Japan’s Not-Quite-So-Nationalist Leader

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REUTERS / Toru Hanai

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a press conference following his swearing-in ceremony last week. He barely mentioned the nationalist or defense-related issues that made headlines during his election campaign

TOKYO – For a supposed nationalist and right wing hawk, Japan‘s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, doesn’t seem to have his heart in it.  Count on Japan’s long-suffering and largely misunderstood public to keep things that way — at least until the next election.

Abe took office last week after a campaign that featured tough talk on territorial disputes, defense and war history. The grandson of a former wartime leader, Abe promised to revise the pacifist Constitution, loosen the reins on Japan’s armed forces and post government personnel on islands claimed by China.

It was heady stuff for Japan’s small but noisy right wing, but it didn’t take Abe long to start reversing himself. He appointed a largely moderate Cabinet, dispatched special envoys to improve relations with neighbors and dropped his most strident nationalist rhetoric.

(MORE: Japan: A Wave of Patriotism)

Most notably, he backed off plans to establish a government presence on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, the scene of a dangerous standoff with China. And he dropped plans to declare a “Takeshima Day” to reinforce Japanese claims on a small island controlled by South Korea. Either move would have raised tensions – if not provoke a violent confrontation – while doing little to resolve the territorial disputes.

It now seems likely that much of Abe’s campaign rhetoric was aimed at shoring up conservative support within his own Liberal Democratic Party. The center-right LDP was beaten in 2009 after some 50 years of almost-uninterrupted rule and the party was determined to regain power this time around.

“Abe is part of the ruling establishment in Japan and talking up a hawkish game while campaigning helped differentiate himself from the other LDP members. He wouldn’t be the first politician to talk tough in opposition then govern from the middle once he gets in,” says Sean King, senior vice president at Park Strategies, an international consulting firm. King splits his time between New York and Asia.

It’s also likely that Abe took a careful reading of the public mood. While the LDP won a landslide victory in the December elections, polls showed that voters were overwhelmingly concerned with the economy, nuclear power and getting rid of the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan, and had little interest in nationalist issues.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Abe came into office breathing fire, and then hosing himself down. In 2006, Abe took office on promises to get tough with China and vowed to visit Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are enshrined along with thousands of ordinary war veterans. Instead, he made China his first overseas visit, strengthened relations and avoided Yasukuni while in office.

China’s Foreign Ministry last week issued a vaguely conciliatory statement when Abe took office, encouraging Japan to “meet the Chinese side halfway” on the Senkaku dispute.

(MORE: Can Japan Change?)

Truth be told, neither Abe nor the Japanese public may be as far to the right as some critics fear – or as might appear from the outside.

One of Abe’s chief proposals, for example, was to ease the restrictions on so-called “collective defense.” This means that Japan’s armed forces would be allowed to come to the defense of friendly or allied forces that were under attack from a third party. That’s forbidden under the current interpretation of the Constitution. Should Martians attack the U.S. fleet in Yokosuka harbor, the Japanese would have to sit by and watch until they themselves were shot at.

While changing that policy might seem like good common sense, memories of Japan’s militarist past remain strong. Many view even the smallest change as an irrevocable step backward.

Abe also floated the idea of changing the name of Japan’s armed forces from Self Defense Force (Jietai) to National Defense Force (Kokubogun). As benign as that change might seem to foreign ears, it has drawn little support from either the public or SDF members, who seem to like things just like they are. If the Japanese public really is moving to the right – and I have my doubts – they have along way to go to even reach the middle.

Abe’s appointees to head the defense and foreign ministries are both relative moderates and seem unlikely to push for any hard-line changes, as well. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, in particular, is from the liberal wing of the LDP and has said improved ties with China are a high priority.

Still, there’s plenty of room for trouble. Abe has close ties to bonafide conservatives – his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime industry minister who was arrested for suspected war crimes. He was never charged, and later became prime minister.

