Provocative act

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows a Shinto priest to pay his respects to the war dead at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on December 26. Photo: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

In front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on January 8, South Korean women who were forced to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese troops during the Second World War among those protesting against Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

A P-3C patrol plane of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force flying over the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea, on October 13, 2011. Photo: AFP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the shrine of the war dead in Yasukuni sets off a firestorm of criticism in other countries in the region.

Ever since his return as Prime Minister in 2012, Shinzo Abe has been hogging the international limelight. An avowed nationalist, Abe has been trying to make dramatic changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Abe has not shied away from identifying neighbouring China as Japan’s main rival in the region. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under his leadership now wants the “pacifist” Japanese Constitution to be overhauled and replaced by one that will allow the Japanese military to engage in activities that are expressly prohibited by the 1950 Constitution, which was drafted when the country was under American military occupation. The ruling party, in the first week of January, removed from its manifesto for the 2014 local elections a long-standing pledge that Japan “will never wage a war”. Under Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan had renounced war and “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”.

Domestically, the LDP government has veered sharply to the right. This trend came into sharp focus when the Prime Minister decided to visit at the end of the year the Yasukuni shrine, which enshrines 2.5 million dead Japanese soldiers as well as 12 convicted Class A war criminals from the Second World War. The shrine has been traditionally regarded as a symbol of Japan’s militarism. The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit the Shinto shrine was Junichiro Koizumi. During his tenure in office from 2000 to 2006, Koizumi made repeated visits to the shrine. Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Seoul suffered as a consequence.

Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine, his first as Prime Minister, set off a firestorm of criticism in the region, which has still not forgotten the depredations of the Japanese imperial forces in East Asia in the first half of the 20th century. Abe said his visit to the shrine was a personal one and not in his official capacity as Prime Minister. He insisted that the sole purpose of the visit was to commemorate the Japanese war dead and pray for international peace. The Japanese Prime Minister also stressed that he “firmly upholds the pledge never to wage war again”. However, Abe, in his long political career, has always sought to downplay the magnitude of Japanese war crimes and whitewash the role of Japanese imperialism in the first half of the 20th century. He has controversially denied that the Japanese Army forced women into sexual servitude.

Criticism in the region

The Chinese, who suffered the most number of casualties under Japanese occupation, have been the most vociferous in criticising members of the Japanese political elite who have gone to pray at the Yasukuni shrine and pay their respects to the Japanese “war heroes”. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman conveyed to Japan his government’s “strong indignation” at the “brutal trampling” of the “feelings of Chinese and other Asian peoples victimised in wars”. He urged the Japanese side “to abide by the commitment to reflect on its history of aggression”. The Chinese envoy to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, while criticising Abe’s Yasukuni visit, questioned his “erroneous outlook” towards history. “It all boils down to whether a leader of a country should stand on the side of maintaining the principles and purposes of the U.N. Charter or to side with war criminals,” he said.

South Korea, too, had strong words for the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit, making an already frosty relationship even more fraught. South Korean government officials said that by visiting Yasukuni, the Japanese Prime Minister had sought to justify his country’s “war of aggression”. After she took office last year, South Korea’s new President, Park Geun-hye, has so far refused to formally meet with the Japanese Prime Minister. South Korea has territorial disputes with Japan.

China and South Korea were joined by other South-East Asian countries that were under the jackboot of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. Even Singapore, which is otherwise close to Japan politically and militarily, had words of criticism for the controversial visit by the Japanese Prime Minister.

The Barack Obama administration said it was “disappointed” by Abe’s actions as it was likely to “exacerbate” tensions in the region. U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel conveyed to his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, the “importance of Japan taking steps to improve relations with its neighbours”. Many of Abe’s moves have been done in close coordination with Washington. The Obama administration has been backing the Japanese government’s moves against China and has backed it openly in the territorial dispute with China.

