Confrontational tack serves Abe’s personal agendaAs Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off his visit to the United States, his retrograde approach to history has come to the forefront. However, the Abe administration’s continued attempts to deny or trivialize the country’s past wartime aggressions, ignoring strong protests by neighbors and allies, appears intended to serve the prime minister’s personal agenda to alter Japan’s postwar peace constitution.
Last Wednesday, 106 bipartisan Japanese lawmakers visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which among its World War II dead also enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals, during an annual three-day spring festival. The following day, three members of Abe’s Cabinet visited the shrine, including Eriko Yamatani, the minister in charge of the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Abe did not attend, but sent a ritualistic offering as prime minister to the shrine on Tuesday, before departing for the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta.
Such visits by Japanese political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine are seen as Tokyo’s glorification of its wartime aggression and inability to come to terms with its past and are condemned by victim countries such as Korea and China.
However, at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 26, 2013, Abe, as he marked the first anniversary since took office, visited the Yasukuni Shrine, an act that drew an immediate and strong backlash from neighboring countries and Washington.
Earlier that morning, Abe met with his cabinet members at the prime minister’s residence in Nagata-cho, Chiyoda Ward, where Yasukuni Shrine also is located, to discuss a key issue: Revising students’ textbooks to push Japan’s territorial claims.
The meeting included Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Education Minister Shimomura discussed how to solidify Japan’s claims in territorial issues such as the Dokdo islets, which Japan calls Takeshima, and Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands, in its school textbooks. He also brought up how to time the announcement of textbook revisions.
Tokyo had been cautious in asserting its territorial claims in high school textbooks, taking into consideration backlash from Seoul and Beijing, but the Abe administration thought differently.
Kishida, according to sources familiar with the situation, suggested revising the teaching guidelines “right before the end of January, before Korea and China enter into Lunar New Year holidays.”
On Jan. 28, 2014, before the Lunar New Year holidays, the Japanese government revised its teaching guidelines for middle and high school textbooks to promote a more hardline nationalist agenda, particularly over its territorial claims. The guidelines purported that Dokdo is Tokyo’s inherent territory and claimed Korea is “illegally occupying” the islets.
Seoul maintains that Dokdo in the East Sea is not disputed as it is its inherent territory historically, geographically and by international law.
Initially, the teaching guidelines were not set to be revised until 2018.
Since Abe took office in December 2012, he has been known to advocate nationalist views.
Earlier this month, all 18 middle school textbooks in three subjects approved through a Japanese Education Ministry review exerted Tokyo’s claim over the Dokdo islets in the East Sea.
The move prompted strong backlash from the Korean government.
The history, geography and social science textbooks approved in a review contain content reinforcing Tokyo’s claims over Dokdo, including excerpts that claim the islets are Japan’s “inherent territory” or that Seoul is an illegal occupier. Previously, 11 middle school textbooks contain references to Dokdo. These textbooks would be used in middle schools nationwide next year.
Some analysts think Abe’s move toward historical revisionism as the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II approaches is his way of departing from the postwar regime.
Experts point out there are three parts to Abe’s plan: overturning history, amending Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution and establishing an alliance against China.
Tatsuru Uchida, philosophy professor at Kobe College, said the prime minister “will try to secure his place through the string of speeches to be made and try to get the ultimate pardon by the United States and international community.”
Abe did not repeat a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s wartime aggressions and colonial rule in his speech at the Bandung Conference in Jakarta last week. Next, Abe will address a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington on April 29. Both are likely give an indication of what he might say in his statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama has proposed a visit to Hiroshima, which would acknowledge U.S. responsibility for the 1945 atomic bombing, a move which could in a sense reset postwar relations for the two countries.
“The U.S. response is not yet clear, but even if it is difficult this year, the Japanese government position is to enable President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima by next year,” said a diplomatic source from Japan.
Japan has been closely cooperating with the U.S. on a military alliance and pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, but Abe also continues his historical and diplomatic provocations.
Mari Miura, professor of legal studies at Sophia University, pinpointed denial of Japan’s war of invasion and the forceful nature of the recruitment of women into sexual slavery by the Japanese military as intentionally provocative.
“These acts should be noted to hold the intent of deliberately trying to induce backlash from Korea and China,” said Miura, because the stronger the backlash from Seoul and Beijing, the more Tokyo can insist that the two countries will find fault with whatever it does. “This will help build up the public opinion that Japan would need to be militarily independent and help [the Japanese government] push for constitutional reform.”
Amid continued bickering between Korean and Japan, public opinion polls of Japanese who think that the peace constitution should be amended increased from 20 percent last year to 30 percent this year.
The Japanese Diet’s upper house elections are slated for August 2016, and there have been reports that Abe plans a constitutional revision afterward.
“Within Japan, there is an elaborate calculation [by the Abe administration] to drive up nationalism,” said Miura. “The Abe administration, in order to surpass the high wall to receive the majority vote of the people, will continue its measures to antagonize Korea and China.”
Kan Kimura, professor of international politics at Kobe University, said, “The Abe administration in reality is aiming to solidify a U.S.-Japan-Australia-India alliance and aims to have a leadership role within that structure.” Korea, because of its inclination to China, would be a hindrance in such a structure. “It is the Abe administration’s resolution that if it has the energy to spend on Korea, it would rather use it on Australia or India,” he said.
BY KIM HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]