Japan’s strategic predicament behind the Yasukuni curtain

Author: Hugh White, ANU

Why did Prime Minster Abe visit Yasukuni Shrine? Tessa Morris-Suzuki says:

His core aim is to ‘escape from the postwar regime’ — that is, to reverse the liberalising reforms introduced to Japanese politics and society in the wake of the Asia Pacific War — and his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is a very explicit expression of that aim.

I don’t doubt that she is right, but her answer does lead us straight on to another question: why does he want to ‘escape from the post war regime’? What is driving him?

There seem to be two possible answers to the question of Abe’s motives. One looks inwards, focusing on Abe himself — his family history, political values and personality — and on the elements in Japanese society and politics with whom his ideas and values resonate. I think this is the answer Tessa favours, and it seems to be taken for granted by most people outside, and possibly many inside, Japan who have commented on the issue. No doubt there is a lot of truth in it, and it leads to a satisfyingly simple response: blame Abe.

But this does seem to overlook another, more outward-looking explanation. Japan today faces its toughest strategic crisis since 1945, which is challenging the foundations of the post-war strategic posture that has served it so well for so long. To put it simply: as China grows, Japan has more and more reason to be anxious about China’s power, and less and less confidence in America’s willingness to protect it.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute shows how real those concerns are. China’s escalating pressure and America’s ambiguous response send an ominous message to Tokyo: that America would rather see Japan’s interests sacrificed than risk a confrontation with China, and that Beijing knows this. This is fatal to the Yoshida Doctrine of dependence on the US alliance as the foundation of Japan’s security. Japan can no longer afford to be a status quo power in Asia, because the old status quo no longer provides a reliable basis for Japan’s security.

No one in Japan seems to know how to deal with this. Abe’s instinct, shared by many others, is to move in two directions at once. On the one hand, to pull closer towards America by building up Japan’s capacity to support America throughout Asia, thus making America a better ally for Japan. At the same time to push away from America by asserting greater independence. Needless to say this push-and-pull policy won’t work, so Japan’s strategic policy is headed for a muddled and dangerous patch.

What has this got to do with visiting Yasukuni? There might be answers to this at two levels.

First, at the level of diplomacy, it seems worth wondering whether Abe is not trying to send some messages. The visit could be a message of defiance to Beijing — Abe’s answer to China’s ADIZ. He is saying to Xi Jinping, ‘You can’t stop me doing this’. And it could be a message of displeasure and disappointment to Washington for its timid and tepid support against China, and for its willingness to blame Tokyo as much as Beijing for the escalating dispute.

In other words, the visit to Yasukuni might, in part, be Abe’s way of saying that Japan is not willing to accept a new strategic order in Asia under which Japan’s interests are sacrificed by Washington to avoid problems with Beijing. One can see why that might be a message that Abe wants to send.

At a second, deeper, level the visit to Yasukuni is not just an assertion of a particular view of Japan’s past but also of its present and future. The strategic posture built around dependence on the United States has always been inextricably intertwined — in American as well as Japanese thinking — with Japan’s acceptance of the interpretation of history sponsored by the Americans after 1945. Visiting Yasukuni is therefore a repudiation not just of the US-sponsored view of history but of the whole idea of Japan as a strategic client of the United States.

The tragedy for Japan is that this melding of history and policy makes it so hard for everyone — Japanese and non-Japanese alike — to separate questions about Japan’s past as a strategic actor in Asia from very different questions about its future, and makes it all too easy to assume that moving on from the Yoshida Doctrine necessarily means rehabilitating Japan’s militarist and imperialist past.

That of course is quite wrong, but Abe himself may well believe it. As Tessa suggests, there is real weight in the inward-looking explanation of Abe’s conduct, because he does have his own ambitions to reshape Japan’s political and social milieu along reactionary lines, and to reinterpret Japan’s history. That makes it very unfortunate that he is leading Japan at this moment in its history as it wrestles with a strategic transition that would in any case be complex, risky and traumatic.

So we can blame Abe for using Yasukuni to convey messages about Japan’s strategic anxieties, and for the fact that this only amplifies Japan’s problems. But his visit did not create the problems, and the anxieties that they give rise to are real and legitimate. We can’t blame Abe for them. So while we criticise Abe, we should also start taking Japan’s strategic predicament seriously. No one — especially no one in Washington — seems so far to have done that.

What would that mean? Well for America it means facing a tough choice. The United States must either commit itself unambiguously to defending Japan’s core interests whatever the cost, or it must help Japan move away from the US–Japan alliance and regain the strategic independence it surrendered after 1945. This may be the most important implication of Abe’s much-heralded excursion.

Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.


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  • james

    Great article. For once I like Hugh’s thinking.

  • MatthewAJLevine

    Excellent post. Much to reflect on here.

    • Ken Ward

      Contrary to the argument in this post, Japan’s strategic posture built around dependence on the United States has not ‘always been inextricably intertwined with Japan’s acceptance of the interpretation of history sponsored by the Americans after 1945′.

      This is, first, because the Americans changed their interpretation of history after reversing course in 1947/48 in order to make Japan a bastion against the spread of communism in Asia. They became much less condemnatory of former pillars of the militarist regime.

