Abe Aspires to Make Japan a Great Power While Sanitizing History

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacts during the economic forum Japan Summit 2015 in Tokyo on July 9, 2015. Abe on July 9
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacts during the economic forum Japan Summit 2015 in Tokyo on July 9, 2015. Abe on July 9 addressed a Tokyo forum hosted by the Economist magazine, while attempting to boost the economy and trying to push a set of controversial defence bills. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

When Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro came to power in April 2001, his early actions restarted debate on the National Constitution that enshrined the lessons of Japan's wartime defeat. From the beginning Koizumi was passionate about having Japan play a military role in world affairs commensurate with its economic strength. But he was also careful not to cross red lines and push his passions to extremes, particularly where Article 9 is concerned. It stipulates, "The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

Five months later on September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. homeland as payback for U.S. actions in the Middle East, including the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia. Once American rage ignited, the government of President George W. Bush set aside international law and embarked on a course of undeclared global counterterrorist warfare. Koizumi turned to Washington for direction and pledged Japan's unconditional support so as to assure continued American assistance at a time of increasing Japan-China tensions. Concurrently, Koizumi avoided full-scale military intervention in the wars that Bush initiated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, at Washington's request, he dispatched a small Self Defense Force contingent on a time-limited support mission to the Iraq war zone after Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq in May 2003. The troops arrived in southern Iraq in January 2004 in the midst of the Sunni uprising against the American "crusader-warriors." They withdrew two years later having accomplished little.

Koizumi is best remembered for his public promises to visit Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of Japan's war dead, including major and minor war criminals, are enshrined. He made repeated visits there throughout his term in office. The governments of Korea and China vehemently protested his actions, saying they showed lack of remorse for Japan's colonization of Korea and its wartime occupation of China. Koizumi claimed not to understand the criticism coming at him from home and abroad. "Japan's prosperity," he retorted, "was based on the sacrifice" of its war dead. Visiting the shrine was a "natural" thing for a Japanese to do. He could well have memorialized the war dead at the government cemetery in Chidorigafuchi which has no official religious connection; he chose not to.

'Japan's prosperity,' Koizumi retorted, 'was based on the sacrifice' of its war dead.

Today, Yasukuni Shrine visits by cabinet ministers and prime ministers no longer roil Japan's political waters, having been replaced by more crucial issues arising from the changed balance of power in the world, China's growing power and fears about the relative decline of the Japanese economy. Yet the shrine will remain controversial because of its connection to militarism, emperor-worship and an emperor-centered view of history. It essentially effaces the distinction between those responsible for the war and its victims, treating all equally in terms of the sacrifice of life offered to the emperor.

Although Koizumi's stance on official visits at Yasukuni deepened Chinese and South Korean distrust, we should not overlook his laying of the groundwork to promote a more assertive nationalism.

He strongly endorsed Bush's wars and insisted that the preamble to the Constitution posed no obstacle to the deployment of SDF forces abroad. Subsequent actions by Koizumi showed that Japan's conservative ruling elites were quite content to be lackeys to U.S. foreign policy.

Bowing to U.S. pressure, in October 2001 Koizumi lifted Japan's economic sanctions on both Pakistan and India. Their nuclear policies, which were stoking an arms race in weapons of mass destruction, had led him to impose the sanctions. By lifting them, Koizumi made a mockery of Japan's professed opposition to nuclear proliferation and the testing of nuclear-capable missiles.

In September 2006, Koizumi stepped down, leaving Japan mired in recession. By then it was further along in reshaping the economy in conformance with neoliberal prescriptions that redistribute wealth upward and sacrifice economic justice. Koizumi's successor, LDP politician Abe Shinzo, maintained close ties to extreme right-wing circles. He was as willing as Koizumi to submit to U.S. dictates but had in view the bigger aim of making Japan a great Asian power with a voice that counted in world politics.

During Abe's one year in office, he failed to accomplish much. Scandals and political gaffes forced him to resign. The interlude that followed saw the LDP lose power to the conservative Democratic Party of Japan. Neonationalism and neoliberal austerity advanced to a new stage. The Great Tōhoku Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdowns occurred. Over the next five years Japan had five prime ministers in succession, each serving a year or less.

Abe was as willing as Koizumi to submit to U.S. dictates but had in view the bigger aim of making Japan a great Asian power with a voice that counted in world politics.

