Japan: Is Political Manoeuvring Behind the Recent Anti-China Stance?

08 Mar, 2013    ·   3837

Aakriti Bhutoria discusses the possible reasons behind Japan's recent hardline nationalist stance vis-à-vis China

Not unlike most countries, Japanese political leaders have from time to time, taken recourse to foreign policy imbroglios, especially those which stir fervour, to gain mileage over political rivals. In Japan, the anti-China rhetoric has stepped up considerably in the last few years and found expression in the dispute over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, which threatens to push the region to war. The commentary seeks to outline the deeper causes of this hardening Japanese sentiment and argues that anti-China rants have been fuelled by political actors, to act as a safety valve for the country’s more grievous troubles as well as to increase their popular support base.

Economic Issues, Insecurity and a Sense of Isolation
One of the most important issues facing Japan is a stagnating economy, which projects the same annual GDP as that of twenty years back and is steadily declining, sparking fears of another recession. The feeling of doom in Japan is compounded by a perceivable rise in China’s fortunes, especially in comparison to the former. There is a sense of insecurity and isolation that has crept into the Japanese imagination with regard to the Chinese economic miracle, since their country was, until not very long ago, touted to be the next super power. The fact that that dream never materialised and that position has been usurped by their traditional enemy has drawn Japanese resentment to the fore. Moreover, Japan, which until now had felt secure and protected under the US nuclear umbrella and security agreement, is suddenly feeling isolated with a palpable shift in the global power equation in favour of China. As Walter R. Mead points out, Japanese adventurists feel that this is the right time for their nation to assert itself in the region, before the US’ power completely wanes and they are forced to acknowledge Chinese hegemony.
The question of why such burgeoning frustration among the Japanese has manifested itself in an essentially anti-China pitch is an interesting one. China has, as has been argued by scholars such as Shogo Suzuki, historically played the role of Japan’s socio-political and economic ‘Other’. The Japanese have always considered their country and nation to be superior to their neighbour and traditional rival. The feeling of being outdone or overtaken by China has thus led to an expression of Japanese nationalism, intelligently exploited by Japanese political leaders. Furthermore, it is important to understand that such exploitation of national sentiment has been facilitated by a political vacuum created by a string of weak governments and public despair caused by internal crises plaguing Japan since the twin disasters of March 2011.

Political Manoeuvring?
Taking advantage of this burgeoning resentment against China, the Japanese right wing, including the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the ultra-right factions, has sought to arouse anti-China passions in order to gain popularity and electoral support. In the past, they have denied Japanese war atrocities, glorified class-A war criminals and refused to accept the Nanjing Massacre as true, embittering relations with neighbouring countries. Relations with China have seen troughs and crests since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties forty years back, but have generally deteriorated since the early 2000s (roughly the time when the Chinese economy started to take-off), as a result of the swinging public mood in Japan.

Since last October, the dispute with China over the islands has re-surfaced after the ultra-nationalist ex-Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara (who started the Japan Restoration Party) unified the masses and collected a hefty sum in public donations to purchase the islands from its private owners. It was, according to the erstwhile government’s own admission, due to the pressure exerted by Ishihara that Japan made the move to nationalise the islands, breaking the status-quo with China. The anti-China pitch was a critical moot-point for the LDP and their candidate Shinzo Abe made the dispute a central electoral agenda as evidenced by his many speeches and the election manifesto.

As a politics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, Takeshi Sasaki put it, “There is so much irritation at how everything seems to be going wrong, and Japan is losing its pride. Politicians on the right like Ishihara and Abe are trying to fan these flames.” With a bid to restore Japanese ‘national pride’ and ‘self-confidence’, the LDP won the political mandate and ousted the more moderate Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in December 2012. The LDP managed to exploit the gloom percolating the population and voters admitted that they hoped the party would transform Japan into a stronger and more assertive country, capable of standing up to China. An evidence of the dangerous rightward stance in Japan, as pointed out by Gareth Evans, is proved by a recent Jiji Press opinion poll conducted in January, where 56.7% of those surveyed felt that Prime Minister Abe should visit the Yasukuni Shrine (which commemorates the Second World War Japanese class-A war criminals), compared to 2006, when 43% of the people had replied in the affirmative.    

However, even though the new Prime Minister Abe has a reputation for being hawkish and a revisionist, it is undeniable that he is also a pragmatist who would not carry his country to war in such troubled times. His last stint as Premier in 2006 demonstrated his practical side, with his historic visit to China to improve relations. Nonetheless, his brand of nationalism has been overshadowed by the emergence of the new right wing, (represented by the likes of Ishihara) provoking him to adopt more severe tones with China in the recent conflict.