Timing of the visit

The timing of Abe’s visit to the shrine caught many by surprise. It came in the wake of the Chinese government setting up, in the last week of November, a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The small islands off the Chinese coast are under Japanese control but are being claimed by China. The islands were taken over by Japan at the end of the 19th century after it militarily defeated a weak China. The Chinese announcement about the ADIZ came after months of aggressive Japanese military exercises around the disputed islands. The surprise announcement of the ADIZ by the Chinese government had come in for strong criticism from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and other capitals in the region.

The Chinese government was put diplomatically on the back foot, with few governments coming out openly in support of the new ADIZ. China tried to explain to the international community that the ADIZ did not mean the setting up of a no-fly zone and that it did not violate the sovereignty of any country. It also pointed out that Japan had set up an ADIZ way back in 1969 to cover the disputed islands and overlap China’s economic zone. Japan’s air defence zone stretches only 130 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. “Their logic is simple. They can do it, while China cannot, which could be described by a Chinese saying ‘the magistrates are free to burn down houses while the common people are forbidden even to light lamps’”, a columnist from the Xinhua news agency observed.

Beijing justified the move on the grounds that it was necessary for the safety of aircraft flying in international airspace and was in line with international treaties and conventions. “The zone does not aim at any enemy or a target, nor does it constitute a threat to any country or region,” a statement from the Chinese Foreign Office said.

The U.S. and Japan were quick to challenge the setting up of the ADIZ by flying their warplanes through the restricted area without informing the Chinese authorities. Since the return of the LDP to power last year, political and military tensions between Japan and China over the disputed islands had risen alarmingly. Japan has threatened to shoot down Chinese drones flying over the disputed islands. There was even talk of a military skirmish breaking out between the two traditional rivals in East Asia. In the first week of January, Japanese air force jets were scrambled to thwart a Chinese Y-12 propeller plane from flying over the disputed islands.

Losing influence

Japan has been steadily losing its influence in the region since the turn of the century. This fact became strikingly clear as China overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. The Chinese economy is now twice that of Japan. The LDP government seems intent on reversing China’s peaceful rise to superpower status in tandem with the U.S. Japan is playing a crucial role in the American “pivot to the East”. The Obama administration is encouraging the Japanese government to play a bigger military role in the region. The LDP government recently announced a sharp increase in defence spending. Under the guise of “proactive pacifism”, Japan will be adding seven destroyers to its navy. Two of them will have advanced Aegis guided missile systems. In the next five years, Japan will have a total of 54 destroyers in addition to 22 submarines. Orders have been placed for 28 F-35 Stealth Fighters. Also on order are 17 Osprey vertical take-off aircraft for rapid troop deployments. A new amphibious brigade is being created “to speedily land, recapture and secure islands in case of invasions”.

Domestically, the Abe government is tightening the screws on the media; Japan passed a draconian media-related law on December 6, 2013. Stiff punishments are proposed to be handed out to journalists and whistle-blowers who “leak official secrets”. Prison terms can be up to 10 years. The government has not specified what it deems are official secrets and has left it to the discretion of senior bureaucrats and departments to define it. The only exception is classified news pertaining to nuclear energy. Any dissemination of classified information relating to the nuclear industry will henceforth be strictly prohibited.

The Japanese government has come in for a lot of criticism from the country’s media for its handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Many nuclear experts are predicting a worst-case scenario in the Fukushima nuclear plant. Some even go to the extent that the fallout will be worse than that of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Critics have compared the new law with Japan’s Peace Preservation Law, enacted before the Second World War, under which journalists were randomly arrested. The new media law, according to many Japanese commentators, will further undermine the already weak freedom of information Act. A survey revealed that more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public felt that the new law would be misused by the government to cover up misdeeds and corruption.

There has been a history of cover-ups in post-War Japan, starting from the 1960s. To protect corporate interests, the government had hushed up the “Minamata disease” case in the 1960s and the nuclear safety problems in Fukushima I and II nuclear power plants in 2000. Abe has promised that there will be third-party oversight on the new media law, but there is considerable scepticism about the government’s real motives.