Speaking Of Asia

Japan and that look in the eye

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares the ground for a more 'normal' Japan, he will need to show dexterity, perhaps even some subterfuge, before he gets there.

Some time in the not-too-distant future, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as he sets about reorienting its strategic posture and implementing his stated goal of modifying the nation's pacifist Constitution, is certain to come up against a few challenges.

The first of those are ghosts of "hibakusha" such as Mr Sumiteru Taniguchi, who died recently. Another is his nation's sense of complacency and general satisfaction with the way things are.

Hibakusha - literally, "explosion-affected people" - are the dwindling tribe of people who survived the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. One of the best known among them was Mr Taniguchi, who died in August of duodenal papilla cancer at age 88. With scarlet burns on his back, the former postal worker in Nagasaki was a lifetime campaigner for denuclearisation as a chair of the Japan Confederation of A-and H-Bomb Sufferers Organisations.

In one of the most dramatic of his public appearances, Mr Taniguchi went before the United Nations review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010 to show a famous picture of himself during hospitalisation, and to say: "Please don't turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again."

As for the sense of satisfaction, the Japan Cabinet Office's most recent Public Opinion Survey on the Life of the People showed that 74 per cent of the people were "more or less satisfied" with their lives, the highest since 1963. While gripes about income persisted, fewer people were complaining.

Clearly, as the recent election which returned Mr Abe to power by a comfortable margin showed, the Japanese are not inclined to make any radical turns of the road.

How to change things significantly in a country where even glacial progress is seen as too rapid? Few doubt that Mr Abe has a job on his hands. But it is perhaps not an impossible one.

The rising number of European marques in Tokyo's parking lots attests to the fact that when it needs to, Japan can indeed adapt. Elsewhere, the nation is contemplating its first casino resorts as gaming gets legal sanction.


Most importantly, attitudes towards the euphemistically named Self-Defence Forces (SDF) may be changing. It was not that far back that Japan changed the name of its Defence Agency to a regular "Ministry of Defence". Mr Abe has also succeeded in pushing through rule changes to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad. The young, with no memories of the war, are far more positive towards the military than their seniors. In late August, some 26,000 people gathered at the foothills of Mount Fuji to watch live-fire exercises conducted by the SDF, often murmuring appreciatively.

So, how would the man poised to be Japan's longest-serving post-war leader go about his mission?


Some clues are available.

A decade ago, New Delhi, which declines to sign the NPT, sent an envoy to Tokyo seeking Japanese endorsement for its bid to get a special waiver to be admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). At the time, Foreign Minister Taro Aso solemnly read out a long brief detailing why Japan could not sign on to the waiver without India signing the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state and adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Mr Aso also referred to strong public opinion in Japan against nuclear weapons.

As recounted by former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran, Mr Aso, having delivered the formal brief, then walked Mr Saran to the lift and conveyed that he was under instructions from Mr Abe to let India know that while Japan may have to "make a lot of noise" at the NSG, it would not oppose a consensus in favour of India.

For Japan, the necessary adjustments will need to come in small doses as it prepares itself and its neighbourhood for the change. As a recent Reuters report suggested, the first of those steps could come as a tweaking of its "Three Principles" adopted five decades ago: Not to possess, manufacture or allow nuclear weapons onto its territory.

How to change things significantly in a country where even glacial progress is seen as too rapid? Few doubt that Mr Abe has a job on his hands. But it is perhaps not an impossible one.

"Perhaps it's time for our three principles to become two," a senior defence policymaker told Reuters, suggesting that nuclear weapons be allowed into Japan, perhaps in the form of a US nuclear-armed submarine to operate from one of the bases in the country.

Already, in nearby South Korea, polls show that more than two-thirds of the people want the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use - weapons that had been withdrawn from the theatre in an earlier era. Can Japan be that far behind?

