Peacebuilding Expert Explains True Intent of Zelensky’s Haiku-Like Speech in Japan’s Diet
“With experience of running a company, he has the problem-solving skills like a competent consultant. Now, he is the brand icon of Ukraine and an excellent strategist of brand management.”
“As is clear from the way he tailors his legislature speech for each country, he changes the details and even the tone of the speech to suit his purpose. We shouldn’t just be moved by his speech to the Diet. It’s important to analyze Zelensky’s true intentions behind it,” says international political scientist Hideaki Shinoda.
While still at university, Shinoda has worked on refugee support activities. He is an “authority on peacebuilding,” involved in peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, and many peacebuilding projects in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. We asked him to analyze the “true intent” hidden in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Diet speech.
Seems Elaborately Created by Consulting a Japan Expert
On March 23, Zelensky delivered a speech to the Japanese Diet.
In the short speech lasting just 12 minutes, he expressed gratitude for Japan’s support and requested additional sanctions on Russia. Compared to quotes from Shakespeare in the British parliament or mention of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor in the U.S. Congress, we could say the speech for Japan was rather dry. But that was exactly Zelensky’s point, says Shinoda.
“President Zelensky’s speech had a haiku-like feel, with the Japanese minimalist aesthetic, wabi-sabi, or subdued imperfection. For example, if he passionately spoke of specific persons, like, ‘the heroes who stayed at the Fukushima nuclear plant’ or ‘those who reconstructed Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings,’ he knew the Japanese would be turned off.”
“He must have thought that quoting straight from Churchill or Shakespeare would be too over-the-top for the Japanese and fail to gain sympathy. Just implying in a natural way helped to resonate with Japanese minds. Looking at the response on social media, he seems to have succeeded.”
“It’s true he lacked the passion and frenzy he showed to the Western audience. If this speech was addressed to legislators in the U.K. or the U.S., it would have been too low-key. I have the impression this composition was the result of tremendous consideration for the optimal way to get the message across to the Japanese people. I could see he had consulted an expert on Japan for the content. President Zelensky had changed not only the details but also the tone of the speech for each country. I felt it was a logical, skillful, and well-calculated speech.”
The “Aspiration for Peace” Ukraine Shares with Japan
Indeed, many posts on the social media say the keywords such as “nuclear plant,” “sarin,” “tsunami,” and “reconstruction” mentioned in the speech evoke memories of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack. Among the keywords strewn across the speech, Shinoda says the phrase “aspirations for peace” plays a pivotal role.
“He used the phrase ‘truly against the war’ and ‘aspirations for peace’ at the opening of the speech. I guess he wants to say the Ukrainians are seeking for the same kind of peace that Japan gained painstakingly after World War II. He stressed it wasn’t a mock peace gained through easy surrender Ukraine aims for, but a true peace that you also love, that comes after a bitter fight and reconstruction.”
While Shinoda lauded it as a “strategy” based on a good understanding of the Japanese mindset, as he listened to the latter part, he also felt Zelensky needed an episode that goes another notch to win the hearts of the Japanese people.
How Effective Was the “Peach Boy” (Momotaro) Episode?
“However, near the end of the speech, he said his wife took part in a project to create Japanese folktale audiobooks for children with visual impairments. With this episode, I believe he succeeded in creating a sense of continuity not only in the Japanese Diet but also for people watching at home. It extended outside the legislative space, closing the emotional distance between the public audience in Japan and the people of Ukraine.”
Shinoda explains, Zelensky set the big theme of “transcending the distance of over eight thousand kilometers by the shared aspirations for peace” at the opening, and closed the speech by “sharing a relatable, concrete, and peaceful everyday life,” which was “impressive.”
“The folktale seems to be ‘Momotaro (Peach Boy).’ Many Japanese have the experience of listening to the story or reading it to others, don’t they? Sharing the same experience will create affinity among people. He implied that, ‘I am the Ukrainian president and the husband of the woman who reads folktales to children, just like every Japanese has done—we are all the same.’”
“I guess this ‘Momotaro’ was the equivalent of Shakespeare for the U.K. parliament and 9/11 for the U.S. Congress. Making radical comments such as ‘Send weapons to Ukraine,’ ‘Revise Article 9,’ or ‘Remember the Northern Territories’ would mean nothing here. The speech was not intended to provide fodder for gossip shows on Japanese TV.”
