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Is Japan's Shinzo Abe finally acting on his true nationalist colors?

Japan's prime minister appears to be stepping up his campaign to reinterpret Japan's wartime history, aggravating China and South Korea at a time when the region should be uniting to deal with North Korea.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Friday, April 19, 2013.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

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Since becoming Japan’s prime minister for a second time last December, Shinzo Abe has done a decent job of keeping his nationalistic instincts in check, choosing to focus instead on reviving the world’s third largest economy.

But this week, with his administration buoyant in the polls amid positive signs for the economy, the “other” Shinzo Abe has stepped into the spotlight in dramatic style, angering Japan’s neighbors and possibly fomenting another round of regional tension.

Predictions that his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would tread carefully on the diplomatic front were dashed over the weekend when the finance minister, Taro Aso, visited Yasukuni, a controversial shrine to 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 former leaders convicted of war crimes at the US-led Tokyo military tribunal. To leaders in Beijing and Seoul, South Korea, where symbolic acts carry a particular potency, Yasukuni is an unwanted reminder of Japanese militarism, and pilgrimages to Yasukuni by senior politicians are proof that Tokyo has yet to atone for its wartime conduct.

Analysts say Prime Minister Abe miscalculated the strength of how Japan’s neighbors were feeling at a time when the region was in the process of uniting in dealing with the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“Abe’s government has been remarkably disciplined until now by focusing on the economy, but it may be that complacency crept in,” says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Almost 70 years since Japan’s defeat in the Pacific war, China and South Korea harbor bitter memories of Japan’s occupation of the Korean Penninsula and parts of China in the first half of the 20th century. 

Abe did not attend the shrine’s annual spring festival in person, but sent a ritual offering of a pine-tree branch, with his name and title written below. On Tuesday, 168 other lawmakers, most of them from the LDP, paid homage at Yasukuni – the largest group visit by politicians since records were first kept in 1989.

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Outrage at Abe's attempt to reinterpret Japan’s past

The recent visits prompted predictable outrage in China and South Korea, while Japan insisted, naively, that Yasukuni should not be allowed to sour regional ties.

“Abe is doing well in the polls with upper house elections on the horizon, and simply went off-message. He probably thought that not making a personal visit to Yasukuni was a good-enough gesture [to Japan’s neighbors].”

Abe, though, was unapologetic. "It is only natural to honor the spirits of the war dead who gave their lives for the country,” he told a parliamentary panel on Wednesday. “Our ministers will not cave in to any threats. It is also my job to protect our pride, which rests on history and tradition." 

He has made no secret of his desire to reinterpret Japan’s wartime past, distance himself from apologies issued by his predecessors, and, critically, rewrite the Constitution imposed by the US-led postwar occupation forces.

The consensus among analysts had been that he would wait until after this July’s upper house elections before unleashing his nationalist agenda.

The early success of Abenomics – huge public investment coupled with superloose monetary easing – has sent his personal ratings to above 70 percent, giving the LDP reason to believe it can seize control of both houses of the Diet this summer, provided the economy dominates political discourse.

But the events of this week have effectively destroyed that strategy. During questions in parliament on Tuesday, Abe gave his clearest indication yet that the sensitive subject of Japan’s wartime legacy is back on the agenda.

What does ‘invasion’ really mean?

Asked if he would consider revising an apology for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula first issued in 1995 by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, he replied: “The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community.

“Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.”

South Korea responded today by summoning Japan’s ambassador in Seoul to lodge a formal protest, while the country’s new president, Park Geun-hye, warned Tokyo against “aggravating the scars of the past.” Earlier, South Korea's foreign minister abruptly canceled a two-day trip to Tokyo that was to start Friday.

“If [Japan] leans to the right, relations with Northeast Asia and other Asian countries will be in trouble,” Ms. Park told the managing editors of South Korean media organizations, according to Yonhap. “If it has a different perception of history and aggravates the scars of the past, it will be difficult to build future-oriented ties.”

Navigating diplomatic waters

In Tokyo, officials attempted to calm the diplomatic waters.

"Our basic stance is … our nation caused a great pain and suffering to many nations, especially people in Asian nations, in the war," the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters.

"Japanese governments have accepted these historical facts sincerely and have expressed our deepest remorse and heartfelt apology, and have expressed the condolences for all the victims ... the same goes for the Abe government.”

Abe has often said he became a politician to help Japan "escape the postwar regime" and throw off the shackles of wartime guilt. To him, that means revising the Constitution to remove restrictions on Japan’s military, specifically its right to collective self-defense – or coming to the defense of an ally under attack.

"It's been over 60 years since its enactment, and its contents have become obsolete," Abe said in a recent interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun. "The spirit of writing our own constitution is what will take us to the next era."

“This has always been the real Abe,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “He really believes this stuff, and when he is not under the control of his bureaucrats, like during this week’s parliamentary session, he says what he thinks. And he doesn’t seem to realize how much he is hurting Japan.

“It has never been a secret that he doesn’t like the postwar [constitutional] regime. He believes it encourages the Japanese to hate their past.”

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