Online classes and distance learning are no longer a novelty in our digital world, but the covid-19 pandemic has hastened the pace at which universities are adopting virtual classrooms. Although they are not without drawbacks, online lectures offer some unique benefits as well, including the potential to bring together experts and students from around the world. This year, the College of Global Liberal Arts at Ritsumeikan University of Osaka, Japan has been conducting some of its courses online using a popular video-streaming service.
On particular such class, Fieldwork on Media Studies (I), is taught by Dr. Tsutomu Kanayama in English in order to appeal to a wider range of international students. The August 27, 2020 session featured a guest lecture by Mitoji Yabunaka, a longtime Japanese diplomat who most recently served as Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this instance, students from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and mainland China were in attendance.
How to Succeed at International Diplomacy
Yabunaka, an affable and sharp-minded gentleman, began the lecture with a brief personal history, describing his career in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some of the diplomatic negotiations he was personally involved with. Negotiation and international trade are at the heart of Yabunaka’s expertise. He participated in World Trade Organization negotiations in the early 1990s and represented Japan as chief delegate at the Six-Party Talks, which were held to address the North Korean nuclear weapons program in the early 2000s — to give just two examples of his vital involvement in representing Japanese interests.
In summarizing what he had learned from his forty years of diplomatic experience, Yabunaka emphasized the need to speak out, the futility of making excuses, the importance of criticizing your negotiation opponents, and the need to balance the antagonism of the negotiation process by being friendly and honest. Some of these lessons go against the grain of Japanese culture in particular. Yabunaka used the Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan as case studies that demonstrate how Japan can make positive contributions during international conflicts without getting militarily involved.
As he segued to the topic of modern geopolitics, Yabunaka emphasized what he believes are five essentials for working in today’s globalized world: the ability to speak English, a sold grounding in world politics and cultures, the ability to think independently, the ability to use logic, and the ability to make friends — having “charm”, as he put it.
Japan in a Leaderless World
Yabunaka then turned his focus to the current state of diplomatic affairs, which he sees as becoming increasingly chaotic. The first example he raised was the establishment of the G20 to replace the G7 as the world’s main economic council. Although the G20 is more representative of the modern global economy, Yabunaka feels, based on his diplomatic experience, that 20 participants are too many for accomplishing meaningful progress in an international forum.
Yabunaka then highlighted the confusion and chaos that have dominated global politics under the Trump presidency in the US. He described the state of global diplomacy since 2016 as “confusion”, with the withdrawal of US leadership leading to collapse of the post-WW2 system. Washington’s new approach to international relations has put the peace and prosperity of the world at risk and added tension to relations between the US and Japan. Relations with China have also become strained as well, particularly where economic matters and security issues are concerned. The covid-19 pandemic has also disrupted international supply chains, hastening the economic decoupling between the US and China. As a diplomat who has witnessed the last four decades of international diplomacy firsthand, Yabunaka had valuable observations to make about the current state of geopolitics and where things may be headed.
The issue of North Korea has also come to the forefront following the test launch of several missiles, including an ICBM, in 2017. Japan is already well within range of Pyongyang’s missiles, and with more testing, the North Koreans might be capable of targeting the US mainland with ICBMs. Recent negotiations between the US and North Korea have done little to dispel Japan’s concerns, and Yabunaka expressed concerns regarding the proposals some in the Japanese government have made about altering Japan’s traditional defensive stance. As an experienced diplomat in these areas, Yabunaka believes there are active diplomatic options that could reduce the threat to Japan posed by North Korea.
Returning to the topic of China, Yabunaka raised the question, “Is the rise of China a threat or an opportunity (for Japan)?” Containing China is not an option, so Yabunaka believes that Japan must walk a difficult tightrope between accommodating China and keeping China in check. Achieving this will require smart diplomacy on Japan’s part, and Japan’s alliances with the US and ASEAN will also be key. At the same time, Japan’s obligations to speak up in support of democracy and human rights should not be ignored.
Yabunaka then briefly turned his attention to relations between Japan and South Korea (the ROK). He described the ROK as an “important neighbor” and expressed his hopes that the two countries would be able to work together.
In summary, Yabunaka described Japan’s future and peaceful relations in Asia as relying on three core diplomatic pillars: its relations with China, its alliance with the US, and Japan’s own power.
Soliciting the Students’ Views
The students attending Yabunaka’s lecture came from many of the countries that had just been discussed, and Yabunaka was eager to hear their own views and include them in the conversation. Having lectured the class for nearly an hour, he now proceeded by opening up the floor to questions and by asking specific students to relate their own perspectives on diplomatic relations with Japan.
