Abe’s wrong way

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Abe’s wrong way

Japan has turned coarse, even outright mean. During a visit to Japan last May, I met the bureau chiefs of Japan’s TV newsrooms. They had been reporting on follow-up developments in the April 16 sinking of Sewol ferry that killed more than 300 passengers. During the first couple of days, they stuck to the facts. Then they highlighted the botched rescue mission and how generally insecure and unsafe Korean society was. They said their ratings went up when they reported how South Koreans were still lagging behind the Japanese.

The Japanese press had similar field day with the so-called “nut rage” incident, in which Korean Air executive Heather Cho, who is the oldest daughter of the airline’s founder, ordered a jumbo jet to return to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to eject a flight purser after she became enraged about the way her macadamia nuts were served in first class. Their reports had a similar condescending tone and message that Koreans were still far behind Japanese. Anti-Korean sentiment appears to be deep.

The Japanese also have turned hostile toward their traditional ally, the Americans. The ultra right-wingers are raising uproar about Angelina Jolie’s new movie “Unbroken,” which depicts a U.S. Olympic runner who endures torture at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. They are boycotting the movie and calling for a ban on Jolie and her partner Brad Pitt. The movie is based on the real-life story of American hero Louis Zamperini and a 2010 book. It includes gruesome scenes from a Japan prison camp filled with inhumane abuses. The book is even more provocative as it depicts acts of cannibalism and assaults on sex slaves by the troops. Despite the toning down, the movie became a box-office hit in America - partly thanks to the publicity given by the Japanese nationalists.

There is common thread linking the hostilities towards Americans and Koreans. The sentiments are driven by the constitutional reforms championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe and his group are ultimately different from the traditional conservatives in Japan. They should not be confused with the old guard. The Liberal Democratic Party was born of a merger of the Liberal Party and Democratic Party to fight the left-wing faction. The mainstream conservatives can be traced back to the mainstream Liberal Party under leadership of Shigeru Yoshida, whose doctrine revolved around a pacifist Constitution and pro-American policy that shaped Japanese foreign policy during the Cold War era and beyond. Under that doctrine, Japan has rebuilt itself as an industrial powerhouse and maintained a peaceful status quo with neighboring nations.

The constitutional reformers go back to the old Democratic Party. Abe’s grandfather on his mother’s side was Nobusuke Kishi, a member of the cabinet during World War II who was held in Sugamo Prison as a suspected war criminal, although he was never indicted. Upon release from prison he created the Democratic Party. He envisioned the “normalization” of the state, which meant deviating from the pacifist Constitution and a strong reliance on America. Abe and his supporters refuse to accept negative accusations against the Japanese for its past aggressions or the post-war constitution that they believe was forced on Japan by American occupiers after its defeat in World War II. They pay little heed to their neighbors, who still bear bitter memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities. This is why Abe is intent on reinterpreting the constitution, and that brings him into conflict with China and Korea.

The question is whether Japan has the capabilities to push ahead with Abe’s agenda. Through various channels, Washington has clearly manifested its displeasure over Japan’s revisionist behavior. It outright said it was “disappointed” by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni war shrine. It went beyond criticizing Japan’s attitude towards war-time sexual enslavement of Asian women. Washington needs a stronger Japan to contain China’s rise, but cannot tolerate Japan rewriting history and undermining its post-war pacifism. Whether Abe and his supporters will be bold enough to cross the red line remains unclear.

Many are calling for a better Korea-Japan relationship, which has been on ice since Abe returned to office. But that is wishful thinking. The two can shake hands, but cannot genuinely make up. Japan is now under the control of Abe’s adherents and their mantra of “normalization” has brought changes to the attitudes of ordinary people. Even if our two leaders sit across from each other at a summit, they won’t easily untangle the bilateral relationship. It would be more realistic to try not to make the relationship worse.

When Abe gambles, his popularity goes up. But the stakes are high. Japan will be cutting itself off from the rest of the world. If Abenomics fail and his foreign policy backfires, Japan won’t have any future left. The new conservatives are dangerous on different level. Provocations can only backfire. We beseech Japan to come to its senses.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 6, Page 30

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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