Rise of nationalist right in Japan fuels regional tensions

Protest in China against Japan's 'nationalisation' of Diaoyu islands

By Jane West

The recent visits by the leader of the opposition and two members of the Japanese cabinet to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo solidifies a lurch to the nationalist right in Japanese politics.

The intervention of the extreme right Mayor of Tokyo on China’s Diaoyu islands, which are claimed by Japan under the name ‘Senkaku Islands’ had already pushed the government of Yoshihiko Noda to bend to this nationalist pressure and move to more aggressively assert Japan’s claim to the islands leading to heightened tension with China. While assertion of Japan’s rights to the Dokdo islands has also led to tensions in relations with South Korea.

This rightward, nationalist tendency in Japanese politics was recently underscored by the victory of hard-right Shinzo Abe against a more centre candidate in the internal election as president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party that stands poised to win the next Japanese General Election, which PM Yoshihiko Noda has pledged will be called ‘soon’.

This rise of the nationalist right in Japan has a lot in common with the rising support for fascist and ultra-right Islamophobic and racist parties in Europe.

The impact of the international economic crisis in Japan comes on top of two decades of a flat-lining economy, largely down to a decline in investment levels and an over-valued currency – a high exchange rate of the Yen was maintained from the early 1990s at the behest of the US in a self-interested response to the declining competivity of US manufacturing exports compared to increasingly technologically superior Japanese manufacturing economy.

On top of this, Japan’s export led economy has more recently suffered both from rising competition from South Korean companies (for example the rise of Samsung and decline of Sony) and increasingly from Chinese companies moving up the value chain. The overall contraction in world trade since the 2008 financial crisis has put additional pressure on its exports.

Although Japan’s government has not so far introduced wide-ranging austerity policies as in Europe, the overall weakness of the economy has led to increased unemployment, reduced wage rises, declining social mobility and stagnant or slowly declining living standards for many sectors of the population.

The political response to this has so far been exceptionally muted from the left, but the numerically strong and politically influential petit bourgeoisie – protected by successive governments’ protectionist trade policies and other measures like planning restraints on large stores and chains – has led an increasingly vocal populist response.

This response has classical racist features – especially towards Koreans and also Chinese. But it is particularly characterised by revivalist, nationalist ideas, revisionism on the record of Japanese imperialism in the region, and an aggressive stance towards its near neighbours. The relative decline of Japan, compared to its majority conquest of China and East Asia in the first half of the 20th century, feeds this reactionary revisionism – in the same way that a declining Britain hosts currents that, ignoring 21st century realities, advocate a reassertion of Britain’s ‘leading global role’. Such concerns are reflected in a June 2012 poll by Japanese NGO Genron showing a record 84.3% of Japanese viewed China unfavourably, before the latest disputes blew up.

The standard bearer for this ultra-right Japanese nationalism has been Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo since 1999, whose proposal for the Tokyo city government to ‘buy’ the disputed Diaoyu islands from their private owner and begin exploitation of the possible oil and gas reserves in the area, was the spark that began the current crisis with China.

Ishihara has been described as as Japan’s Le Pen. He is notorious for his outspoken negative views on foreigners, using derogatory Japanese terms for residents of Korean descent and claiming they are responsible for crime and civic breakdown.

He has also made a stir with claims that the 1937 Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, known as the Rape of Nanking, is “a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.”

In this vein, he also backed a film, The Truth about Nanjing, which presents the 26 Japanese officers tried for war crimes in relation to the Nanjing slaughter as innocent victims of Chinese and Allied propaganda.

As recently as 2010, Ishihara claimed that Japan’s colonial domination of Korea and other parts of East Asia was justified.

He has also expressed homophobic and misogynist views, on women saying that ‘old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless and are committing a sin’.

But primarily he harks back to Japan’s imperial past, glorifying its record of conquest and domination of Eastern China, Manchuria and Korea, and calling for a more assertive foreign policy especially on regional disputes.

Ishihara has been seen as an isolated maverick, but similar extreme right-wing views are moving into the mainstream of Japanese politics with the election of Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a Japanese war cabinet member, as leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

In campaigning for the leadership, Abe stressed foreign and security policy rather than the faltering economic state of the country – ‘our lands and territorial waters are being threatened’. He has echoed Ishihara’s historical revisionism on Japan’s role in Korea, and promised a ‘no compromise’ policy on the various disputed islands with China, Korea and Russia.

However, in a step that will particularly poison relations with both China and South Korea, on 17th October he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s war dead, among them “Class A” war criminals, are honoured.

