Japan Faces Isolation on Issues of History: US caught in dilemma

“Vigilance must be maintained over China-ROK ‘anti-Japan’ ties” reads an editorial headline in the Yomiuri Shimbun, a conservative Japanese newspaper. Recent events in Northeast Asia are threatening to leave Japan diplomatically isolated at a time when the country faces considerable security challenges, such as the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s increasing military assertiveness.

The deterioration in relations between Japan and its neighbours was accentuated by the 26th December visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. A Shinto memorial that commemorates Japan’s war dead, it inters 14 Class-A war criminals and is seen by China and South Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism and racism, which brought considerable damage to their countries in the first half of the 20th century.

Abe, an avowed nationalist, caused fury in neighbouring countries with his December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine
Abe, an avowed nationalist, caused fury in neighbouring countries with his December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine

With younger generations in Japan having no personal ties to the WWII era, there is an increasing trend in accepting a ‘diluted’ version of Japan’s wartime aggression, a theory propounded in a number of school history books, another source of tension between Japan and its neighbours.

With Japan simultaneously locked in tense territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea and South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks, both revolving around the historical occupancy of small groups of islets, the issue of history in trilateral relations has never been more prescient.

The East China Sea dispute has seen Sino-Japanese relations deteriorate over the past year
The East China Sea dispute has seen Sino-Japanese relations deteriorate over the past year

The Yomiuri editorial is scathing of Chinese and Korean tactics to portray Japan as the villain:

China and South Korea took advantage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine at the end of last year to justify their anti-Japan stance, calling the visit proof of the revival of Japan’s militarism and its drift to the right.

There is a point to this. Both Chinese and South Korean politicians frequently seize upon any visit by a Japanese politician to the Yasukuni Shrine, blaming such actions for a breakdown in foreign relations. Knowing this, Abe’s visit was poorly-judged at a time of high tension, yet many of the ministers within the Japanese Diet have relatives commemorated at the Shrine and therefore a ‘personal’ visit may be just that.

Compromise on both sides appears impossible. Despite the obvious economic and security benefits of finding common ground on historical issues, notions of nationalism tend to undermine reason. Politicians know they cannot afford to be seen to concede ground on issues of history without losing populist legitimacy.

All of this causes a headache for the US, whose painfully slow ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific should be gathering pace given the current mistrust between the Northeast Asian powers. Japan is arguably America’s biggest ally and US troops are theoretically responsible for Japanese security under terms negotiated in several post-WWII treaties after Japan renounced any offensive military capabilities in Article 9 of its constitution.

Diplomatic isolation may lead to Japan revising its constitution to allow a more robust defence policy - something its neighbours fear
Diplomatic isolation may lead to Japan revising its constitution to allow a more robust defence policy – something its neighbours fear

Simultaneously, America wants to retain its strong relationship with South Korea, whilst cooling tensions over regional competition with China. With the current state of Northeast Asian relations as it is, such a triumvirate seems unattainable. Perhaps this explains America’s hesitancy in fully re-engaging with the region. That and the ongoing crises in the Middle East.

Although there is no sign of imminent warfare in East Asia, the region remains a potential flashpoint for conflict between the big powers. With a number of security and territorial issues remaining outstanding because of an inability to set aside historical enmity, America must continue to observe with caution.

For Japan, whilst a new burst of foreign assertiveness and willing to engage in regional issues is not a bad thing, its leadership must be wary of overly-provocative acts when it comes to issues of history. A neglect of this would put an overreliance on the relationship with a currently uncommitted USA, leaving Japan isolated in the Pacific Ocean.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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