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Caught between rocks of own making

Publication Date : 23-12-2013


Regional tension over rocky isles in the East China Sea prompted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare that his new national security strategy does not depart from Japan's post-war pacifism.

The trouble is Abe's pet articulation of "proactive pacifism" is dogged by his record of whitewashing Japan's militaristic past and seeking to undermine provisions in the Japanese Constitution that renounce war.

Otherwise, more would be persuaded by the argument that Japan's defence spending increase of a paltry 0.8 per cent after 10 years of decline ought to raise no concern - especially when compared with an assertive China's double-digit pace over the same period in massively modernising its military.

With growing regional uncertainty, one would expect Japan, as a major economic power, to contribute more in maintaining the balance of power.

However, Japan's plans to boost capability, including development of an amphibious warfare unit along the lines of the United States' Marine Corps, have made people jumpy, not least because of Abe's determination to stand up to China. It is one thing for the avowed nationalist to pose in army fatigues within a fighter jet marked 731 (a symbol of Japan's infamous chemical and biological warfare unit of the past), but it is quite another to turn a blind eye to the brutal massacres suffered by nations at the hands of an imperialist Japan.

Any major shift in its national security policy must take into account lingering fears among neighbours about the possible ascendancy of militarism over the long term.

As Abe pushes ahead with plans to realise a stronger and militarily more independent Japan, he must not forget the strength of anti-Japanese public sentiments in China, for example, that at one stage led to the destruction of Japanese department stores and even an attempt to crash into a diplomat's car.

Abe must realise that his assurance of "contributing to global peace and security further" will be taken at face value only when he shows he is serious about making amends, for example, by helping his fellow nationalists to emerge from their state of historical denial.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, the ambivalence of Japan's leaders is attributed by some to an identity crisis created after the United States ended its trade isolation and put it on a pacifist path years ago.

"If Japan renounces its US-made constitution, it risks belligerent response," as one commentator observed. "If it doesn't, it has no sovereign identity." Leaders, like Abe, might yearn for recognition of what a new and well-meaning Japan is capable of. In shaping itself for the future, however, it must make peace with this and the other shadows of its past.


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