Few doubt that Japan has the know-how and the atomic material to build a credible atomic arsenal at short notice. Putting that information out in the open and getting its people to accept that the country is a nuclear weapon state is the challenge.

For now, the official word is that Japan would like to do nothing that would exacerbate the tensions in the region, as going nuclear definitely would.

Still, the provocations are rising. In mid-September, North Korea said "the four islands of the archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche". Japan, the statement from Pyongyang said, no longer needs "to exist near us".

North Korea is but one issue. Worries about the durability of the American nuclear umbrella, under which it has operated for so many decades now, have been mounting since Mr Barack Obama occupied the Oval Office, and even more under its current incumbent, the very transactional Mr Donald Trump.

Japan likes to project the US relationship, now elevated by the seemingly close Abe-Trump personal relationship, as hunky-dory. In truth, there is massive worry in Tokyo about a Sino-US deal that could hurt its interests.

Its response has been to employ several hedging strategies, one of which was an outreach to Chinese President Xi Jinping in May when Mr Abe asked one of his most trusted political allies, Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai, to carry a personal letter to Mr Xi. A Sino-Japanese summit is within the realm of possibility.


Yet, Japan is aware that as China's comprehensive power rises - six years ago, China passed Japan in gross domestic product to become the No. 2 economy after the US - Washington's reluctance to confront Beijing, already in evidence after China reneged on a promise to not militarise the islands it has built in the South China Sea, is only set to grow. Indeed, at China's recent party congress, Mr Xi even highlighted the build-up in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term.

All this leaves Tokyo with few options at the end of the day but to set itself more fully on the road to "normalcy" - if nothing else, to preserve its credibility and clout in Asia. Besides, to accept subordination would go against the core of what it means to be Japanese.

As the distinguished Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted recently, ever since Toyotomi Hideyoshi defied the Chinese world order of the time to invade Korea in the 16th century, refusal to accept subordination to China has been integral to the Japanese sense of identity.

Evidence of this was available at the Manila meeting of East Asia Summit foreign ministers three months ago, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly chided his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono for criticising the South China Sea construction, saying he was acting like an American stooge. Mr Kono, who had been in the job for less than a week, countered that "it is necessary for China to learn how to behave as a major power".

Japan's China outreach, while welcome, is surely then to be regarded as more tactical than strategic. China, meanwhile, has been making its own tactical adjustments; while increasing its patrols in the East China Sea, it has toned down the aggression of those manoeuvres, thus avoiding incidents as happened in 2013 when Japanese ships turned on their fire-control radars against approaching Chinese craft.

How will the rest of Asia take to a "normal" Japan, with a regular military and announced nuclear weapon capacity?

It will probably get used to it, even silently welcome it perhaps. While there are those, like the hibakusha and their kin, as well as geriatrics across East Asia who abhor memories of a militarised Japan and warn against it, the country has done penance in so many ways since that time.

Much of East Asia's current prosperity - China's included - would not have been possible without the massive investment flows from Japan. In recent times, it has opened its pocketbook to South-east Asia significantly and with fewer strings attached, helping with capacity-building in countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

As for America, it will likely not stand in Japan's way, never mind its past opposition to Japan and South Korea building up nuclear arsenals. In the 1970s, then President Richard Nixon was fully aware that the honeymoon period with China, initiated by the Henry Kissinger-led opening to Beijing, would probably last no more than 20 years, yet he went along anyway in the larger interest of containing the Soviets. The current preoccupation is China.

A Japan stirring to life on the strategic front will cause excessively aggressive or assertive powers to pause and ponder. At the war museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, there is a short video clip of a battlefield ceremony where an officer is seen distributing water in place of sake to young soldiers poised to say farewell to life. The look in the eyes of the young soldiers shows no fear.

It is that look in the eye that Asia needs to be wary of, and which anyone needling Japan into acquiring it must take responsibility for, whether he resides in Pyongyang, Beijing or elsewhere.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'Japan and that look in the eye'. Subscribe