Gady Writes for China-U.S. Focus on the Effects of Japanese Rhetoric

Commentary | March 03, 2014

EWI Senior Fellow Franz-Stefan Gady describes how revisionist, reactionary rhetoric from Japan's Shinzo Abe is impacting U.S. relations with both Japan and China. 

Read the full story on China-US Focus

The United States will need to push Shinzo Abe harder to discard his revisionist stance on history.

Traveling recently to China for the China-US Youth Dialogue it quickly became apparent that the country most Chinese scholars wanted to have a conversation about when it came to discussing security-related issues was not the United States but Japan. 

The topic of discussion was the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands. However, what worried my Chinese interlocutor more than Japan’s immediate naval action was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s blatant historical revisionism in regards to the country’s imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s. That, as my host explained, was subconsciously the greater fear for most Chinese policy makers: a neo-imperialist, confrontational Japan filled with racist ideology, immune to past mistakes, and once more possessed by the spirit of Dai-Nippon. “We trust the United States to act rationally in Asia, but not so with Japan; it’s aggressive behavior is the real danger to China!” one scholar from a prominent Chinese think tank excitedly told me during dinner in Changchun. 

While the Chinese fear of Japanese historical revisionism certainly has its hyperbolic elements, Japan’s alleged transformation into a “normal country” can certainly appear overwhelming to its neighbors. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tutelage, Japan has increased the country’s defense budget by $ 11.7 billion over the next five years, passed a first-ever National Security Strategy that provocatively calls for the acquisition of beach-assault vehicles among other things, and created a new National Security Council to better coordinate policy with key allies. Abe and the Liberal Democractic Party (LDP) are also considering lifting a decade long defense export ban, and more importantly, are contemplating reinterpreting or simply circumventing Japan’s pacifist constitution – notably Article 9. All of this is done in the name of Abe’s so-called “pro-active pacifism”. 

Moreover, Abe is a strong supporter of the US-Japan alliance and is keen to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on ‘collective self defense’. The United States is overall supportive of Abe’s agenda as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, states: “Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked.”

Abe’s revisionist rhetoric, however, increasingly clashes with Washington’s agenda of deescalating tensions in East Asia. For the United States to criticize Japan on its unwillingness to come to terms with the great sufferings its empire inflicted in Asia is tantamount to blasphemy for most LDP ears.  The stock response by many conservative Japanese politicians and commentators is to admit some wrongdoing but otherwise engage in generalizations: “Seen from the outside, Japan appeared to be invading China with imperialist intentions. Seen from the inside, however, most political leaders felt that Japan was being dragged into the swamp of war as part of some inevitable process.” a popular column in the Asahi Shinbun once stated. 

This is nothing new when one looks at the US-Japan trade negotiations of the 1980s and early 1990s, where Japanese negotiators were often just willing to conceit the most general points without going into any particulars. 

Also, when any discussion arises on Japan’s past misconduct such as the notorious treatment of the Chinese population in Mainland China,Malaya and Singapore or the sensitive issue of comfort women, Japanese conservatives are quick to point out that in fact the greatest atrocity of the Second World War was the dropping of the atomic bomb. 

Why is the United States putting up with this? 

According to Japan scholars such as Karl van Wolferen  the problem is that the United States Embassy and State Department – the principal US government entity dealing with such delicate matters -   have long had a tendency to echo the Japanese interpretation of many bilateral problems. The American historian Ivan P. Hall supports this assertion:  “Unlike the flow of ideas between the US and Europe, the Japan-US discourse is determined largely by a small group of Japanese and American experts on each other’s countries (…) this narrow channel of scholars, journalists, and diplomats serves increasingly to skew the dialogue in Japan’s favor.” 

More importantly, the Japanese are calling the United States’ bluff: Washington will not commit to any course of action that could substantially undermine the US-Japan alliance - the most important security agreement in Asia for the United States. US Foreign Secretary John Kerry did express his disappointment about Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasakuni Shrine but simultaneously, during a foreign ministerial meeting, confirmed the need for increased cooperation between the United States and Japan vis-à-vis China. 

Nonetheless, should Japan’s nationalist vitriol increase and Abe re-visit the infamous Yasakuni Shrine, praise the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, or again single out class A war criminals for praise, just to name a few of the available options, the trilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, and South Korea will suffer. 

According to Kim Tae-hyung, security expert at Soongsil University, in South Korea: “Even if there were no historical conflicts at all, Japan’s pursuit of a greater security role would aggravate security jitters among its neighbors. But Abe’s nationalist moves further complicate efforts for regional cooperation and pose hurdles to the U.S. policy toward Asia. Taking advantage of the chasm in Korea-Japan ties, China would strive to strengthen its ties with Korea and make it difficult for Washington to increase the triangular security cooperation with its core Asian allies of Korea and Japan.”

Both Japan and China have developed a victim’s complex when dealing with each other. They instinctively like to exploit both nations’ sufferings during the war in order to skew world opinion in their favor. However, Japan, since it is democracy and allied with a Western liberal democracy, has a greater obligation towards objectivity and truth than authoritarian communist China. In that sense the United States needs to find firmer words for Abe Shinzo’s reactionary rhetoric.

Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute.

Photo Credit: Bernardo Fuller