Nothing pacific about it: Japan pushes back on China
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.
You 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.
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.
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