Abe’s new education minister is a staunch conservative who wants schools to adopt more textbooks that teach a more “patriotic” view of history, and has expressed doubts about wartime atrocities and sex slaves, known euphemistically here as “comfort women.” Both are hot button issues in China and South Korea and any attempt to re-write schoolbooks could further damage relations.

(MORE: Japan’s Young and Restless Are Challenging Convention)

Abe this week said he may review two key government statements from the 1990s that accepted responsibility and offered apologies for atrocities and comfort women — although he stopped short of promising to do so.

“Takeshima is one thing, but revising the expressions of regret about comfort women would stir up a hornet’s nest in South Korea,” says King.

Veteran Diet member and former finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga is scheduled to meet with President-elect Park Geun-Hye in Seoul on Friday in an attempt to patch up the dispute over Takeshima, which Korea calls Dokdo, as well as the dispute over comfort women.

All this puts the U.S. is in a bind. Abe is a firm supporter of the U.S. alliance and his first overseas trip this time will be to Washington, later this month. The U.S. supports most of Abe’s efforts to ease Constitutional restrictions on the SDF, but doesn’t want to be dragged into a conflict with China over the Senkakus.

The U.S. also wants to see a resumption in defense cooperation between Japan and South Korea, it’s two strongest allies in Asia, but is loathe to step into the emotional dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo.

Abe is also planning to send an envoy to Beijing, but the Senkaku dispute is unlikely to go away easily. Chinese surveillance and maritime enforcement ships have sailed into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands – called Diaoyu by China – with increasing regularity in recent months. In late December, a Chinese surveillance plane flew into Japanese-claimed airspace, as well, causing Japan to scramble F-15 fighter jets – the first time that military ships or planes have come into play.

Japan is keeping a constant vigil with armed Coast Guard cutters, and with weather deteriorating and ships and crews from both sides showing fatigue, the risk of accidents, are increasing daily, with potentially tragic consequences.

For the short term, at least, Abe will have his hands full, if not tied. The LDP’s coalition partner, the Buddhist-affiliated Komeito party, is opposed to any loosening of military restrictions or other changes to the Constitution. And with a vote expected in the upper house in July that the LDP dearly wants to win, Japan’s voters are likely to stifle any nationalist agenda a little while longer.


Part 2

The children were not to be told that Japanese armies invaded Chinese Manchuria. Instead, they were to be told that Japanese armies made a "gradual advance" into Manchuria. Not content with this falsification of history, the Ministry of Education insisted that children not be told that Japan "annexed Korea in 1910" but that this sovereign country was "reunified with Japan". The horrifying massacre of  civilians and prisoners of war after the Chinese capital Nanking (now Nanjing). Which fell to Japanese troops in 1937 is one of the best documented of Japanese atrocities because independent foreign witnesses observed and recorded the horrors inflicted on the Chinese after the fall of their capital and because the Japanese foolishly left photographic records of the massacre. However many Japanese politicians and academics reject historical fact and deny that the Nanjing Massacre occurred.

Japan's Unit 731 conducted horrifying biological experiments on live Chinese prisoners of war at Harbin in Manchukuo (formerly the Chinese region of Manchuria). These biological experiments included live dissection, injection with anthrax, plague, and other lethal bacteria, deliberate infliction of frostbite, and resulted in horrible deaths for hundreds of prisoners. The existence of this ghastly unit had long been proved beyond all reasonable doubt by documents and interrogation of the Japanese scientists involved, but despite this clear proof, Japan's Ministry of Education had persisted in censoring mention of its existence.

I hope this gives people an idea of just how dangerous someone like  Shinzo Abe is in modern Japan. America should be careful about what it wishes for. The legitimacy of the entire American military position in the Far East is built around the US exercising Japan’s sovereign function of self-defense. Japan’s unilateral revision of Article 9 under the backdrop of  Japan's  new nationalism, would isolate them from virtually all of Asia.  It is hard to beleive that after 68 years of peace Japan has no more changed now then they did when the treedy was signed at the end of the war. Then you wonder why we are still stationed there and this might give some a clue. For those who refuse to accept one's own history are doomed to repeat it. I hope for Japan's sake that Abe last as long as the previous ones. Don't let the door hit you on the way out!!


