Where to, Japan?

There seemed to be no alternatives in the choice of prime minister: Abe has another chance to show how wise and wonderful his Abenomics are.

After December’s landslide victory guaranteed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a new term until 2018 – even though there was increasing apathy among the electorate with turnout only reaching 53% – he now has a chance to show the entire world the wisdom and success of his ‘Abenomics’.

Not that Abe’s economic policies have produced any significant results since their introduction over two years ago. Leaving aside promises and proclamations, Japan is only one of two G8 countries in recession (along with Italy). And Japan is bringing up the rear in Asia, the continent experiencing the fastest global growth. Not only is it falling behind China and South Korea, it trails Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia too.

Abe’s supporters swear this was expected. They claim Japan is going through a period of adjustment as it readies to take a great leap in the next few months, resuming its rightful role within the international community. But what role is that? This is important to understand because behind the dream of Abenomics lies the nightmare of ‘Abepolitics’.

 Since the end of the Second World War, we have grown accustomed to the image of Japan as an economic giant and a political dwarf. Thanks to a watertight security treaty with the US (including some provisions still secret to this day), Japan was a country able and willing to forsake a political role in exchange for the freedom to forge ahead with its economic growth.

This worked perfectly for everyone until a few years ago. The US believed its initial ‘generosity’ (of sparing Emperor Hirohito from execution) had forever excluded the return of a revanchist right wing in Japan and secured an ally destined to assume an increasingly important strategic role. It worked well for most of Japan’s neighbours – Russia, China and the Southeast Asian nations – who all agreed that its political consolidation should be avoided. This is because Asia especially those countries once under Imperial occupation, still struggles to trust Japan.

The arrangement also suited Japan. If it hadn’t been for the collusion of a political class whose short-sightedness, arrogance and corruption is virtually unrivalled worldwide, Japan could have shaken off America’s tight grip. It would have had other options available today, instead of the usual nationalism invoked to claim a political role that, all in all, the country could and perhaps should assume.

But it wasn't to be. Japan continues to instigate suspicions, accusations and threats due to its inability to come to terms with its past, a responsibility it shares with the US. The Japanese ruling class was prevented from promoting genuine renewal when the democratisation process was cut short in the 1950s by the freeing of thousands of imprisoned politicians and business people, all of whom had backed the wartime regime. In addition, its failure to offer sincere apologies for the crimes committed during the many World War II “advances” (as they’re still referred to in some textbooks today) is not forgotten.

“Japan must learn from Germany”, said Xi Jinping on a recent visit to Berlin. The Chinese president has never concealed his personal dislike for Abe and never misses the opportunity to stress just how far Japan is from the legitimate ‘redemption’ achieved by Germany. Similarly, since taking office nearly three years ago, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has refused to speak to the Japanese prime minister even on the phone.

Indeed, tensions between Japan and South Korea are beginning to worry the US, which has signed security and military cooperation treaties with both countries. If a conflict were to arise between Tokyo and Seoul, it would be a tough call for Washington to decide if and how to intervene. What’s more, 70 years after the end of World War II, Japan is the only country to have open territorial disputes with all its neighbours: Russia, China, South Korea and Taiwan. The validity of the reciprocal claims notwithstanding, this is a clear sign of Japan’s inability, which might be termed refusal, to negotiate.

As long as such claims and assertions were championed by a quaint and politically marginal right wing that vegetated under Japan PLC, the economic giant with whom everyone wanted to trade and invest, all was well. Yet certain requests, certain provocations are now being sponsored by the government itself. In recent months, all foreign media bureaux and embassies have received an information pack from the Foreign Affairs Ministry that included a map of Japan and its “inherent territories”. Inherent, not ‘claimed’: a decidedly unwise move, diplomatically speaking. The Foreign Ministry has also requested ¥50 billion (€376 million) out of the new budget to be used to improve Japan’s image. Half of the money will go to Western academics, who will be invited to rewrite certain ‘delicate’ episodes of recent national history, above all the Nanjing Massacre and the tragedy of the comfort women, the thousands of women from Korea and other countries forcibly sent to the front during WWII to ‘comfort’ Japanese soldiers. These events still arouse strong emotions and suffering in South Korea, especially since the Japanese government has so far failed to take any kind of responsibility for these deeds. And as a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun daily suggested, if the government erected a monument in the heart of Tokyo to the enslaved women, this would probably suffice as an apology.

One hopes Abenomics will work, because should it fail there’s a risk that Abe – the grandson of a war criminal who was pardoned by the Allies and served as prime minister in the late 1950s – may further ramp up the nationalism to detract from his failures. History is rife with examples of regimes that try to shift attention to external issues to justify internal failings. This would be a real shame because 70 years after the end of World War II, one would expect some drive for unity, integration and solidarity in Asia too. It is striking that there is a persistent lack of political leaders able to initiate such a process.

Japan’s current emperor, Akihito, has oft invited his people to reflect upon and reconcile themselves with the past. If he wanted to make an incisive contribution to history and be remembered as a figure like Germany’s Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl, perhaps he might consider visiting Nanjing and kneeling for a few solemn minutes before the Massacre Memorial. That would be a step in the right direction. 

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