The deepening confrontation between Japan and its giant neighbor China over a disputed island chain, which last week sucked in US military forces flying B-52 bombers, holds no terrors for Kenji Fujii, captain of crack Japanese destroyer the JS Murasame.
As a battleship-gray drizzle sweeps across Yokosuka Harbor, home port to the Japan maritime self-defense force and the US Seventh Fleet, Fujii stands four-square on his helicopter deck, a totemic red Japanese sun ray ensign flapping at the flagstaff behind him. His stance exudes a quiet purposefulness.
The Murasame, armed with advanced missiles, torpedoes, a 76mm rapid-fire turret cannon and a vicious-looking Phalanx close-in-weapons-system Gatling gun, is on the frontline of Japan’s escalating standoff with China and its contentious bid to stand up for itself and become a power in the world once again — and Fujii clearly relishes his role in the drama.
Asked whether he will be taking his ship south, to the hotly disputed waters off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — which are also claimed by China and Taiwan, which calls them the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — Fujii smiles and bows. Acting as a translator, his executive officer said that “for security and operational reasons,” the captain cannot comment. The situation there is just too sensitive.
The name Murasame means “passing shower,” but Japan’s decision last year to in effect nationalize some of the privately owned Senkakus — officials prefer to call it a transfer of property rights — triggered a prolonged storm of protest from China, which has been sending ships to challenge the Japanese Coast Guard ever since.
So far, there have been no direct armed exchanges, but there have been several close shaves, including a Chinese navy radar lock-on and the firing of warning shots by a Japanese fighter plane.
China’s declaration on Nov. 23 of an exclusive “air defense identification zone” covering the islands was denounced by Tokyo and Washington, and sharply increased the chances of a military clash. US B-52 bombers and Japanese civilian airliners have subsequently entered the zone, ignoring China’s new “rules.”
On Nov. 26, Beijing said it had monitored the flights and its next move is awaited with some trepidation.
For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative who marks one year in office next month, the territorial dispute is only one facet of a deteriorating East Asian security environment that is officially termed “increasingly severe” and which looks increasingly explosive as China projects its expanding military, economic and political power beyond its historical borders.
One year on, Abe’s no-nonsense response is plain: Japan must loosen the pacifist constitutional bonds that have held it in check since 1945 and stand up forcefully for its interests, its friends and its values. The way Abe tells it, Japan is back and the tiger he is riding has been dubbed Abe’s “new nationalism.”
It is no coincidence that high-level contacts with China and South Korea have been in deep freeze ever since Abe took office, while the impasse over North Korea has only deepened. Unusually, a date for this year’s trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea has yet to be announced.
The governments in Beijing and Seoul profess to view Abe’s efforts to give Japan a bigger role on the world stage, forge security and defense ties with Southeast Asian neighbors, and strengthen the US alliance as intrinsically threatening — a throwback to the bad old days of Japanese imperialism.