Japan has been in the news lately, owing to its dispute with China over 6km2 of barren islets in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkakus and Taiwan and China call the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). The rival claims date back to the late 19th century, but the recent flare-up, which led to widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, started in September when Japan’s government purchased three of the tiny islets from their private Japanese owner.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said that he decided to purchase the islands for the Japanese central government to prevent then-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from purchasing them with municipal funds. Ishihara, who has since resigned from office to launch a new political party, is well known for nationalist provocation, and Noda feared that he would try to occupy the islands or find other ways to use them to provoke China and whip up popular support in Japan.
However, top Chinese officials did not accept Noda’s explanation and interpreted the purchase as proof that Japan is trying to disrupt the “status quo.”
In May 1972, when the US returned Okinawa Prefecture to Japan, the transfer included the Senkaku Islands, which the US had administered from Okinawa. A few months later, when China and Japan normalized their post-World War II relations, then-Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka asked then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) about the Senkakus, and was told that rather than let the dispute delay normalization, the issue should be left for future generations.
So both countries maintained their claims to sovereignty. Though Japan had administrative control, Chinese ships would occasionally enter Japanese waters to assert their legal position. For China, this was the “status quo” that Japan upended in September.
In Beijing recently, Chinese analysts said that they believed that Japan was entering a period of right-wing militaristic nationalism and that purchasing the islands was a deliberate effort to begin eroding the post-World War II settlement.
While Chinese rhetoric is overheated, there is certainly a rightward shift in mood in Japan, though it would be difficult to describe it as militaristic. A large group of students at Waseda University were recently polled on their attitudes toward the military. While a significant number expressed a desire for Japan to improve its ability to defend itself, an overwhelming majority rejected the idea of developing nuclear arms and supported continued reliance on the US-Japan Security Treaty.
As one young professional told me: “We are interested in conservative nationalism, not militaristic nationalism. No one wants to return to the 1930s.”
And, of course, Japan’s Self Defense Forces are professional and under full civilian control.
Japan faces parliamentary elections in the near future, by August next year at the latest, but perhaps as early as the start of the year.
According to public opinion polls, the governing Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in 2009, is likely to be replaced by the Liberal Democratic Party, whose president, Shinzo Abe, would become prime minister — a position he has already held.
Abe has a reputation as a nationalist, and recently visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a Tokyo war memorial that is controversial in China and Korea.