The rising sun


Japan is breaking out off two decades of lethargy and passivity. Economic as well as political. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, barely five months into the job, has shaken up the country’s central bank, promising to pump money into the financial system, has pump-primed the economy with some $100 billion in extra state spending, and has, to the surprise of many, committed Japan to opening up its protected economy by signing up to the free trade Tran-Pacific Partnership. “Abenomics”, we are told, with reform of the state, will jolt the economy out of stagnation.

The stockmarket markets like it – up 55 per cent since his election – while reviving consumer spending has also pushed growth up to 3.5 per cent, and with it Abe’s popularity rating.

The new economic assertiveness has its conjoined twin, however, in a politics that is alarming neighbours, a revisionist nationalism that is reclaiming Japan’s history. Casting the post- second world War years of US domination as a national humiliation, it is reinventing its wartime aggression as a war of liberation on behalf of the oppressed of Korea and China. Abe hints he is close to repudiating the country’s historic apology for the war, and while one spokesman says he rejects the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, which blamed Japan for the war and sentenced its leaders to hang, another denies as much .

Such attitudes, until now mostly carefully kept in check by Japan’s rulers, reverberate around the region inflaming anti-Japanese feeling and local nationalism . They feed into territorial disputes such as that with China over a group of rocks about 1,800 km southwest of Tokyo known as the Senkaku Diaoyu, as Abe also talks of turning the country’s “self-defence forces” into a traditional army. He says Japan must beef up its military to survive in an increasingly dangerous neighbourhood, dominated by bullying Beijing and unpredictable Pyongyang.

Matching China’s economic might and reviving Japan’s alleged lost greatness are two sides of the same coin for a government that is both exciting and alarming the country’s allies.