Thu, Dec 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Is Japan’s ‘new nationalism’ a return to imperialism?

Tokyo’s bid to play a more leading role on the international stage is alarming Beijing and Seoul, which see in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s split with pacifism proof that the country is reviving its military mindset

By Simon Tisdall  /  The Guardian, YOKOSUKA, Japan

Abe is also charged with arrogance, chauvinism and historical revisionism by minimizing or ignoring wartime legacies such as the controversy over Korean “comfort women” who were forced into prostitution by Japanese troops during World War II.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in September, Abe set an unapologetically expansive global agenda for a newly assertive Japan. Whether the issue was Syria, nuclear proliferation, UN peacekeeping, piracy off the coast of Somalia, development assistance or women’s rights, Tokyo would have its say.

“I will make Japan a force for peace and stability,” Abe said. “Japan will newly bear the flag of ‘proactive contribution to peace’ [his policy slogan].”

Referring to the initial success of his “Abenomics” strategy to revive the country’s economic fortunes, he went on to promise that Japan would “spare no pains to get actively involved in historic challenges facing today’s world with our regained strength and capacity. The growth of Japan will benefit the world. Japan’s decline would be a loss for people everywhere.”

Just in case Beijing missed his drift, Abe spelled it out: As a global trading nation, Japan’s reinvigorated “national interest” was existentially linked to freedom of navigation and open sea lanes around the disputed island chain and elsewhere.

“Changes to the maritime order through the use of force or coercion cannot be condoned under any circumstances,” he said.

Tokyo University international relations and law professor Akio Takahara said that such statements made clear that the territorial standoff was potentially setting a precedent for all the countries of the region — including Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines — which have their own island disputes with Beijing.

“[The Senkakus] must be viewed as an international issue, not just a bilateral issue ... and it is very, very dangerous. They [China] must stop the provocations,” Takahara said. “If Japan did buckle, it would send a very bad message to China’s hardliners, they would be triumphant and the modernizers and reformers would be marginalized.”

A senior Japanese government official was more terse: “We don’t want to see China patrolling the East and South China seas as though they think they own them.”

Abe’s forcefulness has produced forceful reactions. In a recent editorial, South Korea’s Joong Ang Daily, lambasted him as “one of the most right-wing politicians in Japan in decades.”

It continued: “Buoyed by the nationalist mood sweeping Japanese society since Abe took the helm of the once pacifist nation, [right-wing politicians] are increasingly regressing to a militarist path ... As a result, the political situation of north-east Asia is becoming shakier than ever.”

However, Abe’s defenders say that is pure hyperbole. Tensions were high primarily as a result of China’s aggressive bid for hegemonic regional leadership, a senior official at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, while describing the antagonistic South Korean leadership’s anti-Japan behavior as “strange” and “emotional.”

Japanese government spokeswoman Kuni Sato said Abe’s premise was that, after years of restraint, “Japan can now do what other countries do within international law.”

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