Letter from Tokyo

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s revisionist rhetoric alarms regional neighbours

Japanese leaders rarely pose anywhere near army hardware, part of the country's postwar taboo on overt displays of militarism. So when a grinning Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, was photographed last week, thumbs aloft, sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet adorned with the Hinomaru rising sun flag, Japan's Asian neighbours hummed with predictable outrage.

The photo burned up Chinese blogs and ran on the front page of South Korea's largest newspaper, with the jet's number, 731, highlighted. Did Abe not know that the number would be taken as a reference to the infamous Japanese bio-warfare Unit 731, which carried out experiments on live prisoners and unleashed a plague on Chinese civilians? One politician in Seoul compared the photo-op to German chancellor Angela Merkel posing in an aircraft with a swastika.

In all likelihood Abe’s handlers simply overlooked the number; so efficient is Japan’s educational whitewash of its second World War crimes that they may not have even known about it. It hardly matters: the episode perfectly illustrates the gap in perception between Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. Abe says Japan must beef up its military to survive in an increasingly dangerous neighbourhood, dominated by a bullying Beijing and an unpredictable Pyongyang.

Inflaming passions
Try as he might to focus on the future, however, he inevitably rattles the ghosts of the past, inflaming passions in a region with already dangerously stoked tensions.


Since becoming prime minister again in December and leading the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) back to power, Abe has tried to steer clear of Japan’s war history, but the two always seem to be destined for collision. In late April during Diet questioning, he queried the definition of “aggression” in relation to Japan’s colonial wars in Asia, in effect undermining the basis of Tokyo’s relations with its former victims. His quibble also undermined Japan’s gold standard apology for its colonial rule and aggression, the 1995 Murayama statement, which Abe hints he may retract.

On May 12th, LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi revealed to millions of television viewers that Abe rejects the verdict of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang. Over half of the prime minister's cabinet belong to a parliamentary group that shares his views; a record 168 LDP deputies last month visited the Yasukuni shrine, where these leaders were secretly enshrined. A pilgrimage to the shrine naturally implies endorsement of the leaders and their war aims.

Profound consequences Conservative arguments – that Japan merely wishes to become a “normal” country, mourn its dead, respect its past and fight its own corner in Asia – inevitably run aground on these historical rocks. Rejecting the verdict of the Tokyo war trials and retracting Japan’s apologies with the argument that its army was “liberating” Asia from white colonialism, not waging an aggressive war, would have profound consequences for Japan’s relations with China, South Korea and even the US.

For this reason, the government's statements under Abe have been maddeningly opaque. Even as the prime minister twists and turns, his spokesman Yoshihide Suga has spent the month putting out political fires. No, says Suga, the prime minister does not deny war crimes; yes, Japan stands by its war apologies. No, Abe does not want to retract the 1993 Kono statement, accepting Japan's official role in rounding up wartime Asian sex slaves – even though he clearly does.

South Korea and Japan, two mature democracies with similar interests, will weather these political storms, at least until Abe is out of power. For now he is riding high in the polls thanks to a radical policy of reinflating the economy that has ignited the flat stock market and revived business confidence. Relations with China, however, are not so easy to predict.

For months, the two nations have been embroiled in a cat-and-mouse territorial dispute over a group of rocks about 1,800 km southwest of Tokyo. China recently dubbed what it calls the Diaoyu a "core interest", putting them in the same uncompromising diplomatic category as Taiwan and Tibet. Abe has threatened to use force to expel any Chinese attempt to land on what Japan calls the Senkakus. Last week, Beijing appeared to lay claim to Japan's southernmost Okinawa Prefecture in a provocative People's Daily article.

The claim is widely seen as political posturing, a warning to Tokyo to sort out the Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial dispute and accept that the islands are colonial war booty.

But the dangers of two unrepentant nationalisms going head to head – one rising and looking to settle scores, the other declining and wounded by its past – should not be underestimated.