The objection in China and Korea to honouring the Yasukuni shrine can be understood if it is compared to the likely response if a German Chancellor chose to visit a memorial including a tribute to Hitler and the Nazis (were such a thing to have been allowed to exist). The enshrinement – well after their conviction and execution – of 14 “Class A” Japanese war criminals at Yasukuni is the reason why from 1978 until his death Emperor Hirohito refused to visit the shrine.

Additionally, a museum at the shrine presents a revisionist view of Japan’s imperial history, with the conquest of East Asia justified as saving the region from the West, and on the massacres in Nanjing it omits any mention of the atrocities and in a grotesque falsehood states that ‘General Iwane Matsui issued orders to observe military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.’

Visiting the shrine in the context of the recent tensions between Japan and both China and South Korea is a statement of intent to pursue an aggressive Japanese nationalist policy in the region.

Tensions between Japan and China had already sharply escalated in the last month following the Japanese government’s 10th Sept decision to buy three of the disputed Diaoyu islands from their private owner for 2.05 billion yen ($25.95 million).

China’s Diaoyu islands are strategically situated on the rim of the East China Sea, in the gateway between China and the Pacific ocean beyond.

The uninhabited islands were seized by Japan in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese war, as an early strategic step in its imperial expansion into the Asian landmass. They were taken into US administration in 1945 after Japan’s defeat in World War II. The US passed them back to Japan’s administration in 1972, as part of the treaty handing back the Okinawa archipelago , which forms the southern extension of Japan and site of the US’s key military base in the area.

Although uninhabited, the Diaoyu were in the traditional fishing grounds of neighbouring Taiwan – the nearest inhabited land. And China (both the PRC and the government of Taiwan) has always disputed Japan’s right to them.

China (either directly or indirectly via Taiwan) has a strong historical and geographical claim to the islands. Japanese sovereignty over the small strategically situated archipelago has never been acknowledged in international law. Even the US officially has no position on the disputed sovereignty, a fact recognised in the 1972 Treaty handing the islands over to Japan, which clearly recognised Okinawa as part of Japan but not the Diaoyu which were simply handed to Japanese administration and not sovereignty.

The Chinese were excluded from these Treaty negotiations, but their position was nodded to by this difference.

In the light of this, the government of Japan has traditionally taken a careful path of refraining from any action to assert its control of the islands.

The Japanese government presented its action in nationalising the islands as a step to head off a series of provocative actions by Ishihara if he had carried out his threat for Tokyo city government to purchase the islands and start building on them. The niceties of this have been lost on the Chinese, who have – at both a government and popular level – interpreted this as the first step in a more assertive approach to Japanese claims to the islands.

In the Western media the dispute over the islands is primarily presented as a localised and primarily venal dispute over the rights to exploit gas and mineral deposits that may or may not be found round the islands. However, a cursory glance at a map will reveal that China’s concerns are in fact primarily military strategic – a justified rejection of encirclement and containment.

Control over these islands places Japan bang in the centre of China’s sea routes out of the East China Sea into the Pacific between Taiwan to the South and Japan itself to the North. No country in its right mind would vote to cede its right to territory with such direct control over its egress to the wider world – it would be to vote for the US-inspired noose around China that is the undeclared goal of its foreign policy ‘pivot to the Pacific’ announced last year.

The Japanese government’s 10th Sept announcement of its intended ‘nationalisation’ of the islands led to the biggest popular protests in China for many years. Very large spontaneous demonstrations were held in cities across China against Japanese action on the island. The wave of anger forced a number of Japanese owned factories, including Panasonic and Canon, and shops, such as Uniqlo, to close for a few days. The Chinese government took steps against some violence that erupted, which included vandalising Japanese made cars and attacking Japanese owned business. But peaceful protests asserting China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu were allowed to take place and continued to do so for a couple of weeks.

But while the violence towards Japanese products has been brought to an end, a consumer boycott is continuing – and likely to escalate following the provocative visits to Yasukuni. This is already taking a heavy toll on Japanese producers and brands, especially car manufacturers, where currently one in four cars on the road in China is Japanese, many made in China under joint ventures.

Toyota, already suffering from its biggest ever recall of faulty cars, has seen its China sales tumble by around 40% compared to a year ago, and, in anticipation of even worse October figures, has announced a cut in output of 50% from its Chinese factories this month, and a total suspension of exports of its luxury car, Lexus, to China.

Mazda has also said its China sales have fallen by 35% in September, while Nissan and Honda are also expected to report declines.

