Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 09, 2006 > Challenges Ahead for Abe’s Japan

Volume XLIV, No.51

Challenges Ahead for Abe’s Japan

by Joshy M. Paul

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Shinzo Abe, the newly elected Prime Minister of Japan, is generally considered to be a hawk and a nationalist. He has declared that he wants to make Japan ‘a country that is trusted and loved’ by the entire world. In his first address to the Japanese parliament he announced that he wants to pursue pro-active diplomacy including an aggressive pursuit of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an honour many feel that Japan has clearly earned. He also expressed his willing-ness to engage in strategic dialogue with countries that share fundamental values such as Australia and India and intends to make friendly relationship with neighbouring China and South Korea. He has further proclaimed that the first task of his new government is to ensure the early enactment of the bill concerning the Fundamental Law of Education and wants to amend the pacifist Constitution that has codified Japan’s political nature for the past 50 years. However, in his effort to achieve such goals he will have to face daunting challenges.

Shinzo Abe is the first Japanese Prime Minster to be born after the Second World War. He is rooted not in the pacifist school of thinking but in the “realist” perspective and unwavering nationalist moorings. His familial roots, however, lie in the gravity of Japanese nationalist politics: his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a war-time Cabinet Minister and later imprisoned as a class-A war crime suspect, but went on to become the Prime Minister twice. His father, Shintaro Abe, served as the Foreign Minister in the highly nationalist government of Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s. Even during the time of his membership of parliament he joined with fellow conservative Diet members to campaign for the Prime Minister’s regular visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where 14 class-A war criminals were entombed.

Nonetheless, the premises of Abe’s assertive foreign policy will depend on a politico-military direction. In the earlier period Japan had been criticised of pursuing ‘cheque book diplomacy’ as it provided only financial assistance during international crises. But ever since Koizumi’s period Japan has begun to shed this image by sending its Self-Defence Force (SDF) personnel to Iraq for non-combating purposes under US commandership, for which Japan amended the law to permit its forces to participate in such missions other than the UN- headed humanitarian purposes. Koizumi set the tempo of assertiveness in Japan’s external policy by advocating nationalism and the desire to make Japan a “normal” military power. And today, Japan’s Self-Defence Force is one of the most capable militaries in the world. In 2005, Tokyo spent $ 45.8 billion on defence, the fourth largest military budget in the world. Recently Japan is upgrading its Self-Defence Agency to a full-fledged Ministry.

As of now Japan’s security apparatus has been focused on strategic developments in the surrounding region. “The security environment surrounding our nation has changed dramatically in recent years,” PM Abe told the sailors aboard a destroyer of the SDF Navy after watching Japan’s annual fleet review. “I believe this is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our readiness,” he said. The emergence of China as a major power in the region underpinned by its economic clout and defence spending and the miscreant regime in North Korea are the major concerns for Japan. Its National Defence Programme Outline (NDPO) of 2004, which announces in every ten years Japan’s defence programme for a decade, specifically mentioned China and North Korea as the key security threats to Japan. This is the first time that specific countries have been mentioned in such a fashion. It also stated that Japan should maintain the minimum level of military strength required to defend itself against direct attacks. In order to protect Japan from various threats it must require “multifunctional and flexible” security forces, said the NDPO.

The ongoing nuclear crises, especially after North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear bomb, precipitated a debate in Japan about whether its pacifist credentials safeguard the country’s long-term security. Although Abe categorically denied the pursuance of a similar path in response to the North Korean crisis, his conservative Foreign Minister Taro Aso opined that the debate must be continued about the nuclear option for Japan. Many Japanese also feel more insecure in the increasingly volatile security environment surrounding their country, epitomised by North Korea’s recent nuclear-bomb test. Discussions on questions that had long been considered taboo have moved into the Japanese mainstream. There have even been debates in the political and media circles about the pros and cons of Japan possessing nuclear weapons to defend itself. Though the current North Korean nuclear crisis has not made any major impact on Japan’s present security posture, it may well bring about a subtle change in the overall direction of Japan’s future security planning.

