AFTER regaining the prime minister’s post in 2012, Shinzo Abe has been rarely out of the news. An avowed right wing nationalist, Abe has been trying to make dramatic changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Abe has not shirked away from identifying the neighbouring China as Japan’s main rival in the region. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Abe’s leadership now wants the “pacifist” Japanese constitution to be overhauled and replaced by a constitution that would allow the Japanese military to engage in activities that were expressly prohibited by the 1950 constitution that was drafted when the country was under American military occupation. In the first week of January, the ruling party removed a long standing pledge that Japan “will never wage a war” from its manifesto for the 2014 local elections. Under article 9 of the constitution, Japan had renounced war and “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
Domestically, the LDP government has veered sharply to the right. This trend came into sharp focus when the prime minister, at the end of last year, decided to visit the Yasukuni shrine, which enshrines 2.5 million dead Japanese soldiers as well as 12 convicted Class A war criminals from World War II. The shrine has been traditionally regarded as a symbol of Japan’s militarism. The last Japanese prime minister to pay a visit to the famous Shinto shrine was Junichiro Koizumi. During his tenure in office from 2000 to 2006, Koizumi made repeated visits to the shrine. Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul had suffered as a consequence.
Abe’s latest visit to the Yasukuni shrine, his first as prime minister, had triggered a firestorm of criticism in the region which has still not forgotten the depredations of the Japanese imperial forces in East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Abe had said that his visit to the shrine was a personal visit and not in his official capacity as prime minister. He insisted that the sole purpose for the visit was to commemorate the Japanese war dead and pray for international peace. The Japanese prime minister also stressed that he “firmly upholds the pledge never to wage war again.” However, in his long political career, Abe has always sought to downplay the magnitude of Japanese war crimes and whitewash the role of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. He has controversially denied that the Japanese army forced women into sexual servitude.
The Chinese, who suffered the most number of casualties under Japanese occupation, have been the most vociferous in their criticism whenever members of the Japanese political elite went to pray in the Yasukuni shrine and pay their respects to the Japanese “war heroes.” The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman conveyed his government’s “strong indignation” on the “brutal trampling” of the “feelings of Chinese and other Asian peoples victimised in wars.” The spokesman urged the Japanese side “to abide by the commitment to reflecting on its history of aggression.” The Chinese envoy to the UN, Liu Jieyi, questioned Abe’s “erroneous outlook” towards history while criticising his Yasukuni visit. “It all boils down to whether a leader of a country should stand on the side of maintaining the principles and purposes of the UN charter or to side with war criminals,” the envoy said.
South Korea too had strong words for the Japanese prime minister’s visit, making an already frosty relationship even more fraught. South Korean government officials said that by visiting Yasukuni the Japanese prime minister had sought to justify his country’s “war of aggression.” After she took office last year, the newly elected South Korean president, Park Gyeun-hye, has so far refused to formally meet the Japanese prime minister. South Korea too has territorial disputes with Japan. This time, China and South Korea were joined by other Southeast Asian countries that were under the jackboot of the Japanese imperial army during World War II. Even Singapore, which is otherwise very close to Japan politically and militarily, had words of criticism for the controversial visit by the Japanese prime minister.
The Obama administration said that it was “disappointed” by Abe’s actions as it was likely to “exacerbate” tensions in the region. The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, conveyed to his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, the “importance of Japan taking steps to improve relations with its neighbours.” Many of Abe’s moves have been done in close coordination with Washington. The Obama administration has been backing the Japanese government’s moves against China and backed it openly in the territorial dispute with China.
The timing of the Abe visit to the shrine caught many by surprise. It came in the wake of the Chinese government setting up a new East China air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, in the last week of November. The small islands off the Chinese coast are under Japanese control but are being claimed by China. The islands were taken over by Japan at the end of the 19th century after militarily defeating a weak China. The Chinese announcement about the ADIZ came after months of aggressive Japanese military exercises around the disputed islands. The surprise announcement of the ADIZ by the Chinese government had come in for strong criticism from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and other capitals in the region.
The Chinese government was put diplomatically on back foot with few governments coming out openly to support of the new ADIZ. The Chinese government tried to explain to the international community that the ADIZ did not mean the setting up of a no-fly zone and that it did not violate the sovereignty of any country. Beijing also pointed out that Japan had set up an ADIZ way back in 1969 to cover the disputed islands and overlap China’s economic zone. Japan’s air defence zone stretches only 130 km from the Chinese mainland. “Their logic is simple. They can do it, while China cannot, which could be described by a Chinese saying ‘the magistrates are free to burn down houses while the common people are forbidden even to light lamps’,” a columnist from the Xinhua news agency observed.
Beijing justified the move on the grounds that it was necessary for the safety of aircraft flying in international air space and was in line with international treaties and conventions. “The zone does not aim at any enemy or a target, nor does it constitute a threat to any country or region,” a statement from the Chinese foreign office said.
The US and Japan were quick to challenge the setting up of the ADIZ by flying its warplanes through the restricted area without informing the Chinese authorities.
Since the return of the LDP to power last year, political and military tensions between Japan and China over the disputed island had risen alarmingly. Japan has threatened to shoot down Chinese drones flying over the disputed islands. There was even talk of a military skirmish breaking out between the two old traditional rivals in East Asia. In the first week of January, Japanese air force jets were scrambled to thwart a Chinese Y-12 propeller plane from flying over the disputed islands.
JAPAN’S ROLE IN THE
US “PIVOT TO THE EAST”
Japan has been steadily losing its influence in the region since the turn of the century. This fact became strikingly clear as China overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. The Chinese economy is now twice the size of that of Japan. The LDP government seems intent to reverse China’s peaceful rise to superpower status in tandem with Washington.
Japan is playing a crucial role in the American “pivot to the East.” The Obama administration is encouraging the Japanese government to play a bigger military role in the region. The LDP government recently announced a sharp increase in defense spending. Under the guise of “proactive pacifism,” Japan will be adding seven destroyers to its navy. Two of them will have advanced Aegis guided missile systems. In the next five years, Japan will have a total of 54 destroyers in addition to 22 submarines. Orders have been placed 28 F-35 Stealth Fighters. Also on order are 17 Osprey vertical take-off aircraft for rapid troop deployments. A new amphibious brigade is being created “to speedily land, recapture and secure islands in case of invasions.”
Domestically, the Abe government is tightening the screws on the media by passing a draconian media related law on December 6, 2013. Stiff punishments are proposed to be handed out to journalists and whistleblowers who “leak official secrets.” Prison terms can be up to 10 years. The government has not specified what it deems to be official secrets and has left it to the discretion of senior bureaucrats and departments to define it. The only exception being classified news pertaining to nuclear energy. Any dissemination of classified information related to the nuclear industry will henceforth be strictly prohibited. The Japanese government has come in for a lot of criticism from the Japanese media for its handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Many nuclear experts are predicting a worst case scenario in the Fukushima nuclear plant. Some even go to the extent that the fallout will be worse than that of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Critics have compared the new law with Japan’s pre-war Peace Preservation Law under which journalists were randomly arrested. The new media law, according to many Japanese commentators, would further undermine the already weak freedom of information act. One survey revealed that more than 80 percent of the Japanese public felt that the new law will be misused by the government to cover up misdeeds and corruption. There has been a history of cover-ups in post-war Japan starting from the sixties. To protect corporate interests, the government had hushed up the “Minamata disease” case in the sixties and the nuclear safety problems in Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants in 2000. Abe’s has promised that there will be a third party oversight on the new media law but there is considerable scepticism about the government’s real motives.