      Having initially given the Japanese their peace constitution, including the unambiguously-worded Article 9, the Americans later began to pressure the Japanese to build up their defence capacity. President Eisenhower was about to visit Japan in 1960 after renewing a mutual security treaty with Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, a former Class A war criminal suspect. Eisenhower was forced to postpone his visit because of left-wing opposition in Japan, and it never took place. Decades later, there was remarkably intense US pressure on Japan in 1990 to contribute to the US-led war on Iraq. Japan agreed to make only a financial contribution, albeit a massive one.

      Second, a broad swathe of the Japanese political system didn’t accept the initial, progressive US interpretation of history. This is why the Japanese took so long to offer an acceptable apology for their aggression in East Asia. This is also why Japanese textbooks have been controversial in East Asia for decades. Even the mildly leftist LDP prime minister, Miki Takeo, visited Yasukuni during his tenure, though that was before war criminals were enshrined there.

      If Japan’s strategic posture of dependence is intertwined with anything, it is more likely with the presence of US bases in Japan. What’s Abe’s attitude to these bases? Can Japan really became a strategically independent actor as long as these powerful remnants of Japanese dependence survive? And does becoming strategically independent, if that is Abe’s goal, require the acquisition of nuclear weapons?

  • Suzie Wong

    Lacking an examination at the global level, Hugh White’s analysis runs into the logical fallacy of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc – after this, therefore because of this. Oversimplifying the cause of a complicated issue could lead to citing a false cause. Understanding the hegemonic ambition of Abe along with the elites in the Japanese LDP Party requires analysts to probe the cause at all levels of analysis: individual, regional, and global.

    In order to achieve victory in the hegemonic war, Japan has been arranging its military preparation in both conventional and nuclear weapons. As part of the program planned to establish alliances, Abe meets Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan today (6 January 2014) after the meeting two months in Istanbul to celebrate the inauguration of the rail tunnel link Marmaray. Although Turkey’s national satellite TURKSAT 4 A was manufactured by Japanese firm, Abe intends to strengthen the defense industry alliances with the development of an engine and transmission for Turkey’s main battle tank the Altay. In addition, Japan and Turkey are also expected to strike a deal where Japanese engineers will share their nuclear power-related experience and knowledge. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries signed a $22 billion deal for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

    Erdogan and Abe have one thing in common, they are working on going back to the Axis alliance arrangement. Erdogan and his ruling AK Party is rooted in political Islam and has moved to curb the power of the Turkish military, which sees itself as guardian of the modern secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In other words, while the Turkish military establishment favors alliance with Israel, Erdogan has the opposite foreign policy direction.

    Hegemonic challenge means global war, the Axis Powers are working hard to eliminate the Allied Powers across regions. For example, in the Mediterranean, Silvio Berlusconi was attacked in all directions and lost power. In Southeast Asia, Bangkok is targeted to be shut down on 13th January 2014. In Australia, Tony Abbott, the strongest anti-China politician, is put in power. In Iraq, the conflict escalates again. In the Pacific, Alberto Fujimori emerged in Peru, but the Peruvian officials realized that Fujimori’s aim was about intelligence not development; as a result, Fujimori is in jailed. In Russia’s near abroad, the struggle is for Kiev. In Western Africa, the emergence of al-Qaeda. In East Asia, North Korea desires for confrontation.

    Paying attention to levels of analysis helps make logical deductions. While good theory explains phenomena at a particular level of analysis, better theory offers explanations across different levels of analysis. Understanding that China’s rise is an essential deterrence to hegemonic war especially when it will erupt in all theatres simultaneously as the above mention examples, Washington poured in the foreign direct investment to China as well as introduced her to the export-led growth strategy and WTO membership for international trade. With the highest foreign reserves in the world, China currently is assisting the United States’ balance of capital. The China-the United States relationship will continue to mature with vision because world peace depends on the two superpowers.

    Organski and Kugler (1958) in their analysis of the structural theory in world politics suggested that the dynamics of relative dyadic power matter most. It helps explain the impact of alliances on dyadic relations. In addition, Morrow (1992) further worked on risk propensity, the timing, speed, and trajectory of overtakings, which becomes the blueprint that guides Abe’s risk propensity behavior. In other words, timing for overtaking before China is fully industrialized has led to Abe brinkmanship behavior. The alliance and nuclear issues have to be understood in this theoretical context.

    World politics does not work on the emotional feelings of leaders, rather it is based on rational and theoretical foundations. Missing this main point will lead Australia into dangerous waters.

  • Raymond

    Judging by the article’ conclusion, Abe’s aim of reaping political attention and concessions from the USA has been achieved by visiting the shrine. Throw some tantrums and expect the USA to come in to offer the price of full protection at any cost or allow Japan to become militarily strong and independent again. Well played Abe.

  • toh

    Can’t Abe state his strategic problems with strategic partners in a diplomatic manner? His visit is nothing but uncalled for provocation. What is stated in this article is pure speculation. The atrocities committed by the Japanese are fact and not speculation.