Michael, a 38-year-old Burmese man who has lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, has mixed feelings on the killing of Japanese photo journalist Mr. Kenji Nagai: “There is more support for our struggle for democracy after the Japanese people witnessed the brutal killing of Mr. Nagai. But please do not forget that many more people have been persecuted and killed before the incident.”

The Burmese military has a long record of using force to put down peaceful demonstrations. In 1988, pro-democracy demonstrators in Rangoon were shot in the streets in a series of brutal military operations that also targeted monks and medical personnel. Approximately 3,000 people were killed as the demonstrations were crushed in September 1988. As many as 10,000 people were killed nationwide between March and September of that year.

Michael said, “The government of Japan has long assisted the junta to prolong its life. But I believe, this time, that the Japanese government may finally side with the people, not with the junta.”

Since the military took power in Burma in 1962, Burma has relied heavily on Japanese foreign aid. Astoundingly, in the mid 1990s Japan’s aid constituted more than 90% of OECD-DAC members’ aid to Burma. At the same time, trade between the two countries expanded. Though the economic situation and the horrible reputation of the Burmese military government has led to a decrease in Japanese foreign aid and investment, Japan remains a major donor to Burma until the present.

While peaceful protestors shot, beaten, and killed in full view of the world, with hundreds of monks disappeared, and with soldiers entering houses to arrest activists, the initial response of the Japanese government was not encouraging. When the protests were reaching a crescendo and it was clear that the Burmese government would soon use force to end the protests, all the Japanese Foreign Ministry could come up with was a three-line bland statement calling for “restraint.”

While Japan, a democracy, could not find its voice in the midst of a human rights crisis, ASEAN – hardly a bastion of human rights and democracy – called a spade a spade, expressing “revulsion.” The United States announced new sanctions, and the European Union called on the U.N. Security Council to “discuss this situation urgently and consider further steps including sanctions.”

Instead of publicly and vociferously standing with its long-time democratic allies, Japan’s response sounded more like those of China and Russia, neither of which offered more than the mildest rebuke to the Burmese government.

Even after Mr. Nagai was killed, the Japanese government has sent mixed signals. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said, “We have to wait and see for a while to decide if we should apply sanctions or not.”

Finally, on 3 October, Japan announced that it would decrease its aid to Burma. Cutting assistance that benefits the military rulers is welcome – and long overdue. The current military government has driven the country’s economy into the ground, brutally repressed the rights to free expression and association, routinely used torture in its prisons, committed innumerable war crimes against ethnic minority populations, and failed at every opportunity to engage in dialogue with the political opposition. It is unclear why it took the death of a Japanese citizen to drive these realities home.

The failure to speak out immediately and forcefully reflects longstanding timidity in Japanese foreign policy in which aid is given as a blank check in hopes of buying friendship. This out of date policy offers no answer to the growing influence of China, which in recent years has swooped in with even larger checks and succeeding in having much greater influence than Japan despite years of Japanese “friendship” and aid.

Japan should now target sanctions at the military’s leadership. It should work with other countries to put economic and political pressure on the Burmese government. Japan should insist that international observers be given immediate access to investigate the widespread human rights abuses committed by the military government, including the killing of monks and others, such as Mr. Nagai.

One can only hope that a new Burma policy will also be a catalyst for a new and more robust Japanese foreign policy providing ethical leadership. This is what will ultimately earn Japan the kind of friends it really wants – such as Michael.

Sophie Richardson is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.