In late 2012 Abe and the LDP were voted back to power for a second time by riding a wave of disillusionment with the DPJ, which had failed to deliver Japan from economic recession. A divided opposition, long incumbency and an unprecedentedly low turnout (by Japanese standards) accounted for the LDP's victory.

Today, Abe's foreign and domestic policies are raising public protests to fever pitch levels. Building on Koizumi's work but pursuing a more right-wing agenda, Abe and his cabinet ministers display a greater degree of disrespect for the Constitution. Sanitizing Japan's war history, they are also unwilling to acknowledge that, during the Japan-China War and World War II, the Japanese military operated military brothels and engaged in sex trafficking, transporting large numbers of Asian women and young girls over long distances, then abandoning them to their fate after the war.

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Hundreds of people attend a protest against the change of the Japan Pacifist constitution and demanding the retraction of the Security Bill allowing Japan armed force to go abroad for war action. David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Although all LDP politicians do not think alike, generally speaking they see themselves engaged in a process of restoring the health of the state by undermining the peace Constitution. In their minds preparedness for future war is the healthy, logical condition for the state. Historical relativism leads them to despise unpalatable historical facts about "comfort women." Even documentary evidence that doesn't support their goals is anathema to them. What serves their purpose is changing how language is used, adopting the vocabulary of American geo-politicians and using the media to alter the public's attitude toward the past.

Preparedness for future war is the healthy, logical condition for the state.

The Abe government's attitude to the past is reflected in its tightened control of the Japanese media and in its efforts to change Japanese thinking on the lost war. Abe revises school textbooks to reflect his government's policies, one of which is to give the Japanese people a new way of viewing their 20th century history. Another is to indoctrinate citizens with "lessons" that the Cabinet unilaterally draws from that history in accordance with their own political objectives, and that they seek to apply to Japan in the 21st century.

In 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat, then-Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi made a seminal statement in which he noted Japan's "mistaken national policy" in the war, condemned Japan's "self-righteous nationalism," "colonial rule," and "aggression."

Abe has so far not endorsed the Murayama Statement. Indeed, he has sought to change the meaning of "war responsibility" itself. Four months after forming his cabinet he amended the Basic Education Law for the first time since its enactment in 1947. One of the revised law's many purposes was to allow forced indoctrination in nationalism, a trend already underway for more than a decade. Abe's own worship at Yasukuni in 2013 hinted that the enshrined spirits of the Class-A and Class-BC war criminals should be reverenced because, in his view, they had committed no crimes and bore no war responsibility whatsoever.

shinzo abe yasukuni shrine

Shinzo Abe follows a Shinto priest after offering prayers for the country's war dead at Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images.

No previous government has been as determined as Abe's to pursue constitutional revision and to reshape public attitudes toward war and toward the military alliance with the United States.

Although rewriting the Constitution has been a principle goal of the LDP ever since its establishment in 1955 -- the decade when the CIA began weakening Japan's left-wing forces and bolstering the conservatives -- none has been as unwavering as his in its support of U.S. economic sanctions and U.S. global war strategies.

To obtain greater freedom to act militarily overseas, Abe in July 2015 rammed a set of military bills though the lower house of the Diet against the protests of all the main opposition parties. The previous day as many as 60,000 people protested against the bills, widening the historic post-war gap between the peoples' and the ruling elites' conception of the state.

Acting with U.S. Against China

Ever since the 1990s, Japan's leaders have drawn closer to Washington. They now see themselves as potential peacekeepers willing to act in tandem with the U.S. against a rising China as China makes its presence felt in the world's oceans and continents. After Beijing declared in November 2013 an "Air Defense Identification Zone" over the Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters of the East China Sea, the Cabinet hardened its stance toward China. In the South China Sea region, where China claims "undisputed sovereignty," Abe and senior LDP officials joined the U.S. in criticizing China's reclamation projects and its building of airstrips and port facilities in the contested Spratly archipelago and Paracel Islands. The U.S. and Japan interpose themselves in these disputes and support their claims. China's diplomats answer back, asking, "What right other than than that of conquest, does the U.S. have to act as arbitrator of Asian-Pacific affairs?"

What right other than than that of conquest, does the U.S. have to act as arbitrator of Asian-Pacific affairs?

