Nothing pacific about it: Japan pushes back on China

July 15, 2014

Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF troop review ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka

China is on the march. Or, to be precise, China has made a strong push, militarily and otherwise, into seas nearby, setting off alarms among its neighbors. Now Japan has pushed back, announcing it will “reinterpret” its pacifist constitution so it can be more militarily aggressive in responding to China’s persistent territorial expansionism.

Japan’s actions, however, have also raised alarms. A century ago, Japan set out on a destructive path of conquest, and many still remember firsthand the brutality with which Japanese troops occupied the region — from Korea and the Philippines, through Manchuria and China, Vietnam and Thailand, all the way to Singapore. Though China is now threatening peace, the memory of Japan’s savage adventurism adds to the general unease.

If Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is to persuade countries nearby that his intentions are honorable, there are actions he can take to show that Tokyo has learned the lessons of the past and truly reformed. If he does not, his latest political maneuver is likely to set his neighbors’ nerves on edge, adding to the prospect of warfare between two or more of the nations on the East and South China Seas.

Japan's PM Abe looks at a prompter as he speaks during a news conference to wrap up the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at his official residence in TokyoYou may have seen the photo of Chinese vessels pouring thousands of tons of sand onto a reef in the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. It is perhaps the most startling evidence of how aggressively China is pursuing the resources it needs to maintain its extraordinary rate of economic growth. The creation of a new island out of a coral reef, on which it can build a strategically important air strip, shows how determined Beijing is to grab the land and raw materials it feels entitled to, whatever international law may say.

It is no surprise that the Philippines, which disputes ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, welcomes Abe’s abandonment of 60 years of pacifism. But other neighbors view Tokyo’s change of heart as more sinister. The South and North Koreans, at loggerheads since the end of the Korean War in 1953, share bitter memories of the Japanese occupation. They are less convinced that Abe’s first step toward a return to militarism is necessary.

For anyone with a sense of history, the Chinese encroachment into waters traditionally administered by the Vietnamese is revealing. In this dispute over marine drilling rights, the Vietnamese communist government, which fought the mighty United States to a humiliating defeat, is now looking to Washington — not Tokyo — to serve as an honest broker with its domineering ideological comrades to the north.

FORMER SOUTH KOREAN COMFORT WOMEN CHANT ANTI-JAPANESE SLOGANS IN SEOUL.The shadow of World War Two still lingers across the small nations whose populations were ravaged and natural resources viciously snatched by the imperial Japanese government. Even as China expands, a suspicion of Japanese motives survives.

How Japan confronts its ugly past is the key to whether its neighbors see it as a friend or rival.

For the South Koreans, there is no more potent issue than the plight of the “comfort women,” mostly teenage girls forced into prostitution to service Japan’s occupying troops. South Korean demands an apology and reparations for the women, now in their 80s or older. Japan’s grudging half-apologies and failure to come to a settlement remains a stumbling block to the restoration of warm relations.

A similar cause of anguish and alarm is the continued visits by successive Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni shrine, which contains the remains of war criminals. These regular acts of obeisance to long-discredited warriors is widely interpreted as an act of defiance that keeps alive the militaristic spirit of the World War Two imperial government. (It would be as if German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid an annual visit to the graves of Nazi leaders.)

Again, there has been considerable international pressure on the Japanese to put this matter to rest. Yet Abe and his predecessors continue to keep it alive.

Japan's PM Abe is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in TokyoThe Far East is at a turning point. It is accepted today that the United States cannot impose democracy on others. But the history of postwar Japan confounds such a pessimistic notion.

General Douglas MacArthur’s crowning achievement was as the Allied consul in postwar Tokyo, when he persuaded the defeated emperor and the political leadership that, to convince Japan’s neighbors it had reformed, it should adopt a pacifist constitution. The wording was such that, like the U.S. Constitution, it has proved difficult to amend. It is telling that Abe, who may have wanted to alter the constitution, has instead “reinterpreted” its pacifist strictures.

Nearly 70 years after President Harry S. Truman ordered the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought the bloody war with Japan to an abrupt end, new circumstances have made the old pacifism seem dangerous. Though the Japanese now have a large military, which under the constitution must only be used for self-defense, they have until now been inhibited from using it to come to the aid of an ally, like the United States, if called upon.

Like so much in Japan, the change is largely symbolic. A majority of Japanese continue to believe the old pacifist constitution should be obeyed exactly as before. But the menacing actions of the Chinese in the waters around Japan, including dangerous clashes between Chinese and Japanese vessels, suggest that the pacifism imposed on Japan is now itself a threat to peace.

