On August 6, the anniversary of the US nuclear attack on Hiroshima in 1945, Japan launched the carrier Izumo, the largest warship built in the country since the end of the Second World War. Japanese deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, a figure known by his nationalist views, attended the ceremony, which turned into an exaltation of Japanese nationalism and militarism. The Japanese imperial navy flag, the Rising Sun, was seen in the carrier.
The carrier has been named after a Japanese warship which took part in the invasion of Shanghai by Japanese troops in 1937. Another carrier will be launched in 2016 and it will further strengthen Japan´s naval power and its capacities to carry out operations in the region.
The launch of the Japanese carrier has also been regarded as a political sign that Shinzo Abe´s government is clearly determined to change the Japanese Constitution, approved after the Second World War, to erase the peace clause and promote a rearmament policy. Abe has been trying for long to rewrite Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which prohibits “the maintenance of land, sea and air forces”. He wants the Japanese army, officially known as the “Self-Defence Forces”, to be liberated from the restraints included in the Constitution in order to make Japan “a proud nation” again. Actually, however, Japanese Self-Defence Forces are already one of the most powerful armies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Under the Constitution, Japan cannot send its troops to foreign countries. However, the Japanese ruling elites want the country´s military forces to take part in US-led military operations in different parts of the world. The Japanese governments have already deployed some troops in “reconstruction activities” to help US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Abe, like many members of the the country´s political establishment, continues to deny the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. In April, Abe stated that he was not bound by former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama´s 1995 statement, which acknowledged that Japan had launched wars of aggression. Abe claimed that “aggression” could be seen in different ways depending on the side in which one is. However, after a wave of protests and criticism in Japan and abroad, he tried to soften his statement claiming that the interpretation of the history should be a task for historians.
Abe has also visited the Yasukuni Shrine where the ashes of war dead, including 14 Japanese “war criminals”, are kept, though he has not repeated these visits since he was re-elected as Prime Minister. Also and other leading members of the government have also visited the shrine, which is seen as a symbol of Japanese wartime militarism.
The visits have outraged China and both Koreas, which were victims of Japanese militarism during the war. China was invaded and its cities and towns were devastated by the Japanese army and air force. One of the most notorious crimes of the Japanese Imperial Army was the Rape of Nanking, where about 300,000 Chinese people were massacred by Japanese troops. The South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed in a statement its “deep concern and regret” over the visits to a place “that glorifies Japan´s wars of aggression”. China has warned, for its part, that the visits to the shrine are “an obstacle” to the development of bilateral relations. China, the two Koreas and other countries in the region see Japan’s rising nationalism and militarism as a threat to the region and their national security.
The Japanese prime minister has also spoken about the need to acquire military capacities for pre-emptive strikes against “hostile nations”, which, he said, are essential in order to counter the threat of missile attacks from those countries.
After Abe took over as Prime Minister in December 2012, the Japanese government increased military spending for the first time in more than a decade. This decision took place in a framework of economic crisis. Japanese public debts have increased up to 200 percent of the country´s GDP and thus the rearmament agenda, which is very costly, will have to be financed with new taxes and borrowing, which will further damage the Japanese economy.
The Chinese government and media reacted to the Izumo launch claiming that Tokyo was trying to “restore former imperial glory”, when its navy was the second in the world and had more than twenty carriers. A statement from the Chinese Defence Ministry said, “We are concerned over Japan’s constant expansion of its military equipment. Japan’s Asian neighbors and the international community need to be highly vigilant about this trend.”
The Japanese Defence White Paper, released in July 2013, identifies China as the main threat and laid emphasis on increasing Japan’s military capabilities and stronger ties with the US. In contrast, last year´s Defence White Paper mentioned North Korea as the main threat for Japan. On the other hand, after winning the election in December 2012 Abe´s Liberal Democratic Party promised to make Japan stronger militarily to confront a rising China.
In 2012, China overtook Japan as the world´s second economy. Encouraged by Washington, Japan has escalated its territorial conflict with China over the tiny Senkaku/Diayovu islands, whose sovereignty is disputed by both countries. Japan has another territorial dispute with South Korea regarding the Dokdo/Takeshima islands.
Japan has also encouraged India for many years to enter an anti-China military alliance. Abe was a leading promotor of the “quadrilateral axis” including the US, Japan, Australia and India during his first term in office in 2006-07. China, for its part, called this axis “an Asian NATO”. Abe has also visited some South East Asian nations, such as Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, in order to expand Japan’s economic relations with the region and is trying to provoke a realignment of these countries against China, including those that have traditionally maintained close ties with Beijing, such as Burma.
For its part, the Obama administration is encouraging the Japanese rearmament in order to make Japan an active member of a network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, which is clearly aimed against Beijing. There is a convergence of interests between Japanese right-wing militarist circles and the US administration seeking to encircle and weaken China and see Japan as a very valuable base for its military deployment in Asia. There are 50,000 US troops stationed in bases in Japan.
In recent years, the US and Japan have jointly developed a missile defence system aimed at destroying ballistic missiles. Moreover, Japanese and US troops have recently held large military drills at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base located near San Diego, and San Clemente Island in California. The US has also sold offensive weapons to Japan, such as F-35 fighters.
However, there are concerns in Western countries that the revival of Japanese militarism and nationalism might become a two-edged sword. Although Abe has repeatedly expressed his support for the US-Japan alliance, Japanese ruling circles have their own independent interests and have never given up their ambition to make Japan the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Washington is worried about some of the positions of the Japanese government, which are considered as dangerous. A recent report of The Wall Street Journal claimed the US government was alarmed by Japan´s nuclear policy. Tokyo is preparing to start a nuclear plant that will produce up to 9 tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium every year, enough to manufacture 2,000 nuclear warheads. Washington opposes the Japanese plan on the basis that it may encourage a nuclear arms race in the region and beyond.
On the other hand, Japan´s neighbors, including China and Russia, have also taken measures in order to warn Abe against Japanese military aspirations. On August 14, Moscow sent 16 warships north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. China, for its part, carried out a 10-day naval drill in the East China Sea from August 15. Beijing has also put forward a plan to develop its naval forces.
Abe´s plans are also facing resistance in Japan. Abe and his party lack the numbers (two thirds of the parliamentary seats) to change the Constitution. The New Komeito Party, Abe´s coalition partner, strongly opposes his military plans. The Japanese public opinion is not particularly enthusiastic about militarist plans, either. More than 50% of the electorate did not vote in last elections (a record in the country) and according to the polls, the majority of people are against a change in the Constitution, which has served as the foundation for collective security in the entire Asia-Pacific region in recent decades.
Many Japanese also think that the nationalist and anti-China policies pose a great risk for Japan and could disrupt the delicate balance in the region. They could trigger an arms race in Asia and escalate into a regional or even a global conflict, which would have very serious consequences for Japan. The Japanese peace movement has initiated a campaign aimed at preventing the government from amending Article 9 and the peace clause.