 Part 1

What this shows is just how little Japan has changed over the last 68 years. You don't see us running around and pretending Hiroshima & Nagasaki never happened do you. During 1945, a half million civilians under Japanese occupation were being killed or dying every month because of the occupation. Japan has never come to grips with its actions and has deliberately refused to face them. Germany, at least, went through such self examination after World War II, and indeed, repentance, that its Nazi past, though not erased, no longer strongly stains the nation of today.  Indeed, Germans today have understood their special, historical obligation to face their past honestly and to stand for better angels of human nature today. Japan is responsible for at least as many deaths as the Nazis.  It's many years of atrocities: concentration camps, its bio-war experiments on Chinese civilians, its deliberate programs of starvation and murder of prisoners, the rapacious pillaging of conquered cities and their peoples, its imprisonment of foreign women as sex slaves for soldiers. This and more all swept under the Nationalist rug without even the barest pretense of acknowledgement that they ever occurred.

The basic Japanese attitude towards the war seems to be, “OK, we are super-peace-loving and were reluctantly forced into war, but only because the US bullied us, and we had really good intentions for the rest of Asia. A few bad things happened, but that’s what happens in war, and did you know that Japan suffered a lot, too and even got nuked? We’re sorry we fought the war, but anyway most of those atrocities probably didn’t happen or were exaggerated anyway so were not really all that sorry.”  If you ever visit Yushukan military museum you will get a first hand hand glimpse at just how distorted Japan's view is of WWII & the complete whitewashing of history as it really happened. This is the Japan we are supposedly allies with lol. Following the lead from their political masters, Japan's education bureaucrats began to censor history books for schoolchildren to prevent them learning the truth about Japan's military aggression between 1937 and 1945, and the many horrifying atrocities that were committed by Japanese during the course of that military aggression.

If Japanese schoolchildren are told anything at all about the Pacific War, it is usually in a false context where the United States, Britain and the Netherlands are dishonestly accused of "forcing" Japan to wage a defensive war to obtain supplies of oil and rubber. The schoolchildren are not told in official history textbooks that oil and rubber were withheld from Japan in an effort to persuade Japan to halt its brutal and unprovoked war against China. The children are not permitted to learn in their history books about the slaughter of millions of prisoners of war and captive civilians by the Japanese military. In addition to  the hundreds of thousands of captive foreign women who were forced to become sexual slaves in Japanese Army brothels across East Asia and the Pacific region. At times the falsifications and distortions of history in Japanese school textbooks have become sufficiently outrageous to produce a storm of international protest. In 1982, on the fiftieth anniversary of Japan's forcible seizure and annexation of China's Manchurian region, the Ministry of Education ordered amendments to school history books in reference to Class-A war criminals interred at the shrine


Japan is so used to be no1 in Aisa as it fancies itself to be the defacto ruler of Asia.

Now China is upsetting the totempole and relegate Japan from the top spot.

Oh, japan can't take that! Japan is born superior as its emperor is descedent of Sun goddess. and Chinese and the rest are merely lowly motals.




I hope Time can show me one instance in which China has robbed Japanese land.


JJapan has stolen Liu Chiu chiand of islands in 1800 and Okinama and inselt some time before or after that.



ABe is just trying to kill tow birds with one stone.

He will gladden  the heart of American military industrial complex by buying a pile of weapons which he can't afford or need.

Japan's allready aggrissive military will be mcuh more deadly and tthreatening to its neighbors after the new expansions.

This is Japan's way of centuries, threat of force and put aside all reason and justice.


What a feeble execuse it is for Abe to use, Self defense?

Abe should read Japanese meiji documnets to know that his own nation affirmed Chinese ownership of Disoyu in the1800s, the same time British and French maps confirmed the samething.

