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

Thu, Dec 05, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.”

What Abe was doing was “necessary and justified” in the face of China’s diplomatic hostility and rapid military buildup, said Yuji Miyamoto, a former Japanese ambassador to China.

“Only three countries don’t understand this policy: China, South Korea and North Korea,” said Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother and Japanese senior vice foreign minister.

In contrast, the members of ASEAN are mostly on board.

Abe’s advancing security agenda suggests his second year in office will be even more rumbustious than the first.

It includes creating a national security council modeled on the US and British versions (British Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of Foreign Affairs William Hague have offered their advice), a new national security strategy, revamped defense guidelines and a harsh state secrets law.

Criticized by the UN and the main opposition parties, the proposed law threatens long jail sentences for whistle-blowers and journalists who break its vague, catchall provisions. Abe has increased the defense budget for the first time in years, is overseeing an expansion of naval and coastguard capabilities (the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or navy, is already the second-biggest in Asia by tonnage) and has gathered expert support for a reinterpretation of article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow “collective self-defense” — meaning that if the US or another ally is attacked, Japanese armed forces will join the fight.

On the diplomatic front, Abe is busily wooing his Asian neighbors. Having visited all 10 members of ASEAN in his first year, he is to host a gala summit for the bloc in Tokyo on Dec. 13 that looks very much like an anti-China jamboree.

He comprehensively outflanked Beijing during this month’s typhoon emergency in the Philippines, sending troops, ships and generous amounts of aid in the biggest single overseas deployment of Japanese forces since 1945, while China was widely criticized for donating less financial aid than Swedish furniture chain Ikea.

Abe is also providing 10 coastguard vessels to the Philippines to help ward off Chinese incursions. Improved security and military-to-military cooperation with Australia and India form part of his plans.

Meanwhile, Tokyo officials insist that the US relationship remains the bedrock of Japanese security. Taking full advantage of US President Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot to Asia,” Abe’s government agreed to a revised pact in October with US Secretary of State John Kerry and the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, providing for a “more robust alliance and greater shared responsibilities.”

With a wary eye on China, the pact envisages enhanced cooperation in ballistic missile defense; arms development and sales; intelligence sharing; space and cyberwarfare; joint military training and exercises; plus the introduction of advanced radar and drones. Japan is also expected to buy US advanced weapons systems, such as the F-35 fighter bomber and two more Aegis-equipped missile defense destroyers.

Washington is positively purring with pleasure over Abe’s tougher stance.

“The US welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute proactively to regional and global peace and security,” a joint statement issued by the two countries said.

The pact reflected “shared values of democracy, the rule of law, free and open markets and respect for human rights,” it added.

Yet Abe’s opponents fear that the country is developing a new military mindset.

What the Japanese public makes of what seems to amount overall to a landmark post-war shift in the scope and ambition of Japan’s regional and global engagement is hard to gauge.

China’s disapproval ratings are a record high 94 percent, but a big majority (80 percent) of people polled also believe that good bilateral relations with Beijing are important.Many cling to the old pacifist verities, but many others now understand that the world around Japan is changing fast and unpredictably, Kuni Miyake of Tokyo’s Canon Institute for Global Studies said.

“Despite his conservative, hawkish image, Abe is in fact a very pragmatic, reasonable politician, but he is also proud of Japan and he is saying it’s OK to be proud,” Miyake said.

“A huge power shift is going on in East Asia. Before Abe and the new era, we were daydreaming. We thought we could follow pacifism, not threaten anybody, have no army and the world would leave us alone. We were in a bubble and it worked because of the US alliance, not because of pacifism,” Miyake added.

“The next generation doesn’t believe that...People are aware that prayers for peace are not enough. We have to deter many potential aggressors. If China insists on being a Pacific power and challenges the US-Japan hegemony at sea, a showdown is inevitable,” Miyake said.

For Takahara, the opposite holds true. There are limits to what Japan could do when faced by China’s rising power and Abe’s approach was fraught with peril.

“There is really no choice but to use diplomacy and dialogue to mend ties with China,” Takahara said.

“Abe is very right-wing by traditional measures. He is a historical revisionist at heart. He would really like to visit the Yasukuni Shrine where Japan’s war dead are remembered. He is a nationalist ... but Abe won’t succeed with his ‘new nationalism.’ We are a post-industrial society. There’s no way the youngsters will go along,” Takahara added.