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Foreign Policy

Japan Turning to the Right Threatens Regional Peace and Stability

Feb 18 , 2014
  • Zhang Junshe

    Researcher, PLA Naval Military Academic Research Institute

Japan’s political turn to the right has been a topic of international attention and a tendency that deserves vigilance. Extreme right-wing thoughts have impacted China-Japan relations. 

The right turn refers to a trend of Japan attempting to break away from its post-war pacifism and move towards not excluding military forces or military operations as foreign or defense policy tools. In recent years, almost all Japanese politicians in power have guided Japan to tilt towards extreme nationalism with denial of war aggressions and open cries for constitutional revision in total disregard of history. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who’s been in office for one year, has gone the furthest in this aspect. 

Since the end of World War II, the world has witnessed three right turns in Japan, featuring: 1) Distortion and denial of its history of aggression and arguing that the definition of aggression is “not set in stone”; 2) Attempts to revise the pacifist constitution to re-arm Japan without constraints; 3) Provocative acts on territorial issues and blatant challenge to the post-war international order; and 4) Malicious rendering of other countries’ threats to create excuses for military expansion or conflict. 

Without full clearance of its war crimes, Japan kept its rightist base after World War II. The incomplete account of the war responsibilities of the Japanese militarists and the Asian countries giving up their claims to compensation resulted in Japan losing an opportunity to have profound reflections over the war. 

Japan has acted provocatively, flexed muscles and created tension on questions of history, territory and constitutional revision to unite public opinions and create excuses for developing its military strength and shaking off the post-war order. Once done, Japan will fundamentally change its post-war policy of peaceful development, which will seriously impact regional peace and security. Some Japanese scholars argue that without sincere reconciliation with its neighbors the right turn of Japan will be a political beast threatening East Asian peace. 

Admittedly constitutional revision of a sovereign state is not an abnormal act and reasonable demands of the Japanese nation should be respected. However, a revision with historical background of aggression and guided by rightist thoughts must cause attention and concern. Abe’s push for constitutional revision is a dangerous move that marks his right-wing policies. 

According to Abe’s plan, Japan is adopting new defense guidelines, the core of which is to lift the ban on collective self-defense, thereby making preparations for going beyond the pacifist constitution. According to Shinichi Kitaoka, a key security advisor to Abe, the right to collective self-defense applies not only to the US-Japan alliance but also to “any country which is very close to Japan”. “In other words, if that country is heavily damaged and that might bring a serious threat to Japan, then this is a situation in which Japan may consider exercising the right of collective self-defense.” If such a tendency is allowed to further develop in Japan, the expanding right-wing nationalism may well lead Japan astray with revived Japanese militarism posing huge threat to world peace. 

Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Abe triumphantly claimed, “Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in Asia-Pacific”. 

In the long term, the right-wing coming to the front of the Japanese political stage and the whole society turning to the right pose no fewer threats to the US than to China. This is because the main political identifier of the Japanese right wing is nationalism and the source of Japanese nationalism has been anti-American. Over the last century, the US has been an obstacle to Japan’s big power ambition, for which Japan bears a grudge. After World War II, even though the US has advertised its relationship with Japan as exemplary of turning enemy into ally, its profound influence over Japan’s domestic and diplomatic affairs has given the Japanese the feeling that becoming a “normal big power” remains distant. 

The anti-American factor in Japanese nationalism has always been present. Historically, problems between Japan and the US have never been resolved, as represented by the US dropping atomic bombs over Japan. For many years, the Japanese have been pushing for an American apology and never got it. America should know better that any attempt to achieve its own strategic goals by making use of Japanese nationalism will end up bringing disaster to itself. If the Japanese right-wing forces use nationalism against China today, they may well use it against the US tomorrow and anti-China acts may well be a springboard for anti-American moves. When the unhealthy aspects of Japanese nationalism develop into the anti-American stage, the legitimacy of the American-led post-war international order and the moral basis of the winning states will be seriously challenged. 

Americans may be confident of their strength to command the Japanese situation and so choose to strengthen its control and military presence in Asia with appropriate indulgence of Japan’s right turn. However, history is like a mirror. It will prove that any indulgence of the Japanese military machine and extreme right wing is strategic gamble, the consequences of which will be complete failure of America’s Asia strategy and huge disasters for people in Asia and the world at large. It is only 70 years from the 1942 attack on Pearl Harbor. The US must truly remember the historical lessons of appeasing Japan in the 1930s. 

Zhang Junshe is the senior colonel and former deputy director of Naval Research Institute, PLA Navy, China.

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