On this 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, an activist, progressive, university-based student movement has formed, intent on moving Japan along the pacifist path specified in its Constitution. Growing street demonstrations around the Diet building and before the prime minister's official residence indicate that ordinary Japanese people are indeed fighting back against the course Abe has set the country on. They reject the idea of a more militaristic national identity and are neither imbued with the spirit of destructive militarism nor inclined to a psychology of egoistic nationalism. They understand that their Constitution requires the Self Defense Forces not to be dispatched abroad to fight wars; its military power must be kept to a minimum. Polls and news articles show that the Japanese people give their support to Article 9.

To bridge long-running differences between elite and popular opinion, as well as to downplay the growing incompatibility between Abe's Asia-Pacific policy and the robust exercise of democratic freedoms at home, the LDP is forced to answer its critics by conducting propaganda campaigns.

Abe's fostering of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership exemplifies his disregard of the interests of large segments of the Japanese population. The TPP is a rapacious U.S. plan that gives corporations enormous power to forcibly open the economies of 12 Asia-Pacific nations and insure their subordination to the interests of the major American and Japanese global corporations. If approved, it portends lower wages, increased unemployment and eroded labor and environmental standards. Setting aside these probabilities, the TPP's exclusion of China comes into clearer focus. From Abe's viewpoint the TPP offers a solution to the problem of containing China's rise. Strategically, it will function as a component in an overall U.S. effort to hem in China "by building a ring of interlinked economies around it."

From Abe's viewpoint the TPP offers a solution to the problem of containing China's rise.

Further domestic opposition comes from Abe's restarting of mothballed nuclear power reactors in an earthquake prone country where people are still struggling to deal with the Fukushima disaster and remain fearful of their safety. Big business and many political elites have bought into the myth that the generation of electricity through nuclear power is cheap and economical and carries little public risk. Scientific reports not to mention newspaper surveys say otherwise.

Although often overlooked by the Japanese press, an equally serious challenge facing Abe and his entire agenda comes from the citizens of Okinawa prefecture who firmly oppose the U.S.-Japan plan to move forward with the construction of a new military base.

kishi protest

Demonstrators in Tokyo protesting against Prime Minister Kishi, the U.S.-Japan security treaty and the visit of President Eisenhower to Japan. Keystone/Getty Images.

In the weeks and months ahead, their opposition may tempt Abe to deal with the many critics of his policies in the same high-handed way his own grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi once prevailed against the wishes of the Japanese people when they had united en masse to oppose any renewal of the military alliance with the U.S. In 1960 he revised the security treaty in a way that gave the U.S. largely what it wanted while leaving Japan with the appearance of greater parity. Thereafter, the anti-war opposition to the revised military alliance and movements to defend the Constitution waned rapidly. Conservative politics adjusted to the new situation and Japan's foreign policy goals changed from Kishi's "Great Japan" to a sort of pre-imperialist "little Japan."

Crossing Red Lines

For the next two decades Japan seemed to embody pacifist ideals. Its Constitution was reinforced by the Three Non-Nuclear Principles: to not possess, not produce, and not permit the introduction of nuclear weapons. LDP Prime Minister Eisaku Sato had announced these principles in a 1967 Diet resolution. But at the same time Japan was setting this positive example, it was aiding the U.S. in Vietnam, materially and morally, while secretly allowing nuclear weapons into the country aboard U.S. warships.

On the important 70th anniversary of the war's end China is on heightened alert to Japan's official statements. It will be watching to see if Abe continues to free himself from the constitutional constraints that bar him from using military force proactively on a global scale. The Defense Ministry has drafted a new combat manual for Japanese forces who participate in non-UN peacekeeping missions. Anticipating the Diet's enactment of 11 new security laws, the Defense Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff acted as if the Diet had already passed the bills, on the assumption that the LDP intended to pass them into law in the upper chamber, coercively if necessary. Red lines have already been crossed in changing the Constitution by interpretation. Unlike when the Cold War ended and Koizumi took over, Abe openly aspires to make Japan a great Asian power.

The question is what sort of contribution to peace can Japan make by helping the U.S. to conduct global interventions and counterterrorist warfare in the greater Middle East and Africa? And how far can Japan go in support of U.S. imperial policies designed to encircle China in Asia?

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