Zelensky’s Three Requests to Japan
Of course, his aim was not only to earn sympathy. In the speech, Zelensky also called on Japan to take specific actions.
Shinoda interprets the requests to Japan with three keywords.
“The first keyword is ‘the leader of Asia.’ He used the phrase like a praise for Japan, which promptly imposed sanctions on Russia. I guess his true intent was that he wants Japan to expand the wave of sanctions on Russia across Asia. Frankly speaking, compared to Europe, Asia’s sanctions against Russia are weak.”
Many countries in Asia do not want to offend Russia, and they are not as keen as Europe to impose economic sanctions. Japan is expected to play a role in overcoming this situation.
“The second is ‘UN reform.’ It’s a great risk for Ukraine to have the invading country sitting as the permanent member of the UN Security Council. Japan also shares this stance as a non-permanent member. As he mentioned in his speech, the UN Security Council has failed to function effectively because of Russia’s veto power. He probably wants Japan to form an anti-Russia coalition in the UN as a representative of Asia.”
A UN Security Council resolution requires the approval of all permanent members, including Russia. On February 25, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Russia vetoed and the resolution draft was rejected.
“The last is ‘reconstruction.’ Ukraine cannot expect much arms support from Japan, and it would be inefficient considering transportation. Therefore, expectations will inevitably be for humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance. Besides Japan’s individual support, Ukraine also expects Japan to raise the level of support in the Asian region as the leader of Asia—the first keyword.”
“For example, the knowhow the UN cultivated through refugee support in Africa and other developing countries cannot be used in Ukraine. To help refugees in developing countries, they usually secure a vast patch of land and tell them to pitch tents there. But you can’t do that in Europe. That’s why new humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance are needed. Japan is expected to provide aid money in projects that have no precedents but are likely to be effective.”
The Ingenious “Strategy” of Zelensky’s Speech
As we have seen, Zelensky’s aim is to “befriend Japan and gain diplomatic assets,” explains Shinoda. However, there is no guarantee the other side will do as you say if you just demand things for your own merit. The ingenious thing about Zelensky’s “strategy” is that his requests also meet Japan’s interests.
“For example, Zelensky requested Japan to impose additional sanctions on Russia as ‘the leader of Asia.’ Leading Asian countries towards sanctions would help to enhance Japan’s presence in the international community. Similarly, it is in Japan’s national interest to demonstrate its presence in the international community by spearheading reconstruction assistance in the Asian region. As for the UN reform, it has been an ardent wish for Japan, which is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. By criticizing the UN Security Council, Zelensky also means he supports the activities of Japan, the ‘leader of Asia,’ in the UN.”
Shinoda says Zelensky presented these three policy areas to the Japanese government in the speech. These policies are indeed in line with Japan’s interests. But are there any risks to the Japanese government in implementing them?
“Of course, we can’t say there’s no risk at all. Relations with Russia will sour, so the possibility of nuclear weapons use is not zero. But, rather than such an extremely unlikely scenario, the risk of Japan being viewed as an incompetent country by the international community or losing the trust of allies and friendly nations because of the government’s inaction is much higher. So, I hope to see decent response from the Japanese government.”
These Policies Are Not “Mere Maneuvering”
Immediately after Zelensky’s speech, Prime Minister Kishida announced Japan would consider imposing additional sanctions on Russia and providing humanitarian aid. He also referred to how the UN Security Council should be. Yet, Shinoda warns, we should not misunderstand such policies as mere maneuvering in global politics.
“We mustn’t forget he is aiming for ‘true peace.’ The three policies Zelensky presented serve the interests of both countries, but they are all policies to achieve ‘true peace.’ There were speculative articles that Zelensky would criticize ‘the honeymoon between Vladimir Putin and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,’ but that does not suit Zelensky’s purpose at all. For him, there’s no merit in nitpicking. Knowing the purpose of their actions is the prime quality of a good strategist.”
“We could just be content by saying it was a moving and effective speech. Yet, after a proper understanding of his purpose, it is important for the Japanese people to continue to speak out to support our government’s actions, as a nation who also loves true peace.”
This is a translation of the Japanese article published on March 24, 2022 on Bunshun Online.