Abe knows there is no aggression whatsoever on China's part.

China is merely defening her land even America does not deny one way or the other.

Abe has not a shred of evidence to be afraid of China which has been a continous victim of Japanese aggression since the 14 century.


My pc was hacked agian.

The hackers even hacked WP sign in page so I could not sign in.

Rats are afraid of light. Come out in the open and lets debate the facts instead of sneak attacks on others' pcs.


Japanese defesne force is a nisnoma.

It is really an aggressive force. According to Reuters, Japanese military is one of the most sophiscated military in the world.

Despite its small population and territory, Japan has the 6th largest military budget in the world.

Japanese military is a threat as it is now. any enlargement and enforcement will make it a frightening threat.


Theses autoors said that the Japanese government is a rerun of the wartime government as it is staffed with former war criminals and their descendents in the first chapter of the book


The authors Adam Gamble and Takesato Wanatabe have warned about Japan's real intent in thrir book :"A PUBLIC BETRAYED: AN INSIDE LOOK AT JAPANESE MEDIA ATROCITIES AND THEIR WARNINGS TO THE WEST"


Japan has not changed a bit.

It likes to play tircks and disguises its real intent.

Still the master of deceit.

Its intent to reoccupy China and others is just latent and waitis to be fulfilled.

Scary part is now Japan knows it can lead America down the garden path without we even knowing it.


Some of the leaders go so oftne like Korzumi that they mightjust well camp out in the shrines


Japanese leaders might apologize with their mouth half hearledly, then their legs betrayed their sinceretyabout  their remorse as they run to the shrines to wouship the butchers.


I have bene buffled for a long time about our silence in regard to Japanese worhsipping its war criminals.

Tojo the destroyer os Pearl Harbor and murderer of thousands of Americans is now enshrined as martyr and deity.

Yet no one seem to give a damn about it. Just imgaine what kind of violence would be in Europe if Hitler was enshriend in cathedral and worshipped by the Germanss.


It was almost farcical one year Abe did yield to all the outcry from Asia about his "devil worship".

He sent a $400 plant to the shrinen to substitute for his presenc


Abe shows no regrfet about what Japan and his grandfather did when he goes to bow and pay respect to the 14 class A war criminals in the shrines.


I have never seen such a distorting article from Time. The Time just went from respectable to utter trash. Readers this article is just another advocate that disguises the real issue surrounding East Asia. 

Allow me to summarize three refuting points. In reference, to the Abe's cabinet lineup, they are are mostly neo-nationalists. The cabinet will only downgrade East Asian relationships and create increased financial risks. Refer to the Economist and if you still need an explanation, just ask.

The second ridiculous point was apparently Kirk depicts Abe as a moderate from one withdrawing action (Takeshima financial
support). Just for clarification, although the central government will not directly aid the prefecture other government-affiliated agencies will.

Third point, recharacterizing a self-defense force into a military forces is not a diplomatic "non-event" as Kirk states. It is
just one step behind the revision of the Pacifist Constitution and further increasing the risk of war in Asia.

My advice to Time, fire Kirk Spitzer and place a more competent correspondent in Japan. I have never seen a journalist so complacent and non-skeptical. When did journalists decide to be a lobbyist?


I am glad you elaborate the deficiency of this article so clearly.

America   is turning a blind eye to all the revival of Japanese military fervor and Time is of no exception.

Just from the attempts by Japan to retake its pre WWII territoy from Russia,, Korea and China, we can see its entent to restore Japan to its prewar "glory"

Nowhere in the article Japanese sophiscated and large military is mentioned.

Despite of Japanese military has the 6th largest budget in the world, Japan is  strengthening its air and  navy.

No mention of Japan's plan to build a navy base just sixty miles from Chinese diaoyu islands.

Only extremely dim people can think Abe is not ultra militaristic and an overt expansionist.

Articles like this will do all a disservice by lulling us into complecency and unawareness, just like how the Japanese envoy lulled us into  the calm before the Pearl Harbor slaughter.


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