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Abe Goes to China

Why fears of rising Japanese nationalism are overblown.

11:00 PM, Jan 8, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IT HAS NOT BEEN an especially good decade for the Japanese left. The old Socialist party has splintered. The main opposition party, founded in 1998, has absorbed former members of the right-wing Liberal party. (Its leader is now ex-Liberal boss Ichiro Ozawa, a prominent conservative.) The consensus on sundry foreign and defense policy matters has shifted rightward. And Japanese voters have elected their two most hawkish prime ministers since the mid-1980s.

Cause for alarm among the neighbors? Hardly. Japan still boasts the world's most famously pacifist constitution. It still keeps military spending capped at an artificially low level. "Collective self-defense" remains a legal bugaboo. The nuclear "allergy" still pervades Japanese society. Indeed, Tokyo's chief foreign policy adjustments in recent years have all been blessedly reasonable: beefing up the U.S. alliance, pursuing a missile defense shield, and moving toward a global security role commensurate with its economic power.

While Japan has become more assertive--and more conscious of its slow return to "normalcy" in world affairs--its political culture has also become more pro-American. Bashing Uncle Sam may be de rigueur in Seoul, but not in Tokyo. (Unlike the South Koreans, most Japanese don't blame the North Korean problem on George W. Bush.)

The slim evidence of Japanese "remilitarization" is all relative. Take the ban on collective self-defense. As Christopher Griffin has noted recently, Tokyo has lately carved out an "operational exception" to permit joint inspections of North Korean ships. Further exceptions may be necessary for collaboration on missile defense. Ultimately, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revamp Article 9 (the peace plank) of Japan's constitution, which was imposed by General Douglas MacArthur after World War II.

But these decisions must be taken in context. Japan lies well within striking distance of North Korea (as a 1998 rocket launch made frighteningly clear). It is wary of the Chinese missile buildup near Taiwan (those missiles can also reach Japan), and of Beijing's tendency to stoke anti-Japanese nationalism. Yet its principal response to Kim Jong Il's treachery and China's bellicosity has been defensive rather than offensive: boosting the U.S. alliance and deploying anti-missile technology.

As for Article 9, Prime Minister Abe insists he will make constitutional reform a campaign theme in the months leading up Japan's upper-house elections this July. But, again, Abe couches the necessity of such reform in the language of self-defense and global security. "I believe this article needs to be revised from the viewpoint of defending Japan, and also in order to comply with the international expectation that Japan make international contributions," he told the Financial Times in October. Over the past two decades, Japan's contributions have included peacekeeping missions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, plus post-9/11 noncombat aid to Western operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"There are provisions within the constitution that no longer befit the reality of the day," Abe told the Financial Times. These provisions now hinder progress on missile defense, leave Japan more vulnerable to North Korean threats, and impede greater strategic cooperation with democracies such as America, India, and Australia. Yet while Abe's ruling party hopes to amend Article 9, it is not seeking to discard the repudiation of war.

"The idea that people are throwing out--that Japan is remilitarizing--is just plain wrong," says Michael Green, who served as a senior Asia hand at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005 and now holds the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Even if the Japanese were so inclined, their dependence on American power gives them less flexibility to pursue a truly militaristic agenda. Some have argued that the United States should encourage Japan to "go nuclear" in order to strengthen the alliance. In fact, the opposite is true: A nuclear Japan would be a far trickier ally. The American security umbrella has traditionally dampened the appeal of bloated defense budgets and rearmament.

In any case, warnings about Japanese nukes are hopelessly premature. Abe publicly squelched the idea a few months ago. Top Japan experts in the United States--including former Bush 43 and Clinton administration officials--firmly discount it. One Japanese scholar based in Tokyo recently told me that no "realistic" person in Japan expected it. At a conference on the U.S.-Japan alliance hosted by CSIS in October, a senior researcher for the main Japanese opposition party said flatly, "It will not happen."

Offer these points to the Chinese and South Koreans, and you may get a simple response: What about Yasukuni?