By Rikki Kersten, Murdoch University and APP member
first appeared in Asian Currents, The Asian Studies Association of Australia, February 2014.
When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine on 26 December last year, it predictably caused outrage across the region. Many commentators described the visit as an act of provocation on the part of a diehard nationalist who was thumbing his nose at nations that had suffered Japanese invasion and atrocities during the Asia–Pacific war. Observers assumed that there was a direct connection between Abe’s unrepentant revisionism, and his intention to force Japan’s defence and security policy in the direction of a more ‘normal’, full-fledged capability.
It is understandable to feel trepidation at the thought of what appears to be an unreconstructed militarist being in charge of creating a more assertive defence posture. This is especially unnerving when Japanese and Chinese paramilitary forces are engaged in cat-and-mouse manoeuvres in the East China Sea.
But are we correct in assuming that revisionism and ‘normalisation’ are entwined in this way in contemporary Japanese security policy? Where does the Yasukuni visit fit in Abe’s elaboration of his security policy objectives? While Abe’s pursuit of security policy development has been
dogged and consistent, it also features an undercurrent of political illogic that interferes with the linear association of revisionism and ‘normalisation’. The domestic political imperatives driving Abe’s visit to the contentious Yasukuni Shrine as a serving prime minister are quite clear. Abe is at the beginning of the second year of a four-year term. This means that, given the electoral cycle, he does not have to face the voters now for another three years. In other words: he can afford to do what is difficult or unpopular now because he has time before the electorate can exact its revenge. The advent of an untimely election for the governor of Tokyo on 9 February (following the disgrace of former incumbent Inose) has messed with this situation, as Tokyo elections engage roughly 10 per cent of Japan’s population and usually feature issues of national rather than purely local importance. But it seems that nuclear energy and social welfare are the frontrunner issues in
Despite Abe’s bluster of possessing a mandate to engage in what amounts to a normalisation agenda, security policy did not feature in his December 2012 electoral platform. Moreover, the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) landslide victory was more a product of opposition parties
cancelling each other out, plus a healthy desire by voters to slap the Democratic Party of Japan for incompetence, rather than a resounding endorsement of Abe’s LDP.
To put it another way: Abe’s security policy objectives in the domestic arena are clear, but they cannot be described as representative or popular. Even the LDP’s own coalition partner, the Komeito, has reservations about revising interpretations of the pacifist clause in the 1947 constitution.
Another domestic political imperative is the sequence of institutional reforms that Abe commenced in his first term in office in 2006–07 has continued with gusto as he enters the second year in his second administration.
Buried within this plethora of security policy elaboration is something quite new for postwar Japan: securing greater offensive capability. This appears in the form of Japan creating its own marines, and considering the acquisition of cruise missile capability as a pre-emptive measure. Never has the line between defensive and offensive capability been so thin.
In the wake of the LDP’s success in the 2013 half upper-house election, Abe can enact his policy agenda without fear of being blocked in that chamber. We know that the Komeito is not fully on board with Abe’s entire suite of policy reforms, but Abe has already signalled in his January 2014 policy speech to parliament that he is willing to work with ‘responsible opposition parties’(meaning Your Party and the Restoration Party) to secure political legitimacy for reinterpretation of the constitution.
Despite Abe’s long-cherished goal of full legitimacy for a ‘more normal’ defence capability for Japan that is underscored by constitutional revision and patriotic affirmation from society at large, it seems he has accepted the lesser option of constitutional revision by interpretation without popular support. This is because he knows that public opinion and political interests will not support constitutional revision via the parliamentary and referendum route for the foreseeable future.
But while the political logic driving Abe at home seems clear enough, the picture blurs when we turn to the strategic consequences of his Yasukuni visit. In contemporary Northeast Asia, Japan requires two things:a firm ongoing commitment from the United States as Japan’s primary security guarantor, and positive relations with regional nations in order to counterbalance China’s growing weight in the region. Abe hopes to secure more autonomy for Japan as a security actor within the context of the US alliance system, but giving the United States reason to be disaffected with its ally Japan is surely not part of this picture.
Through the toxic combination of a revisionist questioning of Japan’s wartime atrocities and a visit to a place that enshrines A-class war criminals and promotes an unrepentant version of war history in its museum, Abe has undermined his own strategic objectives. His Yasukuni visit has led to what Kazuhiko Togo describes as the encirclement of Japan by disaffected nations ‘with China at the head of that queue’.1
At the same time, he has given the United States cause to regard its primary Asian ally as a security liability. The United States needs Japan to help manage China’s rise and contribute to power balancing, not provide China with cause to raise tensions even further.
And when we consider Abe’s companion objective of legitimising patriotism in contemporary Japan, Abe must accept that in Japan today most citizens want Japan to be a peace-building nation.
At the same time, many defence officials are running out of patience with the self-imposed restraints that prevent Japan from operating freely and responsibly in a difficult and responsibly in a difficult and threatening environment. This is particularly galling because no one can dispute, Japan has been an exemplary contributor to world peace and stability since 1945
objective of normalisation. Nothing could be less in Japan’s interests than this.
1. Togo Kazuhiko, ‘Abe shusho no Yasukuni sanpai de sai-fujo shita sengo Nihon no “nejire” wo kaijo saseyo’ (Let’s eliminate the contortions of postwar Japan that have resurfaced with Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit), NEOS, February 2014, p.57.
Rikki Kersten is Dean of the School of Arts at Murdoch University in Western Australia, and a specialist in Modern Japanese political history and security policy.