BERLIN -- As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Angela Merkel, his German counterpart, an important subtext of the discussions was the need to warm chilly ties between the world's third- and fourth-largest economies.
Abe faces a difficult task winning over a German media that is highly skeptical of his economic and foreign policies, and concerned about what it sees as the growing influence of right-wingers in Japan. Unless he confronts growing criticism of Japan in Germany, relations between the two countries will only suffer.
Numerous German news reports have criticized the Japanese government and Tepco, operator of the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant for mishandling the disaster caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. German media paint a picture of Japanese society as backward, citing its closed labor market and inability to turn globalization to its economic advantage. Most stories on Japan deal with its failings.
Abe and his government are a particular target of German media critics. When the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner Komeito won by a landslide in the lower house elections in December last year, Der Spiegel magazine's headline read: "Friend of nuclear power Abe, a radiant victor," a none-too-subtle reference to the Fukushima meltdown.
Die Welt, a big newspaper, warned Japan's economic policies pose a risk to the whole world. Handelsblatt, a leading business newspaper, called the LDP's victory "the defeat of democracy." Many in the German media view Abe as a dangerous nationalist who glosses over the country's wartime conduct. Inflation- and nuclear-shy Germans also take a dim view of Japan's monetary and fiscal stimulus, as well as its moves to restart idled nuclear power plants.
Flimsy ties, high stakes
Despite these strains, Germany has no desire to antagonize Japan. Germans are known for straight talking, but Berlin is not opposed to Abe's entire foreign and security policy. The government has said it would welcome the deployment of Japanese troops where such a move serves the international community. It is neutral in the dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China.
Few Germans are well-acquainted with Japan, which makes it difficult to devise and appropriate policy toward the country. People are quick to point out Japan's shortcomings, but they are mostly unfamiliar with its societal complexities. This makes it hard to bridge the gap between the two countries.
Japan, for its part, is primarily interested in maintaining ties with the U.S. and other Asian countries. This has caused Japan and Germany to drift apart. Abe's visit to Germany last year was the first by a Japanese prime minister in five years.
The stakes are high. Germany has great sway over negotiations on a free trade agreement between the European Union and Japan. Japan's ties with the EU as a whole will suffer if it is unable to forge a constructive relationship with Germany, which has the EU's largest economy and population.
"The relationship between French President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Merkel was at first awkward but they are now close friends," a German government source said. "I'm sure Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Abe will also become good friends."
Merkel is said to have little interest in faraway Japan. Relations between the two countries could be strained further unless Tokyo works to address Germany's concerns and the two nations can set aside their differences.