The consumer boycott has also extended to Chinese tourism to Japan – rising disposable incomes mean Chinese visitors are now the second-largest group of visitors to Japan after South Koreans, and the biggest spenders.

The Mount Fuji tourist area of Japan suffered a 70% cancellation rate by visitors from China in September and numbers are expected to fall further in October, despite this including one of the annual ‘Golden week’ Chinese holidays, which this October saw the highest ever number of Chinese people travel from their homes for a holiday in China or abroad.

The Chinese government has cracked down on violence, but its response has been no less clear than that of its population. Both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao responded immediately with statements that the Diaoyu are inalienable part of China’s territory. Wen Jiabao announced China’s policy is to ‘absolutely make no concession’ on issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In line with this, Chinese maritime surveillance vessels have sailed into waters close to the islands almost every day, and Chinese warships have been seen in formation in adjacent waters on a regular basis.

In a step that underlined China’s determination on the issue it pulled its senior officials from attendance at the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank in October as they were in Tokyo – also demonstrating that with China now the world’s second largest, and most rapidly growing major, economy these institutions probably need it more than it needs them!

The dispute has also created an episode of strengthened ‘cross-Straits’ harmony, with both China and Taiwan reacting strongly to the issue. Taiwan claims the Diaoyu itself, and while China does not acknowledge Taiwan as a separate state, as a region of China it has no objection to Taiwan’s claim. The upshot is that a mass protest of Taiwanese fishermen landing on the islands to claim their rights was supported in China. While the Taiwanese administration turned a blind eye to Chinese nationalist protesters from Hong Kong traveling to the Diaoyu via Taiwan to raise the Chinese flag on this islands.

Tokyo is however not just in dispute with China and Taiwan as a result of its more assertive nationalist stance in the region.

It has long-standing disputes with both Russia and Korea about issues of sovereignty over Pacific islands, which for similar military strategic reasons as China’s with regard to the Diaoyu, neither country is likely to retreat on. And in both cases the dispute stirs up unspent anger over Japan’s past military aggression and imperial conquests, as well as in Korea’s case, knowledge of current racism.

The dispute with Russia over the Kurils has deepened with each assertion by Russia’s of its rights to the islands, and last blew up in 2011 with Medvedev’s announcement of stepped up Russian military presence on the islands.

The dispute with South Korea over the Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese, Liancourt rocks in English) blew up into a serious diplomatic incident following an August visit by President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to the islands .

Japanese premier, Yoshihiko Noda, reacted with a strong statement that: ‘[The visit] is contrary to our nation’s stance that Takeshima is historically … an integral part of our national territory, and is completely unacceptable’. Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea.

Japan’s response has re-opened the weeping wounds of its 35 year brutal military occupation of Korea, for which it has never apologised or acknowledged its crimes. The attitude of many South Koreans is summed up by a quote given to the Financial Times by the commander of the tiny South Korean military garrison on the Dokdo: ‘Whenever I hear Japanese saying Dokdo is Japanese territory, I feel so outraged that my blood boils. To put it in an extreme way, I want to kill them.’

Since August this growing animosity between Japan and South Korea – Asia’s second- and fourth-largest economies – has led to a suspension of military co-operation and a reduction in economic ties, including currency swaps.

The rise in aggressive Japanese nationalism is therefore not just leading to conflict with China – which poses no problem for the US – but in other areas is undermining the aims of the US’s strategy in the Pacific.

Mike Green, a former policy advisor to George W Bush accurately spelled this out to the FT in the same article cited above: ‘There’s no development that could do more to undercut the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ to the region. When Japan and South Korea are in a cycle of confrontation, it weakens US influence vis a vis China and North Korea, and makes co-ordination much harder.’

Contrary to the picture painted in the Western media – that China’s economic rise is now being accompanied by an aggressive regional policy that is leading to conflict with its neighbours such as Japan – in fact it is China and South Korea which face new aggressiveness by the most right wing Japanese imperialist nationalist forces.

The rise of right-wing nationalist and revisionist currents in Japan, is leading it into sharpening conflict with its near neighbours, even pushing them into a some agreed positions based on their shared recent history of Japanese invasion and war crimes.

There is no doubt these nationalist tendencies in Japan are encouraged and egged on by the US and its ‘Pacific pivot’ aimed against China. It is sad that after the criminal slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Japan had already lost the war, its population still does not appear to have learned who are its potential friends and who is simply manipulating it for US imperialism’s own ends.