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     Jan 31, 2013

Japan beats chest in midlife crisis
By Brett Daniel Shehadey

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The median age in Japan is currently 45 years old. By 2030, the average person in Japan will be in their 50s, and it appears that most of the population is experiencing a nation's midlife crisis already. For the past decade or so, Japan has increasingly longed to remember a time of great economic and military success.

Around 80% of Japanese citizens were born after World War II. They grew up under a pacifist constitution and paternal US-Japan relationship. So when the world hears comments from the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, stressing in his election that, "This

will be a fight to win back Japan. We will make the economy strong again" - one should pay close attention.

Japan is in a bad way: the government has changed seven times since 2006; there have been four recessions since 2000, a record deficit sits at US$78 billion, nationalization of islands, calls to amend the constitution's pacifist clauses, provocations, threats, expansion, and international economic and military commitments. The people may not be chanting it loudly in the streets but the new government's campaign is: "Fukoku Kyohei" - enrich the nation; strengthen the army - the slogan of Imperial Japan during the World War II era.

Radical statements and positions by politicians can be reminiscent of the days of Fascism. Taro Aso, a recent prime minister and now deputy prime minister, told the elderly that they should "hurry up and die" in order to ease the burden of Japan.

Aso was referring to the present and future strain on the social security systems and the weakened recessive economy. Although Aso apologized for his comments, he is a true nationalist and claimed that if he himself (72 years old) was on his death bed he would not "waste the nations resources" by lying in a hospital and being a drain on the state.

Not only does this comment show disdain for the elderly or possibly any who cannot contribute to the healthy resurgence of the nation of Japan but it also hints at the practice of seppuku (ritual suicide) as a national obligation for any who are not fit enough to contribute.

The out-going "soft" nationalist prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, warned against Japanese a developing ultra-nationalism. In an interview with the Financial Times, he said,
This kind of [ultranationalist] atmosphere or mood is emerging... and it's possible that tough talk could captivate the public, but that would be the most dangerous thing for the nation.
It was Yoshihiko Noda who "nationalized" the privately owned Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands - disputed territory of Japan, China and Taiwan. However, the Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, an ultra-nationalist) wanted to purchase them first. It may have been a war to ease the diplomatic blow between Japan and China, as to which leader gained ground. But to China, both Noda and Ishihara are nationalists anyway. The race to purchase was a response of domestic building nationalist fervor between Ishihara's popular rise and Noda's popular decline.

The prudent warnings for calm are wildly ludicrous, which calls to mind just who the jingoists are that Noda was warning about. More important is the warning against hard nationalism as the most serious threat to Japan. The reinvention of Japan is a curious international event but an important one that should not be so lightly dismissed by the international community.

Japanese nationalists exacerbate the regional tensions with the political Yasukuni Shrine visits - an affront to China and South Korea. Japanese leaders support the fallen, which include convicted Class A War Criminals (those that led a conspiracy to commit war and other human rights atrocities). Their refusal to acknowledge war crimes such as slaughter and rape, the revised education system, the demand to "restore" Japan while at the same time forget the human rights abuses and war; and the race to fight over territories that Japan was too passive to previously annex are all negative, recessive, traits of a beautiful culture.

The pacifist Japanese Constitution was designed ensure that Japan ceases all imperial military activities and ambitions. It is a well written liberal document, not just an imposition by Americans after World War II but with the input and collaboration of Japanese preference. The Japanese Constitution has benefited Japan domestically and their relations with their neighbors.

Unfortunately, Japan has come a long way from Article 9:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
The new Diet (Japanese parliament) seeks to alter this restriction - a proposal by incoming nationalists that may be completely unnecessary. Reuters reports that almost 90% of the Diet is in favor of the Constitutional amendment while only some 50% of the Japanese population is on board - a nearly 10% increase in three years.

Technically, Japan has been in breach of Article 9 since the Cold War. Japan is not supposed to be capable of making war. The use of force and threat is illegal and not meant to be a national preference, let alone a political rallying cry in public elections. This clause has become meaningless.

Japan already has military (called the "Japanese Self-Defense Forces") of 225,000 strong. Shinzo Abe previously raised the defense minister position to that of a cabinet level pose. The Japanese navy (called the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force) stands "maintained" and commonly cited as the second- to third-most advanced navy in the world - a maritime force that rivals the much larger People's Liberation Navy (PLN) of China.

Japan is now preparing the call to arms and increasing the budget; it already has the sixth-largest defense expenditure of any nation. It has for some time been building its forces up in spite of the constitution under the banner of "self-defense" forces already. With a military base in Djibouti, sending troops to participate in observer roles to Iraq, Afghanistan and other international joint military operations - it is ripe for larger deployment and force projection.

In 2003, Japan warned North Korea that they could launch a preemptive attack if it had intelligence of a missile assault against it. Under Shinzo Abe, in 2005, the US and Japan jointly installed a missile defense system. Japan is racing to buy and build more advance weapons technology like drones and stealth.

