Under Shinzo Abe, Japan takes a sharp turn to the right

The prime minister’s nationalist obsessions are again coming to the fore

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe raises his glass for a toast with members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party during the annual party convention in Tokyo on January 19th. The battle lines around Abe’s agenda for Japan are set to harden. Photograph: Yuya Shino/Reuters

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe raises his glass for a toast with members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party during the annual party convention in Tokyo on January 19th. The battle lines around Abe’s agenda for Japan are set to harden. Photograph: Yuya Shino/Reuters


Japan’s public service broadcaster, NHK, is roughly equivalent to RTÉ, though its enormous annual revenue of more than $6 billion (€4.5 billion) puts it closer to the BBC.

Like its Irish and British counterparts, NHK is supposed to be impartial and aloof from the political fray, so its new chairman has raised eyebrows this week by suggesting it may legitimately be a megaphone for Japan’s right-wing government.

Katsuto Momii stunned journalists at a press conference when he said it was “only natural” that NHK should follow the government line on Japan’s bitter territorial disputes with its neighbours.

“When the government says ‘left’ we can’t say ‘right’,” he said.

By way of demonstration, he defended Japan’s wartime system of sex slaves with views disturbingly close to those of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The appointment of Momii, a businessman widely considered the prime minister’s preferred choice, has crystallized lingering fears about Abe’s agenda. A nationalist, Abe wants to radically overhaul three of Japan’s basic modern charters: the 1946 pacifist constitution; the education law, which he thinks undervalues patriotism; and the nation’s security treaty with the US.

Profound consequences
Critics say such a project would have profound consequences for Japan and requires national discussion.

The NHK controversy, however, seems to show to many that Abe intends to shut debate down. “Momii is perfectly willing to, in effect, turn NHK into a propaganda mouthpiece of the current administration,” thundered an unusually fierce editorial in the Japan Times, which said he was “unfit” to run the corporation.

It is not the first time Abe has been savaged in editorials. In December he managed to unite most of Japan’s media (though not the conservative Yomiuri newspaper) against a new secrecy law that hugely expanded the bureaucratic state’s discretion to keep official information under wraps.

Protesters outside parliament said the law belonged to Japan’s militarist past and labelled it “fascist”. But Momii saw little need for concern.

Abe has so far treaded carefully. His first term as prime minister in 2006/2007 ended badly when the public gagged on his revisionist politics. Since returning to office in December 2012, he has focused his energies on reviving the world’s third-largest economy with inflationary policies that have won global praise. All the signs are, however, that his political obsessions are now back in the driving seat.

Yasukuni visit
One clear indicator was his decision in December to visit Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s war dead, including 14 high-ranking war criminals. The pilgrimage, implying lack of remorse for the second World War, predictably enraged China, which lost millions of people during Japan’s 1933-1945 invasion.

More surprisingly, it upset Japan’s staunchest ally, Washington, which wants to avoid being pulled into a conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, claimed by both China and Japan. US vice-president Joe Biden reportedly spent almost an hour on the phone in December trying to persuade Abe to cancel his pilgrimage to the shrine.

Biden had toured Asia the previous month, mostly in an attempt to dial down tensions between Japan, China and South Korea over history and territory. “All those efforts were made futile by Abe’s Yasukuni visit,” said Japan’s Nikkei business newspaper.

Japan also looks set to reignite a long-running dispute over school textbooks. Abe has revived a panel on education reform to put his revisionist theories into practice. One of its aims is to demand rewri- tes of high-school history textbooks, removing “disputed” facts on sex slaves and other issues. It also wants to eliminate the “neighbouring country clause”, which gives “consideration” to Chinese and Korean sentiments about the war.

Japanese education minister Hakubun Shimomura announced this week that the government is revising teaching manuals so children can study patriotism and learn “properly” about Japanese history. He said Japanese children should be clear that there was “no dispute” over the ownership of the Senkakus. Until now, textbooks have noted only that China and Japan are at odds over the islands.

The battle lines around Abe’s agenda are set to harden. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party is preparing to challenge the constitutional ban on collective self-defence, a pillar of Japan’s postwar pacifist stance. Opinion polls suggest more than half of the public oppose Abe’s pet project.

But having the country’s biggest broadcaster on your side will no doubt help.

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