Yet if Japan is to be a help in heading off Chinese aggression and regain its influence in the region, it must put its past behind. That means coming to a generous and just settlement of all outstanding reparations issues and apologizing profusely for past errors. It also means conspicuously abandoning adoration of ancestors whose behavior does not warrant devotion.

Only in that way can Japan take up its new role as a defender of international order and peace.

Nicholas Wapshott’s The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists and the Road to World War Two will be published in November by W.W. Norton.


PHOTO (TOP): Members of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces’ airborne troops stand at attention during the annual troop review ceremony at Asaka Base in Asaka, near Tokyo, October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Issei Kato

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks at a prompter as he speaks during a news conference to wrap up the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at his official residence in Tokyo, December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

PHOTO (INSERT 2): South Korean Park Og-nyon (R) and Lee Og-sun, both of whom were forced to become so-called comfort women or sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War Two, chant anti-Japanese slogans at a protest in Seoul, July 23, 2001. REUTERS/Archives

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is led by a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hana


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The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates anyone who died in service to Japan from the Meiji restoration in 1868 onwards. It lists the names of about two and a half million people, including women and children. Yes, there are some war criminals there too, but a trip to Yasukuni is considered to be paying your respects to those who sacrificed for their nation in general. Not’regular acts of obeisance to long-discredited warriors’ or any other such exaggerated hyperbole.

Posted by Ketara | Report as abusive

If they just take away the war criminals in yasukuni shrine then its 1 less thing to worry about….

Posted by pajonjon | Report as abusive

> If they just take away the war criminals in yasukuni shrine..

Stop right there, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. If they remove the war criminals from Yasukuni, that may just fatally harm Chinese animosity towards Japan, resulting in much reduced Chinese aggression and thereby jeopardizing this whole business of abandoning the pacifist constitution.

The Right thing to do under the circumstances, obviously, is to move *more* war criminals in to the shrine, provoking the predictable response from the Chinese side, and feuling this nice and healthy feedback loop of hate and distrust. That’s just right-wing 101.

Posted by majiji | Report as abusive

Despite Japan’s aggressive confiscation of resources from other countries in the past, can we at least take some solace in that, within Japan itself, economic resources are shared on a more equal basis than they are within the U.S., where most of the economic growth goes to the one percent richest part of the population???

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

USA was to the sex slave of 300,000 Korean women.
It is a serious human rights violations.
[Search ]Korean Military Comfort Women(yang gong ju)

Posted by zop_plana | Report as abusive

We need to be careful talking about MacArthur’s “crowning achievement.” He was a deeply controversial figure associated with several military disasters.

The model of going around creating democracies worked for a while. It worked when the US was above reproach. It worked when the soon-to-be democracy had been a highly unified totalitarian state.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

China threat is just a pretext.

Japan has built up a military which is the most moderm and mightiest in Asia since last 6 decades, whereas China has just started modernizing its military from a decade ago.

Some of my Japanese friends have deemed they were not defeated by us, Chinese, in WWII, but by Americans. Actually they are right. As to the American garrisons in Japan, they have felt humiliated as such being occupied forces as a result of their defeat.

In my opinion Japan wants to be independent militarily. It is a way of regaining some national pride that is predominant in their hearts.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

I’m surprised the propaganda of China and korea are believed wildly.
the organization of the comfort women in South korea have deeply relationships with North korea.
North korea have been trying to break the relationships of japan and South korea and USA.
This is why they continuously blaming the issue of comfort women.
And why they build the monuments of comfort women in USA.

Posted by Ginjyo | Report as abusive

I think there are no countries like japan that apologized many times.
Do you know japanese prime minister send letters of apology to individual comfort women ?
and japanese foundation paid 50,000 us dollars to each comfort women?

Posted by Ginjyo | Report as abusive

If you were an Asian, I would admit your right of saying such opinion.
But you are an American.I have some questions aginst your opinion “apologizing profusely for past errors” and “ugly past”.
When did Your President apologize to Native American and Hawaiian?
Is there any deference between anexation Korea by Japan and anexation Hawai by U.S.?
Is there any deference between founding of Manchuria and founding of U.S.,Australia and NZ?
I recognize we are bloody succesor from asian people’s view.
But your American and westerner also bloody from all others people’s view.
I recognize japan invaded China.
But China is “now” invading Vietnume,Philippine and annex Uighur and Thibet.
Why can you blame Japanese past ? Your President apologizing to any other world is the first ,don’t you think so?

Posted by y.f | Report as abusive