Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has placed himself at the helm of countries that seek to counter China’s rise, as Tokyo’s right-wing leadership looks intent to ramp up its aggressive nationalistic stance with US support.
Since returning to power in late 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has emerged as one of Japan's most influential prime ministers in decades.
Abe has attempted to put an end to the cycle of weak executive leadership with his long-standing nationalist vision of a more militarily assertive Japan, in addition to his efforts to pull the country out of a two-decade-long economic slump with an array of neoliberal reforms collectively referred to as‘Abenomics.’ He has played upon nationalistic sentiment to accumulate an unusually strong grip on power in contrast to former Japanese prime ministers, leading his right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to gain unified control of parliament last year.
His visit to the Yasukuni war shrine last December, to a memorial site honoring convicted war criminals that died for the cause of Imperial Japan, strained ties with neighboring countries that once bore the brunt of a ruthless and unyielding Japanese occupation. Under Abe’s watch, high-level diplomatic contact with China has virtually dried up since Tokyo has more assertively defended its claims over the disputed chain of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Shinzo Abe has also extended his support for a controversial state secrets law that could punish leakers, whistleblowers, and journalists with hefty prison sentences if the state determines wrongdoing. More than half of Japanese voters oppose the law and its negative effects on press freedom, while others have likened it to Imperial Japanese laws that ruthlessly curbed dissent.
One of his key goals is a national education overhaul designed to more effectively propagate government-sanctioned views onto young generations, including an emphasis on Japan’s territorial claims and a shamelessly sanitized wartime history. Abe has purchased advanced weapons systems, ramped up military spending for the first time in a decade, and has called for revising Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution that may see the omission of Article 9, which forbids the use of force to settle international disputes.
Abe has put himself at the forefront of regional efforts to counter China’s rise with the full backing of the Obama administration, which views Japan as an indispensible asset in the strengthening of an anti-China security regime in Asia.
Hostages of history
The growing tension in northeast Asia today is linked to national identities that have been founded upon varying perspectives and interpretations of historical narratives. China endured well-documented atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking and a brutal occupation that saw the mass slaughter and enslavement of civilians, and territorial annexations linked to present-day conflicts, such as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. Beijing has routinely accused Japan of whitewashing its record of atrocities and revising its imperial history to suit Tokyo’s present day political ambitions.
The four-decade occupation of the Korean peninsula by Japanese forces and the country’s anti-colonialist resistance play a central role in the foundational narratives of both Korean nations, which remain in strong opposition to Japan. Throughout the occupation, tens of thousands of Korean women and girls were used as sex slaves to Japanese forces, leaving an indelible stain on Korea-Japan relations even in the present day. Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni shrine and his previous calls to revise Japan’s 1995 war apology can only be seen as a deeply offensive and reckless provocation from the perspectives of countries that that suffered most under Japanese imperialism.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the defeat in World War II have allowed Japan to cultivate a victim complex, which is used in contemporary politics to downplay atrocities and dismiss perceptions of it being an aggressor.
Nobusuke Kishi – Abe’s grandfather – was a former prime minister and was detained as a candidate for Class A War Criminal status until his release in 1948; his LDP government relied heavily on US support, while subsequent LDP governments have only very reluctantly issued formal apologies for Japan’s war crimes. Abe's nationalist agenda is a revival of this legacy, which is today championing views that are usually relegated to the right-wing fringe. His administration’s willingness to take control over major media outlets to promote a distorted and bigoted view of history can only deepen ongoing regional tensions.
An illustration of Abe’s hubris is his promotion of four hard-right figures to the board of governors of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. Katsuto Momii, the new NHK chairman, made waves by justifying the systematic abuse of comfort women and for his refusal to retract his remarks. Naoki Hyakuta, another Abe appointee, declared that the Rape of Nanking “never happened,” and that the atrocity was fabricated in order to cover up the crimes of the US atomic bombing.