During the Premiership of Koizumi Japan’s relationship with China has been marred, largely because of his recurring visit to the Yasukuni Shrine; and Abe will have to work really hard to improve the soured relationship with China. China protested against the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the Shrine and argued that it was a symbol of Japanese imperialism and war atrocities committed against fellow Asian countries and any government head’s visit to the Shrine would reinvigorate the militaristic past of Japan. At the same time, however, China had made its sensitivities clear over the revision of Japanese history textbooks that gloss over the “Rape of Nanking” and inhuman activities that took place there. In this regard, the move to amend the educational system by imparting patriotism and national pride may widen the gap between the two countries.

Japan and China have also been involved in a territorial dispute over the oil-rich Senkaku/Diaoyu Island in the East China Sea. As the first sign of correcting the Japan-China relationship Abe visited China on October 8 and both countries agreed to expedite talks on joint development of natural gas- fields in the East China Sea and agreed to build ‘a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interest with China’.

The biggest challenge he is likely to face is on the issue of revision of the Constitution including scrapping the war-renouncing Article 9. The current Constitution, drafted by the US occupation forces immediately after the Japan’s defeat in World War II, has never been altered. Article 9 has been widely interpreted as reflective of Japan’s pacifist character that barred the country from possessing a military force. Abe had been a supporter of amending the Constitution even during his position as the Chief Cabinet Secretary under Koizumi. He has called for a “departure from the postwar regime” by revising the pacifist Constitution, among other things. The political momentum for revising the Constitution has mounted since the LDP’s landslide victory in the general elections in September last year. The LDP-New Komeito coalition garnered more than a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. In an interview Abe stated that “I believe this Article needs to be revised from the viewpoint of defending Japan” and insisted that the “Japanese people should themselves write a Constitution that befits the 21st century”. Domestic polls show overwhelming public support for a revision in general, although public opinion is almost evenly split over rewriting Article 9. Many members of the Opposition Democratic Party of Japan also favour a revision in general.

However, revising the structure of the Constitution wouldn’t be an easy task for Abe. For amending the Constitution it requires a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament followed by a national referendum with a single majority. At the same time Japanese public opinion in favour of changing the pacifist nature of the Constitution has not matured enough except in some conservative quarters. Likewise any move of scrapping such a provision will be counter-productive in its relationship with neighbouring countries. In the early post-war years Asian countries viewed Japan as a caged tiger and Tokyo faced severe anti-Japanese sentiments across South-East Asia. For instance, in 1974 the then Japanese Prime Minister, Tanaka, had to face mass protests in Jakarta during his tour of various capitals in the region on the basis of the impression that Japan still carries imperialist tendencies in its foreign policy including its direct investment policy in the region. And Japan has deliberately cultivated an image in the region that it has no ambition of pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and almost all Japanese leaders assured that it is focusing on economic well-being of its citizens and doesn’t have a political agenda. Article 9 has underpinned Japan’s ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the neighbouring countries. So the move to revise the Constitution is likely to unleash another wave of anti-Japanese sentiments in Asia, particularly in China and South Korea, as well as in the ASEAN region.

As a matter of fact, the agenda put forward by Abe at the domestic level, such as revision of the Constitution and changing the educational curriculum, will have a counterproductive impact on its relationship with the outside world. South Korea has already expressed its displeasure about the ongoing debate over Japan’s nuclear options. The more conservative and patriotic the policy of Abe at home the less the extent of success in Japan’s relationship with the neighbouring states. The move to implement Abe’s conservative agenda would raise grave concerns among many of Japan’s Asian neighbours who fear that any revision would let loose Japanese militarism 60 years after the war. Among Japan’s Asian neighbours several countries, especially China and South Korea, still harbour bitter memories of Japan’s wartime aggression and atrocities.

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