Abe’s ‘normal state’ abnormal
Japan’s right-wing politicians echo Germany after its WWI defeat by stirring nationalism and challenging world order
Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December. Less than a month later, when he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe compared the tensions between China and Japan to the rivalry between Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I.
However, his analogy is false, as before the war erupted the major capitalist powers had already entered the era of imperialism. Germany, as an emerging force, wanted to be a naval power and sought colonial expansion, and this clashed with the established interests of Britain, the most powerful maritime nation of the time.
Today it is a different situation, as relations between nations have undergone fundamental changes because of globalization. Even in today’s East Asia where there are prolonged tensions, there is no way for Japan to materialize an armed camp like the one that divided Europe a century ago.
Peaceful development and cooperation is the choice of most countries and represents the global trend, and a right-wing-inclined Japan has just backed itself into a corner. Given that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, it seems Abe is seizing the opportunity to try and obfuscate the real reason why tensions continue to escalate.
Abe made his erroneous analogy either because he sincerely believes that Japan’s strength in today’s world is parallel to the naval supremacy of Britain on the eve of WWI or because he was trying to cover up Japan’s similarity with Germany.
In fact, what Japan’s right-wing politicians are doing today — stirring up nationalistic sentiments and challenging the postwar international order with its aspirations to be a military power — echo Germany after its defeat in WWI.
From the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), its forced occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and its full-scale war of aggression against China from 1937 onward to the Pacific War in the 1940s, every step imperial Japan took brought untold suffering to its neighbors. Instead of trying to emulate wartime Germany, Abe and his like-minded colleagues should reflect on post-WWII Germany and the way it has faced up to its past. They should stop trying to whitewash the war crimes of Japanese imperialism and militarism, which is anyway doomed to failure as these are historical facts for which the evidence is irrefutable.
But attributing Abe’s inappropriately made comparison to just a lack of respect for historical truths oversimplifies the scheme of this conservative hawk. When being asked at the Davos forum whether a military conflict between China and Japan was “conceivable”, Abe replied that such a conflict “would be a great loss not only for Japan and China but also for the world and we need to make sure such a thing would not happen”. But he also said the soured relationship between China and Japan was in a similar situation to the Anglo-German tensions before 1914, implicitly comparing China to then Germany. It was another way of saying Japan was stuck in a hostile neighborhood with increasing threats coming from a rising China.
By doing so, Abe attempted to divert attention away from his contentious shrine visit, which has not only angered its neighbors, even Washington seems to have lost track of where its long-term ally is heading. Equally important for Abe was naming China as a top threat to Japan’s national security in order to justify his country’s military buildup and the revising of its pacifist Constitution.
Japan has pursued the goal of a “normal state” status for decades, but the country remains divided concerning what is a “normal state” and how to achieve such a status.
About 15 months after coming back to Japan’s top job, Abe’s acts have fully demonstrated that his answer to those two questions is Japan must emerge as a “normal” military power. In December, Japan launched a US-style National Security Council to strengthen the leadership of the prime minister’s office in steering defense policies. A little while later, Tokyo enacted a state-secrets law toughening the penalties for leaks, despite widespread protest and criticism. Abe defended the law as “necessary” in smoothing the operation of the new council and also in facilitating the sharing of intelligence with foreign countries. That same month, Japan’s cabinet approved three security documents, including the country’s first-ever national security strategy after WWII, which suggests Japan’s further transition from its postwar pacifism toward what Abe disingenuously calls “proactive pacifism”.
In his New Year message to the nation, Abe reaffirmed his resolve to change Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which limits Japan’s military activities to self-defense and forbids the use of force in settling international disputes. “As it has been 68 years since its enactment now, national debate should be further deepened toward a revision of the Constitution to grasp the changing times,” Abe said, signaling he is pushing to realize his long-term ambition for making the Self-Defense Forces a full-fledged military.
In August, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Japanese politicians to do some soul-searching over history to resolve historical disputes with neighboring countries. Tokyo immediately voiced irritation over Ban’s comments, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressing doubt as to whether Ban was fully aware of the efforts Japan was making to have dialogue with China and South Korea. How true it is that Japan has made great efforts, but not to resolve the disputes, instead it has sought to aggravate them.
China and South Korea now refuse to talk with Japan, and Japan is facing a storm of criticism from peoples around the world. It is to be hoped this will be enough to force its leaders to see reason and realize that if it continues along the path it is currently following it is only distancing itself further and further from the international community. The author is deputy director of Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.