The first to speak up, a Japanese student, was keen to know more about Yabunaka’s approach to negotiation — in particular, Yabunaka’s strategic advice to try to resolve 60% in your favor. Yabunaka stressed that the point of negotiations is to win an advantage for your country, and that a competitive approach could not be avoided. If the goal was simply to achieve a balanced 50-50 outcome, there would be no real point to being a tough negotiator. At the same time, he noted that no negotiator can win on 100% of their demands; hence his 60-40 rule of thumb. However, regardless of the exact outcome, finding a middle ground and ensuring that your own people understood the opposition’s point of view were also important. Lastly, Yabunaka offered the sober piece of advice that sometimes, no agreement at all is possible, and that’s something you just have to accept.
The discussion then moved on to Japan-ROK relations and the perspective of the South Korean public. One of the two students from that country in attendance suggested that South Koreans were dissatisfied with the apologies received from the Japanese government regarding the period of Japanese colonial rule. Yabunaka presented the view widely held by the other side: that the Japanese had already apologized numerous times, and it was time to move on. To illuminate this controversy, he proceeded to describe the diplomatic history between the two countries, beginning with the Japan–South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998, which he described as “the single most important diplomatic agreement between Japan and ROK” on this matter. It included a full apology by Japan in writing, an expression of appreciation by the ROK regarding Japan’s stance in the post-WWII era, and declared the intent of both countries to pursue a friendly relationship in the 21st century. So why do the South Korean and Japanese public have such different viewpoints on the matter? After soliciting input from other Japanese and Korean students, Yabunaka suggested that the education systems in the two countries were partly to blame for public perception and the gaps in the historical knowledge of their respective students. Yabunaka also explained that the 1965 treaty between the countries was binding with respect to the compensation that Japan was obligated to provide; as a result, there were limits to what further diplomatic negotiation could achieve. Yabunaka’s overall approach to this sensitive topic balanced historical reality regarding treaties and negotiation with the understandable sentiments of the two countries’ citizens.
Next, the discussion turned to Hong Kong and China. Yabunaka believes that Japan should take a firmer stand in support of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. He pointed out that this is not only the correct humanitarian response but also the correct legal response based on the treaty that is in effect between China, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Japan should continue to engage with China in other diplomatic matters.
Prompted by question from another student, Yabunaka expressed his belief that picking sides between the US and China will be a major issue faced by Japan going forward, particularly if Trump is reelected. He stressed that the US-Japan alliance must remain Japan’s first priority. Nevertheless, Japan must continue to pursue economic ties and a peaceful relationship with China. China cannot be contained, but Japan has a role to play in making sure that China respects the rules.
In response to another student question about Japan-ROK relations, Yabunaka had stern criticisms for the media and the way they treat Japan’s relationship with the ROK. He believes they should present more balanced views in order to encourage more serious and critical discussion.
Lastly, Yabunaka was asked by a Chinese student about the rise of nationalism in China. He expressed his disappointment at the rise of nationalism around the world and pointed out that China is working against its own best interests in this regard. Harmonious relations with the rest of the world would serve China better. Similarly, he observed that Trump’s alienation of the US’s international friends is not in America’s best interests. Such policies serve the president’s personal interests only, and not those of the country.
Throughout the discussion period, Yabunaka constantly drew on his wealth of experience and personal involvement in diplomatic negotiations with the US, South Korea, China, and other Asia-Pacific countries to bring new perspectives into focus while equally encouraging students to share their own views. The values that Yabunaka stressed as important for international diplomacy — thinking for oneself, speaking up, avoiding excuses, and so on — were evident in the way he presented his lecture and interacted with the students.
The interactive discussion-centric format of the class and the fact that it is English-based show that the College of Global Liberal Arts is serious about attracting a broad array of international students and boosting its standing as one of the world’s top university programs for training globally-minded professionals. All the students were engaged by the material and encouraged to related it to their personal experiences. The high caliber of instructors employed by Ritsumeikan University is undoubtedly another strong point in the program’s favor.
On a technical level, the online video-streaming format proved to be an effective means of participating in a lecture and discussion session. Although the technology is new and the instructors experienced one or two glitches at the start, the class proceeded flawlessly once it got underway. It seems clear that for the foreseeable future, virtual classrooms like those that Ritsumeikan University is experimenting with now will play a vital role in education and in our ability to connect with teachers and learners around the world.