's UN contributions, although Japan denies a direct link with the stalled efforts to reform the council. Nobutaka Machimura, the foreign minister, told the Financial Times that Japan would be "proactively involved" in talks next year to renegotiate payments for 2007-2009. In arithmetical terms, the Japanese argument is unassailable. It is unjust that Tokyo should pay 19.5 per cent of the UN budget — more than the combined payments of four of the five permanent Security Council members — rather than the 14 per cent indicated by its share of global income.
However, a good case for a seat on the Security Council or for lower UN fees is no substitute for good foreign policy — and that is what Mr Koizumi needs if he is to achieve his aim of making Japan a "normal" nation.
Mr Koizumi's visit last week to the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates war criminals as well as other Japanese soldiers, undid the diplomatic good done on the war's 60th anniversary by his full if formulaic apology to victims of Japanese aggression.
China and South Korea reacted to Mr Koizumi's latest Yasukuni visit by cancelling ministerial meetings with Japan, once again leaving regional relations in a frosty state unhelpful for economies so dependent on each other for trade and investment. Resurgent nationalism is a dangerously potent force in all three countries.
With Yasukuni and the lack of remorse it implies, Japan provides its enemies with the perfect excuse to thwart its UN ambitions.
China, which has campaigned against Japan's bid for a Security Council seat, must still share the blame for the resulting tension. Beijing's complaint that Mr Koizumi visited Yasukuni to detract attention from the return to earth of two Chinese astronauts says more about the prickliness of Chinese nationalists than any cunning on the part of Mr Koizumi.
The Japanese people remain deeply divided over whether their country should do more to atone for its wartime record and it was notable that Mr Koizumi — although his annual visit to the shrine is an unnecessary provocation in itself — made an effort this time to diminish its political significance. Among other changes, he went to Ã?Â?Yasukuni in a personal capacity and did not add "prime minister" to his signature in the visitors' book.
Such gestures will not secure Japan a Security Council seat or cut its UN dues but they are the kind of small, conciliatory steps that could undermine the ritualistic posturing on all sides over Yasukuni and so promote lasting peace in north-east Asia.