These fears are, of course, predicated on the history of ultra-nationalism in Japan which gradually increased in the first part of the 20th century into a rabid racism and superiority complex. This laid the foundations for the aggressive expansionism of the Japanese Imperial Army into China in the 1930s and against USA and the rest of East Asia in the 1940s.
However this perception of a ‘shift to the right’ does not hold much ground. Firstly, the Japanese public remains firmly against Japan taking a more assertive military stance. In a recent poll, 64% of respondents were against revising Article 9 of the constitution, which prohibits Japan from taking any offensive military action. 82% of people wanted to maintain Japan’s three non-nuclear principles of refusing to manufacture, possess or store nuclear weapons. 77% were against exporting Japanese military technology abroad.
Perhaps, interestingly, 65% of respondents believed that the administration of Shinzo Abe would cause tensions in East Asia (particularly in relation to China) to rise. Related to this are the 63% who believed a territorial dispute was the most likely cause of conflict and 55% who saw China as the main state threat to Japanese security.
The territorial dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea has intensified during Abe’s premiership and does seem a potential flashpoint for regional security. Yet despite respondents fearing the growing tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the majority still do not desire a revision of the military and constitutional status quo in Japan.
Aligned with public opinion are the ‘Big Business’ interests of Japanese corporations, who depend on a stable relationship with China to maintain the economic equilibrium. Abe is not stupid; he has staved off an ultra-nationalist revival by making symbolic gestures (such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and mobilising the Japanese coastguard in the East China Sea) whilst urging restraint and dialogue.
If anything, Chinese nationalism is the concern. Part of the CCP’s agenda is to stir up a hatred of the ‘other’; this is perpetuated by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has shown in its recent confrontation with Vietnam in the South China Sea that national interests will not be subordinated for any concession.
Ultimately, despite Japan’s history of destructive nationalism, there is cause for optimism. Whilst tensions may be rising in the East China Sea, there is no reason to believe that this will end in conflict. Firstly, China and Japan are too economically interdependent; second, Japan’s public are clearly against a resuscitation of military aggression; thirdly, despite his seemingly nationalist outlook, Shinzo Abe will not allow it. He has engineered a position of dominance for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which the interlude of Democratic Party (DPJ) rule threatened to render impossible.
Whatever the case, a repeat of the ’30s and ’40s is not on the cards.