Replacing the previous pacifism with a stronger sense of militant nationalism, Japan is redefining itself internally through anti-China protests and right-wing leadership gains. Troubling signs of regional power projection, alliance building, and military expansion are consequential Japanese norms.

Japan's is the world's third-largest economy in the world - soon to be overtaken by India and already disgraced in a war of commerce against the Chinese. The need for a quick economic boost suddenly becomes overwhelmingly tempting. Aside from promised monetary and fiscal reform, the direct seizure and exploitation of nearby resource is a dangerous but lucrative objective.

It is not at all out of the memories of the Chinese, the Russians or the South Koreans that the last time Japan needed to roll out of its islands and compete in the world, it resorted to conquest for steel and oil. A similar nature to build more advanced military technology is already underway much as the Koreans and Chinese witnessed their cruel invasion of Manchuria and the Japanese possession of the Pacific in the last Sino-Japanese War.

The recent diplomatic gesture by Japan sending an envoy to China could be seen as too little too late. China wants its islands back. Japan refuses to even acknowledge their claim and thinks the issue might somehow subside. Meanwhile it wants territory from Russia's Kuril Islands and South Korea's Dokdo Islands.

Japan most likely is responding through national pride but they may have much more to lose through maritime trade routes and the stronger geopolitical posture that is intended to deflect Chinese expansionist tendencies. Cooperation has always been a difficult possibility but this behavior speaks of a socio-political crisis brewing within Japan.

Before the last heated summer, the China and Japan had an understanding not to use or threaten to use force on account of said disputed territories. Placing a Japanese flag on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu in a rushed purchase of private lands was hardly a diplomatic gesture to the Chinese but quit the opposite. The package comes with threats and a commitment to defend the Islands from Chinese fishing boats and treat it as normal Japanese territory.

The zero-sum land grabbing has a long history. Each party involved has secured its de facto status through military and diplomacy in spite of the other's intentions of laying claim - stemmed from increasing nationalism of all players: Russia, China, South Korean, Taiwan and Japan. These bitter divisions between South Korean and Japanese can also be a challenge for the US, which in this case will remain neutral between allies.

A good question is: does the state of Japan see a future US as unwilling and or unable to assist them or are they strictly resorting to something deeper with the rise to nationalist aggression? Certainly, the national anger is not spared for Americans either, where thousands of Japanese protest against the US military presence and the population is divided politically through independence or alliance. Abe favors the US-Japan alliance to maximize gains; however, by increasing Japanese regional assertion, he is keeping Japan's future for the Japanese.

Japan may turn out not to be the pacifist Pacific partner the US or the world has come to know and love. They may be suffering from a midlife crisis and therefore see themselves as nobody's Pacific hub. Western instigation in the background may have the unintended consequences of potentially starting a Third Sino-Japanese War.

Who will be the one to shape the Pacific region in their image? This is a race of political influence primarily between China and the Japanese, with the USA playing an uncertain third wheel.

The economic ties are not as important as national pride. A trading partnership with China is the most critical for Japan's economy. Japan does not care. They have shown recent willingness to embrace neo-realism and risk good commercial relations for quick geopolitical gains. Currency adjustments could start a currency war, some warn - Japan does not care. Their response: people all over the world should stop saying things like that.

Japan's leadership has not tried to defend or even promote its most recent change in strategy. Instead, Japan's method of public affairs responds to all critiques with something like: these decisions should not be criticized. They then proceed to point out the defensive nature of any offensive actions they have just taken.

China is much to blame for what is happening. The Communist Chinese Party is parading nationalism in their own country to appease their base. They are demanding territories that were once in their possession over 100 years ago but had fallen into possession by other players.

But the facts are facts. Japan should be held accountable by its own increasingly belligerent or provocative actions. China did not nationalize the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It harassed the territorial waters and caught an unexpected shark. Japan nationalized the islands as a result of the growing unease to reassert its claim. An arms race has been triggered by the Japanese strategy of aggressive risk. China and Japan scramble well over 100 fighter jet sorties a year. Japan continues to step up the balancing into provocations, now by threatening to fire at trespassers on their territory.

The fact that Japan is engaged in war games, coalition building, arms purchasing from the US and establishing a containment bloc against China, all stem from its "new" character. The midlife national longing to be great and powerful once again compels them to take risks in provoking China to do the same. If it is not just adventure, it is pension security. Old Japanese men want to secure their fortunes and their children's fortunes by investing in what they believe to be their natural national marine resources - chiefly seafood and oil. Middle-aged Japanese are encouraged of the words of the old, who tell of times that were "better".

Could Japan cooperate with China and the others? Yes, but cooperation will not yield the greatest amount of resources or domestic political opportunity. It will never give Japanese old men honor before their people. It is not the character of the present midlife crisis, where cooperation equals appeasement.

Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst and writer. His work has appeared in The National Interest and Eurasia Review. He holds an MA in Strategic Intelligence from AMU and a BA in political Science from UCLA.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

(Copyright 2013 Brett Daniel Shehadey.)

Abe will be firm but flexible on Senkakus (Dec 20, '12)

China pushes back against Japan (Sep 29, '12)



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