Abe’s political gamble
Japan’s historical revisionism and the prevalence of high-profile atrocity deniers are as odious as the hypothetical equivalent of German leaders honoring Nazi war criminals and denying the Holocaust. Much like the resurgence of right-wing and fascist movements in present day Europe, jingoistic nationalism is a product of Japan’s deepening economic stagnation and population demographic crisis. Wages have been on the decline since 1998, and Japan has the highest debt-to-GDP levels in the developed world.
Abe’s solution is quantitative easing, currency inflation, the deregulation of energy and financial sectors, the privatization of public assets and industries, tax-free havens to lure in multinationals, and structural reforms that serve big business. ‘Abenomics’ has caused the Japanese stock market to soar because money is being injected into the financial sector, but money velocity remains low because it is not trading hands in the real economy; demand and activity remain stagnant. Abe’s nationalism can be relied upon to assuage the masses as tax hikes, belt-tightening, and austerity measures are introduced to assist the Japanese government in servicing its massive debt.
Abe has not tried to obscure his intentions to revive Japanese military muscle and despite tarnishing his image abroad, the visit to the Yasukuni shrine went ahead anyway with the principle intention being to generate an aggressive response from China. Fanning the war of words with China and Korea serves Abe’s interests by heightening the Japanese public's sense of threat from abroad, allowing Abe to build greater support for revising his country's constitution.
The Yasukuni visit also boosted Abe’s credentials among parliamentarians and hard-liners that may have accused him of being too soft on foreign policy issues. For further context, it should also be noted that even Japan’s current Emperor Akihito has abstained from visiting the Yasukuni shrine precisely because of the inclusion of war criminals after 1978 and the ensuing politicization of the site.
The Obama administration has publicly expressed disappointment over Abe’s visit to the shrine, but remains steadfast on supporting its security commitments to Japan, including support for Tokyo’s disputed territorial claims. Washington’s consent for Japan to play a more assertive military role in the region ties into the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ intentions to maintain dominance in the Asia-Pacific by encircling China and curbing its growing influence.
The new 1914?
Shinzo Abe told audiences at the recent Davos conference in Switzerland that present-day tensions between China and Japan reflect circumstances between Germany and Britain prior to World War I.
Abe challenged notions that strong economic ties between Japan and China would decrease the possibility of confrontation, citing how the strong trade relationship between Germany and Britain failed to negate a cataclysmic conflict. Parallels to 1914 certainly exist with growing naval antagonisms between China and Japan, the increasing propagation of hostility and nationalism, and in a rise of inequality amid unfettered international trade.
However, such similarities can only go so far. The German leadership under the Kaiser and his military cabal bares little similarity to the non-interventionist policies and meritocratic governance of modern China, which is focused primarily on reform and reducing corruption; there is also no clear modern comparison to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The current scenario – the hyper-modern reemergence of a civilizational state like China – is unprecedented in history, making 1914 comparisons lopsided and superficial at best.
Unlike the relationship between Germany and Britain in 1914, the present-day tension between China and Japan has its roots in history. Since resistance to colonialism (especially Japanese colonialism) is so deeply interwoven into Chinese and Korean nationalistic narratives, overcoming the present day challenges are all but impossible in the midst of an unrepentant and chauvinistic Japan.
If the leadership in China and South Korea were seen as yielding to Japanese pressure on territorial disputes, the domestic political consequences would be staggering; likewise, it would be political suicide for Shinzo Abe if Japan’s leadership to lose face by taking a soft stance on disputes.
Despite the war of words, there is no immediate indication of a hot war over Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea; its potential to spark a large-scale military conflict is still hypothetical. The United States is in a position where it could be a mediator, but instead has opted to take sides by supporting Japan while letting an odious brand of nationalism fester unchecked. If a misstep occurs, the US administration could set in motion a security crisis that it cannot easily control.
Nile Bowie is a political analyst and photographer currently residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached on Twitter or at email@example.com
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