The year 2006 will go down in history as a turning-point year during which Japan experienced a resurgence in nationalist sentiment and felt a weakening in the influence of the lessons from its modern wars (1930s through 1945). As a result, concerns have mounted that the pillars of Japan’s postwar democracy are at risk.
While Mr. Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister, nationalist sentiment strengthened in Japanese society. His repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s war shrine, and anti-Japanese feelings in China and South Korea contributed to that tendency. But Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits were prompted by his emotions rather than ideology.
A decisive change came after Mr. Shinzo Abe assumed power. He has made constitutional revision and a “departure from the postwar regime” his political agenda. Mr. Abe is the second postwar prime minister to officially advocate constitutional revision. Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama had done so during his third administration (November 1955 to December 1956).
At key diplomatic junctions, Mr. Abe has acted cleverly and cautiously. To mend Japan’s soured relations with China and South Korea, Mr. Abe visited China and South Korea for summit meetings. He appears to have shelved any plan to visit Yasukuni, at least for the time being. He supports then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 official apology for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression in other Asian countries. His administration also remains loyal to the 1993 official apology issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono for the sufferings of “comfort women” or the Japanese military’s sex slaves.
However, as chief Cabinet secretary in the Koizumi administration, Mr. Abe snubbed the war-renouncing Article 9 as well as the Preamble of the Constitution, both a declaration of Japan’s determination not to become a military power and not to repeat its military aggression. Since becoming prime minister, he has expressed hopes of revising the Constitution within six years.
The revision of the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education, which had embodied postwar Japan’s determination not to repeat the mistake of re-creating the ultranationalist, state-controlled education system that existed before and during World War II, is regarded as part of the Abe administration’s groundwork for future constitutional revision.
The amended law, which calls for cultivating an “attitude that respects tradition and culture as well as love of the national homeland that has fostered both,” would make it easier for the state to instill children with what it regards as the correct attitude toward the Japanese nation and history. The law, now equipped with a legal device to strengthen state control of education, could become a means of producing children with assertive nationalistic attitudes in accordance with state goals.
One sign of nationalism and intolerance reared its ugly head when a member of a rightist group set fire to the house of Mr. Koichi Kato in Yamagata Prefecture on Aug. 15, the 61st anniversary of the end of World War II and the very day that Mr. Koizumi visited Yasukuni. Mr. Kato, a dovish politician and former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, was a vocal critic of Mr. Koizumi’s repeated Yasukuni visits. The Koizumi administration’s failure to quickly condemn the act of arson was an omission that threatened to undermine the principle of freedom of speech and thought, the basis of democracy.
Besides Mr. Abe’s basic ideological orientation, North Korea’s test-firing of ballistic missiles in July and its test explosion of a nuclear device Oct. 9 fanned nationalistic sentiment among some leading politicians. The missile tests prompted some to call for consideration of Japan’s possessing the capability to carry out preemptive attacks on an enemy’s missile bases when an attack from that country seems imminent. The nuclear test, meanwhile, sparked arguments for discussing whether Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons.
These arguments are myopic, politically and militarily. They show that some politicians have forgotten the lessons of Japan’s modern wars — that a militarily low-profile posture best serves peace in this region, Japan’s national interests and the people’s welfare. It is hoped that the upgrade of the Defense Agency to a ministry is not a manifestation of this forgetfulness.
Many Japanese are said to have a deepening sense of uncertainty about their future, especially their economic situation and national security. Such people are more liable to overreact either to imprudent political proposals to change the status quo or to provocative words or deeds from a foreign country. Mr. Abe must prove what harm, if any, Japan’s pacifism under the current Constitution has brought to this nation, if he is serious about revising it. It appears that some postwar-generation political leaders have not done their homework.
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