North Korea's nuclear test reopens the question of Japanese rearmamentby Francis Fukuyama / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
The apparently successful testing of a nuclear weapon by North Korea has raised the issue of proliferation in the region and, in particular, the question of Japanese rearmament. In this context it is worth considering the recent election of Shinzo Abe to leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP), and therefore prime minister. Abe’s predecessor Junichiro Koizumi was a bold leader, who brought the Japanese economy out of the doldrums and smashed the LDP’s faction system. But he also legitimised a new Japanese nationalism. Abe is, if anything, even more committed to building an assertive and unapologetic Japan than Koizumi, who for the past five years has managed to antagonise China and South Korea with his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine.
Anyone inclined to think that the controversy over Yasukuni is an obscure historical matter that the Chinese and the Koreans use to badger Japan for political advantage has probably never spent much time there. The problem is not the fact that 12 Class-A war criminals are interred in Yasukuni; the real problem is the Yushukan military museum next to it, which is operated by a private religious foundation. Walking past the tanks and machine guns, one finds a history of the Pacific war which, the museum proudly explains, restores “the truth of modern Japanese history.” It follows the nationalist narrative according to which Japan was a victim of the European colonial powers, one that sought only to protect the rest of Asia from them. It describes Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, for example, as a “partnership.” One looks in vain for any account of the victims of Japanese militarism in Nanjing or Manila.
One might be able to defend the museum as one point of view among many, but for the fact that there is no other museum in Japan that gives an alternative view of 20th-century Japanese history. Successive Japanese administrations have hidden behind the fact that the Yushukan museum is run by a religious organisation to wash their hands of responsibility for the views expressed there. But the truth is that Japan, unlike Germany, has never come to terms with its responsibility for the Pacific war. It has never had a real internal debate and never tried to propagate an alternative account from that of Yushukan to its young people.
My exposure to the Japanese right came in the early 1990s, when I appeared on a couple of panels in Japan with Watanabe Soichi, who was selected by my Japanese publisher (unbeknown to me) to translate The End of History and the Last Man into Japanese. Watanabe was a professor at Sophia University and a collaborator with Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist politician who wrote The Japan That Can Say No. I heard Watanabe explain to large audiences how people in Manchuria had tears in their eyes when the occupying Kwantung army left China, so grateful were they to Japan, and that the Pacific war was all about the US keeping a non-white people down. He is the equivalent of a Holocaust-denier, but unlike his German counterparts can attract large and sympathetic audiences.
There have been a number of disturbing recent incidents in which physical intimidation has been used by nationalists against critics of Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits, such as the firebombing of the home of former prime ministerial candidate Kato Koichi. On the other hand, the publisher of the normally conservative newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun has stepped up to the plate, attacking Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and publishing a fascinating series of articles on responsibility for the war.
There are a number of US strategists who are eager to ring China with a Nato-like defensive barrier, building outwards from the US-Japan security treaty. Since the waning days of the cold war, Washington has been pushing Japan to rearm, and has officially supported a proposed revision of article 9 of the postwar constitution, which bans Japan from having a military or waging war. But the US should be careful in what it wishes for. The legitimacy of its military position in the far east is built around the fact that it has taken over the sovereign function of self-defence for Japan; a unilateral revision of article 9 will isolate Japan from virtually the whole rest of Asia. But the US presumes that article 9 revision has long been part of Abe’s agenda.
Meanwhile, the recent North Korean nuclear test will immediately change the balance of power in northeast Asia. The Japanese have said quietly but firmly through a number of channels that they will push for nuclear weapons if North Korea goes nuclear. Let us hope that Abe made this point to the Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao in their recent meeting, and that this has stimulated the Chinese to get tougher on their putative ally.