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Taiwan: The View From Tokyo

Jul 22, 2021

Japan’s Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo wrote the preface for a recently released whitepaper that paints China as a threat to peace and “free world” values. He says that Japan should collaborate with Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, and the United States because of shared values and a military need to counter China’s rising might and assertiveness. 

"It expresses my determination as defense minister to protect the country, including values” such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights, he further said in defense of his country’s new strategic posture. 

In March, Defense Minister Kishi and Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu met with their American counterparts, Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken in Tokyo for the so-called “two-plus-two talks” aimed at shoring up a U.S.-Japan scheme to counter China in defense of cultural values such as human rights. 

A month after trumpeting a “clash of civilisations” mentality worthy of the Cold War, Kishi visited Yonaguni, a remote Japanese island close to Taiwan. There, he stirred the already troubled South Sea waters when he said if Taiwan turns red, Japan has to be prepared. 

“Taiwan turns red” is not only dated but it’s a bigoted way of talking about a historic province of China that was colonized by Japan. It provocatively posits a red scare and a new domino theory, since Mainland China is nominally red and Taiwan isn’t. 

Known in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a loyal booster of Taiwan, Kishi most recently visited Taipei for the September 2020 memorial service of former leader Lee Teng-hui. 

“The peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan,” Kishi said, “and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.” 

So, who is Kishi and why do his words carry weight? 

Kishi is Abe Shinzo’s younger brother. Although Abe has stepped off center stage, the hawkish tune being played in Tokyo hasn’t changed much; if anything, it has intensified. 

Kishi Nobuo, like his brother Shinzo, is an active member of the right-wing nationalist group Nippon Kaigi, but the two siblings also share a personal animus in their much-heralded drive to distort history and keep China at arm’s length. 

Both men are grandsons of convicted war criminal Kishi Nobusuke, who was known as the “monster of Manchuria” when he served in the World War II cabinet of Tojo Hideki. Munitions minister Kishi Nobusuke spent three years imprisoned as a Class-A war criminal, but was cynically rehabilitated due to his uncompromising anti-communist stance and actually went on to serve as Prime Minister with clandestine U.S. support. He is known for pushing through a controversial, widely-protested U.S.-Japan security treaty.  

Kishi Nubuo shares the same parentage as Shinzo, but was raised in the Kishi household by his childless uncle and infamous grandfather, so one might argue that he is even more a cut off the old block than Abe Shinzo, who himself made no secret of revering his “illustrious” grandfather. 

Kishi Nobusuke’s brother, Sato Eisaku, also served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1972, during which time he visited Taipei and doubled down on Japan’s support for Taiwan, saying it was necessary to the defense of Japan. Sato’s ambitious grand-nephews, Abe Shinzo and Kishi Nobu both echo this stance today. 

The Nippon Kaigi, founded in 1997, represents the merger of two of Japan’s most strident ultranationalist groups with roots in the bitter aftermath of Tokyo’s eventual turn away from Taiwan. Its core tenets include revising the Peace Constitution to augment Japan’s war powers, rejecting the Tokyo Tribunal’s findings of war guilt, and valorizing Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, all part of a coordinated program to stoke nationalism and strengthen Tokyo’s military determination to counter China. 

The influence of Nippon Kaigi on Sino-Japanese tensions remains profound. Not only has its policy plank been the source of headline tensions: comfort women, textbook revision, denying the Nanking massacre, instituting mandatory respect of the wartime flag and imperial anthem, but it also serves institutionally to thwart the possibility of good relations with Japan’s neighbors, especially China, even after a change in prime ministers. 

It should come as no surprise that former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is a combative member of this right-wing political cult, but it is still unsettling to realize that 15 out of 18 members of his third cabinet were also members. Other prominent LDP politicians with paid-up membership include current Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, who previously served as Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary, and current deputy prime minister Aso Taro, who served briefly as Prime Minister. Aso shares with Abe and Kishi a direct blood relation to yet another influential post-war prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru. 

Right-wing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro is a member of Nippon Kaigi, along with a motley assortment of Nanjing massacre deniers, radical misogynists and even eccentric supporters of Hitler. 

Unsettling premonitions of tribalism and war are not coming from Japan-hawks alone. Secretary of State Blinken echoes much of the same bellicose rhetoric as his predecessor Mike Pompeo. Retired U.S. admiral and former NATO commander James Stavridis recently raised the unthinkable question of a U.S.-China war. 

“Who would prevail?” Stavridis asked. “At this moment, my money would still narrowly be on the U.S. military, but the trends are not moving in the right direction. The Pentagon will have to put more money and training toward cyberwarfare, employment of Special Forces at sea, unmanned vehicles, subsurface capabilities (both manned submarines and undersea drones); and air defenses against hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles.” 

Echoing this fear, Kishi’s whitepaper states that “stabilising the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.” 

The strategic balance with Taiwan is said to be tipping heavily to the Chinese side and the gap is widening every year. 

Former Prime Minister Taro Aso recently lent support to Kishi’s bellicose pronouncements, saying Japan should join forces with the United States to defend Taiwan from any invasion. 

Taiwan has long been a sensitive issue for policy makers in Tokyo. It’s a former Japanese colony, 1895-1945, that was once seen as so integral to the empire of Imperial Japan that Taiwan’s highest peak, Yushan, officially eclipsed beloved Mount Fuji as the highest mountain in the realm. Dubbed Mount Niitaka, it’s very name in Japanese means the new high mountain. 

Japan lost control of Taiwan at the end of WW2 but continued to maintain strong ties in terms of trade and culture, building on personal links, corporate links and residual goodwill for what some might argue was Japan’s only successful colonial occupation. 

Japan adjusted to the shock of Nixon’s overture to China in 1972 by normalizing relations the same year and quietly jettisoning official links with Taiwan. In recent years however, in the aftermath of Tiananmen and other shocks from the mainland, Taiwan has regained some of its lost stature. It does not rise to the level of a strategic partner, but it serves as an informal foil to Beijing and as a destination for trade and tourism enriched by a long shared history.

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