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.

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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.

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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.