Ever since the 1970s Japan has desired to gain international political rank equal to its economic status. Its relationship with the United States is clearly critical and perhaps even indispensable to Japan’s national security. Nevertheless this military dependency is often a source of its frustration in international affairs.
Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister of Japan, is quietly in the process of attempting to pull off a major shift in his country’s complicated politics. He would like to have amended the so-called “peace constitution” of Japan, established under American direction after World War II. The objective appears to be to allow the Japanese armed forces to reorganize so that their defensive capability is increased by having an offensive technological potential.
Such an action would be quite contrary to the desires of China, which still carries a vivid memory of its suffering under the Japanese assault and occupation during the 1930s-40s. At the same time, however, the Japanese leader would be playing to the interests of the right wing of Japanese politics by this move, thereby strengthening his position with that nationalist sector.
With the leverage gained from this move, the prime minister hopes to be able to break with the fanatically guarded tradition of visiting the Yasukuni shrine that honors not only 2.5 million Japanese military war dead but also 14 “class A” war criminals. The Chinese have long believed that along with Japanese WWII historical revisionism these annual shrine visits by Japanese PM’s are a continuing insult.
By ending that tradition, Shinzo Abe is betting he will be in a better diplomatic position with Beijing when it comes to the Japanese military reformation. This may all appear rather arcane to westerners, but it’s quite reasonable in Asian terms. The problem is that Prime Minister Abe may not be giving enough to each side involved to get them to accept his ultimate agenda.
This high wire balancing act, if successful, could alter the international political status of Japan, especially in regard to its role in containing North Korea’s ambitions. Pyongyang currently treats Japan with such disdain that recently one of North Korea’s state-controlled newspapers editorialized, “Japan is nothing but an imposter, not qualified to take part in the six power talks.” The editorial went on to say Japan could offer “nothing useful” and simply brought up “irrelevant issues.”
This sort of statement may appear to be merely an aggressive propaganda stance, but combined with North Korea’s possible nuclear explosion and earlier missile tests, the Japanese public no longer shrugs off such insults. PM Shinzo Abe must show some spine at a time when his poll ratings appear to be under attack for his perceived lack of ardor in the pursuit of promised domestic economic reforms.
The reality is that the U.S. Navy with its panoply of weapon systems, including the Aegis package of offensive and defensive electronic and missile capability, is currently Japan’s first line of protection at a time when North Korea is rushing toward nuclear weapon accumulation and development.
There are signs that the post-WWII isolationist majority of the Japanese public is now beginning to show signs of willingness to support a modernization and expansion of their nation’s military defense capability. A larger impediment to such an action, however, is the expense of an enhanced military commitment.
Here, also, a balancing act is required by Japan’s prime minister already under fire on the economic front. The real question is whether Japan’s voters are fearful enough of possible North Korean power plays that they will put aside their now long held constitutional limitation on military development.
From a nuclear standpoint it appears Japan is still years away from changing its no-nuke principles — to not possess, develop, or trade in nuclear weapons. The U.S. will continue to provide the necessary nuclear umbrella for the immediate future, but this will not last forever.
For the moment, however, Japan’s leadership will move toward testing China’s desires to maintain their mutually beneficial economic relations as Tokyo takes steps to expand its military. The rivalry between the two nations will continue to grow, however, as Beijing seeks to exert dominance over the political and economic future of North East Asia and Japan works to counter Chinese regional hegemony.
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