Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26 was not a one-off example of his right-wing nationalism. It was preceded by the secrecy law, which is a potential threat to freedom of expression in Japan. He has also made appointments to NHK (Japan’s national broadcaster) of people whose views of democracy differ significantly from norms in the West.
Abe has made it clear that he would like to see changes in Japan’s Constitution that could undermine aspects of Japanese democracy. He has also endorsed comments that seem aimed at undermining both the 1995 Murayama apology for acts committed during the last war by Japanese forces and the 1993 Kono apology over the use of so-called “comfort women.”
These steps have caused widespread disquiet among friends of Japan in Britain at a time when tension in East Asia has risen sharply.
While there is sympathy for Japan in the face of Chinese provocation in the South China Sea, Japanese anti-Chinese rhetoric worries observers who cannot understand why Japan refuses to accept that a dispute exists over the Senkaku Islands, on whose status the British government has not taken an official position.
If an incident brings conflict to the area, Japan cannot necessarily rely on wholehearted Western support.
British observers share Japanese concerns over developments in North Korea and agree that North Korea is a threat to peace. But they deplore the deterioration of Japan’s relations with South Korea.
Japan and South Korea have much to gain economically and politically from cooperation. Japan’s colonial history, the issue of comfort women and the minority of ethnic Koreans in Japan demand that Japanese politicians exercise restraint and sensitivity when dealing with issues affecting Korea.
Sadly sensitivity is not a quality that comes easily to Japanese politicians.
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has majorities in both houses of the Diet, although fortunately, many would say, not an overwhelming two-thirds majority. The opposition is weak and divided.
Abe’s position in the LDP seems, at present, unassailable, although in Japan it is rare for one leader to keep the loyalty of all party factions for long as there are many ambitious politicians who want their moment of power.
Moreover, large sections of the media are critical. Abe is thus not yet in a position to get his way in every aspect of policy, although he seems to have won control of many levers of power in Japan.
Fortunately Japan cannot return to what it was in, say 1939, even if Abe and his supporters wanted to do so. Japan’s powerful defense forces remain firmly under civilian control. They are not in a position to operate outside Japan and must cooperate with U.S. forces and U.S. bases, including on Okinawa. The United States can and should seek to deter Abe from taking provocative action that could lead to the involvement of U.S. forces.
Japanese education is also radically different from what it was before the war. The education ministry has fought with the teaching unions, and attempts have been made to reinstate the teaching of “patriotism” and reverence for the flag. Success fortunately has been elusive.
Japanese youths do not seem to be as questioning as youths in other countries, but we need not fear a recrudescence of blind patriotism and emperor worship, though there are a few signs such as the popularity of the film “Eien no Zero,” about a kamikaze pilot, of romantic nostalgia for the old military ethos.
Extreme nationalists and rightists make much noise from time to time and there are signs that right-wing parties are making a partial come back. But the greatest grounds for concern lie with the reactionary views of Abe’s close associates in the LDP.
One danger is that Japanese nationalist fervor may incite an extreme nationalist response in China and Korea that could further damage Japanese investment in, and trade with, China. If the temperature rises, there will be an increasing risk of some unforeseeable incident in the waters around the Senkaku Islands developing into an armed clash that could escalate to dangerous proportions.
Another danger is that Japanese nationalism could lead to confrontations in Japan between rightists and left-wing forces or organizations determined to preserve basic rights.
This danger should not be exaggerated, but it does loom if Abe and his associates become too vociferous and attempt to pass additional legislation on other issues analogous to the secrecy law.
The greatest danger is that all this nationalist rhetoric will distract the Abe government from the economic reforms that the Japanese economy so much needs. Abe’s declared determination to revive and reform the Japanese economy was welcomed both within Japan and among Japan’s trading partners.
If it becomes clear that Abe has taken “his eye off the ball” and is no longer giving priority to economic reform, his trading partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and in Europe may be less willing to make concessions to Japan in order to reach agreements. Inward Japanese investment could be deterred by uncertainty over future Japanese policies.
Abe may not care about British opinion, and Britain is no longer the power it used to be, but Britain is a profitable market for Japanese exports and is host to significant Japanese investments.
Memories of the last war have faded but have not totally disappeared. They could quite easily be stirred up as a result of Japanese right-wing and nationalist rhetoric especially if measures are taken that seem to undermine Japanese democracy.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.