Can He Take Back Japan?

Abe Shinzo
Abe Shinzo; drawing by Pancho

“China! China! China!” That is how a former Japanese diplomat summed up his country’s foreign policy preoccupations this summer in Tokyo. A quick glance at what’s on sale at Japanese bookstores proves him right: pile upon pile of books about the “threat” of China, the “power” of China, China’s “hatred” of Japan, the “downfall” of China, the “triumph” of China, and so on.

Smaller but still considerable piles of books in a market that is struggling like everywhere else concern a subsidiary branch of the China obsession: books about the awfulness of Korea, for sucking up to China and for hating Japan. There have even been reports of demonstrations here and there of Japanese screaming: “Death to the Koreans!”

Relations among the countries of East Asia are tense, to be sure, with Chinese and Japanese military planes stalking one another over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and the South Korean President Park Geun-hye refusing to talk to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo because of territorial (more little islands) and historical quarrels. It cannot be easy for Japan, which had become so used to being the wealthiest, most dynamic, most modern nation in Asia, to see China’s power grow by the day. A younger generation of Japanese, tired of being told by foreigners to feel guilty about a war most of them know very little about, appears to be receptive to a dose of nationalist reassertion.

And so the second administration of Abe Shinzo (the first lasted only one year and ended rather shamefully in 2007) would seem to have arrived at just the right time. Reelected in a landslide in 2012, Abe promised to revive the lackluster economy, and also to be a tough nationalist. There would be no more apologizing for the past or kowtowing to foreigners. Abe vowed to “take back Japan.”

This meant, for one thing, that in 2013 he would visit Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of soldiers who have died for the imperial cause, including war criminals, are remembered. He would revise the postwar pacifist constitution, written by Americans in 1947 (in rather poor Japanese) to take away Japan’s sovereign right to wage war. A new secrecy law has been passed, making it a punishable offense to leak state secrets or to publish them. There were plans to review apologies made by former Japanese governments for what was done in World War II—plans that ran into such opposition abroad and in Japan that they had to be abandoned.

Some of Abe’s cronies have openly questioned Japanese war guilt. Hyakuta Naoki, a board member of the national broadcasting company NHK, has stated that the notorious Nanking Massacre of 1937, when at least tens of thousands and probably many more Chinese were brutally murdered by the Japanese, never occurred. The head of NHK, Momii Katsuto, has argued that the systematic use of Koreans and other foreign sex slaves…

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