It’s been obvious for some time now that Japan’s leadership is moving toward removing the restriction that their post-World War II constitution places on offensive military capability. What hasn’t been so clear, however, is the extent of Japan’s ambition in assuming a full political military role in Far Eastern affairs.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made an effort to give less than subtle notice that it is taking an independent, albeit not necessarily inconsistent, path as an American partner in Asian political affairs and perhaps globally.
Leading this charge is Foreign Minister Taro Aso, the tough talking, Stanford-trained member of Abe’s cabinet. He has been mentioned as a possible replacement for his boss if the latter’s current poor standing with the public on domestic issues forces a change.
F.M. Aso has spearheaded an effort to strengthen an informal Asian security alliance linking the democratic nations of Japan, United States, Australia and India. Expanding his interests to the Middle East, Taro Aso was quoted the other week in the Guardian that “Japan is doing what Americans can’t do….Japanese are trusted. If you have blue eyes and blond hair, it’s probably no good.”
While that comment may have lost something in translation, its meaning appears rather clear, especially when one considers an earlier statement of his. In defining the essential strength of his homeland, Taro Aso referred to the uniqueness of Japan as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, one race, none of which can be found in any other country.”
There is no question that the prime minister shares his subordinate’s view, but what is even more disturbing is another unfortunate choice of terms by Japan’s top diplomat. In an interview with the Daily Yomiuri, the foreign minister spoke of strengthening Japanese ties internationally beyond Asia by defining “an arc of prosperity” that will connect emerging democracies across the Eurasian continent. This was further delineated in the newspaper as including Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Combined with Taro Aso’s other certainly nationalistic and perhaps even racist statements, one cannot ignore relating the arc-of-prosperity terminology to the pre-1941 Japanese ambition to create a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
These quotes can be attacked as out of context, but other governmental actions hold no such vulnerability. Prime Minister Abe’s government, through his national security adviser, has made it abundantly clear that it will not sign on to the current nuclear negotiations with North Korea unless Pyongyang first resolves the issue of North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese nationals twenty to thirty years ago.
Theoretically Japan and the DPRK were to hold separate negotiations leading to normalizing relations. As part of the overall agreement, Japan was also supposed to participate in the provision of oil to the North Koreans to assist in solving the latter’s energy shortage. Tokyo says it won’t budge unless Pyongyang takes up the abduction issue.
Predictably North Korea has said that it doesn’t care whether or not the Japanese come through with the oil. It would rather that Japan address the issue of its longstanding exploitation of Korea during the days of Japanese colonialism. All of which adds up to Tokyo digging in its heels against an American-sponsored agreement to solve the current impasse with the DPRK.
Whether it is the tangible contemporary matter of North Korean nuclear development or the historical issues going back to World War II, the Japanese appear to be demanding attention as a major player in the world political and military scene. It also might be construed effectively as a reminder to the United States that the days of Japan’s unquestioning deference to American leadership in the Pacific, and elsewhere, are over.
Meanwhile in a highly publicized statement in parliament last week, Shinzo Abe repeated his personal apology as prime minister for Japan’s drafting of thousands of young women — the majority Korean — into military brothels during WWII. Again, however, he calculatedly refused to offer an official governmental apology. The nuance is telling.
Tokyo is signaling that it is not going to carry its defeat and embarrassment of the 20th century over into the 21st. It may not bother the Americans very much, but the Chinese, though not showing it, will take strategic note of Japan’s newly displayed self-importance.