“Normal” Japan

23 September 2006

Shinzo Abe and a “Normal” Japan

By Gwynne Dyer

“We just ignore them!” said the man at the think tank in Beijing, a senior adviser to the Chinese foreign ministry, and burst out laughing. He laughed because it is a long and daunting list of people to ignore.

He has to ignore the American journalists and academics who predict an eventual war with China, the US armed forces, who are transferring more and more hardware to the western Pacific, and the Bush administration officials whose search for allies in Asia to “contain China” culminated in not-quite-an-alliance with India last year. He also has to ignore their counterparts in the Chinese military-industrial complex, who try to use all that as evidence that China must pour much more resources into defence. He is a busy man.

The reason he (and most of the Chinese foreign policy establishment) deliberately ignore them all that is because taking the “American threat” seriously and trying to match it would just play into the hands of the hawks on both sides. There is no objective reason that makes a US-Chinese clash inevitable, but preparing for it, or even talking too much about it, actually makes it more possible.

It’s an admirably sane attitude, founded on the obvious fact that China would be far worse off in any confrontation with the United States today than it would be in ten or twenty years’ time, when rapid Chinese economic growth will have narrowed the gap between them. So even if you believe a clash is inevitable sooner or later (which they don’t), then it’s a good idea to have it much later, not today.

I heard the same argument from half a dozen other influential foreign policy analysts in Beijing two weeks ago, which should have been reassuring. It would have been, if not for the fact that every one of those experts, having patiently explained that there were no threats on the horizon that could deflect China’s “peaceful rise” to great-power status, then added: “except Japan.” That is quite an exception, since Japan has the world’s second-biggest economy and is right on China’s doorstep.

Which brings us to Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister of Japan. Elected as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on 20 September and formally installed as prime minister this Tuesday (26 September), he is the youngest man (52) to occupy the office since the Second World War. Indeed, he only entered parliament thirteen years ago and got his first cabinet-level job just last year.

But Abe didn’t really need to serve a long apprenticeship; he sort of inherited the job. Twenty years ago, his father was foreign minister, and widely tipped as a future prime minister until he was sidetracked by a corruption scandal and then died relatively young. His grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was prime minister in the late 1950s, despite having been identified (but not tried) as a war criminal by the American occupation authorities. And this is not just a political lineage; it’s a clearly defined ideological group within the Japanese ruling elite.

The people around Abe are uncompromising nationalists who insist that Japan must become a “normal” country, which means that it should stop apologising for the Second World War, rewrite school textbooks omitting all the material about war guilt and Japanese atrocities, and rewrite the “peace” constitution so that Japan’s euphemistically titled “Self-Defence Forces” can legally become ordinary armed forces, able to be deployed overseas.

This group, long a minority faction within the LDP, first gained power with the choice of outgoing prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as leader five years ago, but Abe takes a harder line: he has even said that it is “not necessarily unconstitutional” for Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent. He advocates even closer military ties with the United States, and worries aloud about the intentions of a stronger China. He not only irritates the Chinese, whose relations with Japan are at the lowest point in decades after five years of Koizumi; he actually frightens them.

No sane Japanese wants to turn the country’s giant neighbour and biggest trading partner into an active enemy, and Abe isn’t mad. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a government has talked itself into a needless military confrontation.

Symbolism matters. If Abe continues Koizumi’s habit of making annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine — which is devoted to the souls of Japan’s millions of war dead, including fourteen leaders who were hanged as war criminals after the country’s defeat in 1945 — then many Chinese will conclude that he is a real threat. Koizumi’s official visits as prime minister outraged people all over Asia whose countries were occupied by Japan during the war, but the Chinese in particular went ballistic.

Shinzo Abe has refused to say whether he will copy Koizumi, but he visited the shrine privately as recently as last spring. If he visits again as prime minister, Sino-Japanese relations will get even worse, and it will get still harder for the sensible people in Beijing to ignore the rhetoric of the American hawks and the warnings and pleas of their own hawks. With a little bad luck, we could be as little as a couple of years away from the start of a new Cold War in Asia.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“It’s an…today”; and “But Abe…elite”)