July 27, 2013

World War II has never really ended for Japan. Sixty-eight years after the battleship US “Missouri” sailed into Tokyo Bay to receive the surrender of the Japanese Empire, Japan still behaves like a meek, defeated nation rather than one of the world’s great powers – and great peoples.

Economically, Japan is a giant, albeit a staggering one. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party just secured full control of both houses of Japan’s parliament. Abe’s “three-arrow” reform program has injected new life in Japan’s formerly stagnant $5 trillion economy industry and driven down the over-valued yen.

But military, Japan remains a midget. Its so-called Self-Defense Forces were designed to stop a Soviet amphibious invasion of the northern islands. Japan’s US-written pacifist constitution prohibits all offensive military operations or exports of arms and military equipment.

The 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty laid the foundation of relations between Washington and Tokyo. The US in effect pledged to defend Japan against all comers; amusingly, Japan pledged to help defend the US – but banned from sending military forces abroad. The key to the treaty was the establishment of permanent US air, land, and sea bases in Japan. They remain, half a century later.

Japan thus became a giant US aircraft carrier from which it dominates highly strategic North Asia. In exchange, Japanese industry was given open access to the US market, thus laying the base of Japan’s economic upsurge of the 1960’s. South Korea enjoyed a similar deal.

This cozy arrangement is now being challenged by the rapid rise of China’s military and economic power. Just this week, a Chinese military aircraft that overflew waters near Japan’s Okinawa, provoked an uproar in Japan.

Over the past year, Chinese aircraft, warships and submarines have challenged Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, ruled by Japan since the late 19th century, but now claimed by China. Even more worrying, China has begun asserting claims to Okinawa on the basis that its independent rulers paid tribute to Imperial China in the past.

These claims, and China’s rapid development of a true blue water navy and long-ranged aircraft that can project power into the Pacific, and Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to all the East China Sea, are deeply alarming Japan.

As the nationalist drums beat ever louder in China, Japanese increasingly feel vulnerable. Japanese are asking whether the US would really risk nuclear war with China to defend Japan’s Senkaku or Ryukyu Islands.

China, for its part, sees its rising naval and maritime power constricted, even threatened, by the Japanese archipelago that acts as a giant barrier, blocking China from the open Pacific.
The Soviet Union faced a similar problem accessing the North Pacific.

For China’s fleets and oil tankers, getting to the Pacific means running the barrier of Japan’s home islands, the Senkaku and Ryukyus (Okinawa), or going through the Philippine’s narrow Luzon Strait. To no surprise, the US is negotiating with Manila to reopen the Subic Bay naval and air base that the US vacated in 1992.

China is clearly trying to muscle its way out of the East China Sea and into the Pacific. But, on a grander strategic scale, China is trying to demean and punish Japan for World War II by making it lose face over the naval and air challenges, and showing Asia who is now the big dog on the block.

Japan is perfectly aware of this grave challenge but undecided on how to respond to the biggest threat it has faced since World War II. The choices seem to be: hope the US will block China’s expansion; or abandon the US-imposed strictures from the post-war period, develop a real foreign policy, and create credible military forces – including nuclear arms.

Doing so means casting off Japan’s eternal bowed head, apologetic attitudes and obedience to its former WWII enemies. That would be a vast sea change in Japan, where most people appear happy to accept the status quo – or at least until another big military scare from China.

The naming of Caroline Kennedy, a major Obama supporter and donor, as ambassador to Japan is hardly the right person in these troubled times.

Japan has to cast off its cross of shame over having been defeated in the 1940’s and renew its national spirit.


This post is in: International Politics, Japan


  1. George Rizk says:

    Japan, and Germany are both great nations, and must be allowed to be armed to protect themselves just like we are. Different nations have different interest, and these countries must not rely on the US to defend them. Unless, we can declare that America is for hire, and we fight for money not for principle.

    • Would it not be rather naive to think, that all this fighting is for principles? Wars are always about money(greed), which goes together with power. Principles only come into play, when the propaganda machine gets turned on, to mislead those, who are too gullible and scared to think for themselves. Sometimes this gets interpreted as patriotism. Only individuals have principles as in being principled, but when politics get into the mix, the first sacrifice is principles, which here I take them to mean the high standard of morality and rightness

  2. Mike Smith says:

    A few points… No way people in Japan will support any government trying to obtain Nuclear arms, that issue for the Japanese is beyond sensitive.
    If Japan decides to build its military, good for them… just don’t do it by buying crap American arms… F35, let it die.
    Looking at the world from Chinas perspective, post WW2 when the US and its cronies were drawing borders and dividing spoils, they really forgot about their twin allies in China. As the Iron Curtain descended on Europe, a similar curtain fell upon Asia. I would point out the dictators and despots who ruled countries aligned with the US didn’t get their by accident. The only reason Japan enjoyed the post war success they did was Douglas MacArther ( not the United States ) MacA did what he thought was right, and didn’t allow the second guessing of congress, or even the President slow him down. But China deserved more with the losses the took during the war. China lost nearly 4% of its population and faced the bulk of the Japanese army. I imagine some of the feeling China has on these issues involve this slight, the Chinese do take the long view in nearly everything.
    For Japan the choice becomes do business with China, maybe they should sell the Senkaku Islands to them.
    Or to continue to sell out to the United States.

  3. Japan has become so diluted with western culture and lifestyle, that the desire to return to its independent glory is too much of a leap. And although still very disciplined, the degree of it is not sufficient to make those kind of big changes. The US would strangle any attempt to it, because for the US, Japan and its strategic location and consequent influence in that part of the world, is of paramount importance to the US empire. The US had better not get too smug with that culturally created bowed head, because it would not take much for it to bow to their previous deity.
    China was never meant to become the kind of world power it has become in the last two decades especially with the outsourcing help of the US. The greed in general and for cheap labor in particular, has killed the American manufacturing base at home, which gave it a broad tax base.
    The party is over and now it is time to sober up and pay the bills but an entire population is still drunk on the victory celebrations of WWII.
    Now, euphemistically speaking, the servants want a better living standard and a decent meal too. They are no longer satisfied with the tablescraps of their masters. And if the master does not sober up soon, he will be trading places with his slaves. The inherent tyranny of an empire has a built-in self-destruct button, which hopefully still works for the next attempt of another entity.

  4. Some Canadian says:

    I am rather disappointed about Eric’s perspective on a few issues. First of all, Japan is not Germany – It is definitely not very apologetic towards its former WWII enemies. U.S. – maybe. China, Korea, Philippines, Taiwai, etc? Not as much.

    Japanese Prime Ministers had a tradition of visiting shrines and implicitly honouring war criminals from WWII and had a policy of doctoring facts in its historical textbooks especially on matters dealing with Nanjing Massacre and comfort women.

    The other major thing that Eric failed to mention was that Senkaku Islands and Okinawa were both conquests by the Japanese during its invasion campaigns starting at late 19th century. Okinawa used to be an independent nation and Senkaku Islands was claimed by Japan by a fraudulent “Terra Nullius” excuse during the 1st Sino-Japanese war. Both Senkaku Islands and Okinawa were handed to Japan by USA during the cold war for very obvious reasons – China was an enemy and Japan was (and still is) an ally.

    This whole thing reeks of an American game of divide and conquer and yet something as important as this gets left out when Eric discusses territorial disputes between the two nations. I wonder why.

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