How much does history still haunt Japan going into 2021?
If there was ever a perfect way for former enemies to reconciliate, perhaps the acceptance of Japan back into the international community in the aftermath of WWII was it. Nowadays, Japan is the only Asian member of the G7 and a stable, peaceful democracy in the Pacific which, given its size, should not be underestimated. However, despite this, because Japan committed horrendous war crimes during its conquest of Asia in the early 1900s, it has struggled to build formal alliances within the region – little helped by the sometimes nationalist rhetoric of its former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even South Korea, another US ally, is reticent to form a close relationship with its formal colonial oppressor despite their similar goals concerning their continental neighbour, China. How long can the stain of its history continue to hinder its future diplomatic endeavours?
How it is able to navigate its worsening relationship with China is a subject where history doesn’t bode well. Since Japan’s occupation of Manchukuo followed by the Nanjing massacre in 1937, ill feeling in China towards their island neighbour has been a constant; made all the more worrisome as China grows in strength. In 2012, when the Japanese Government bought the Senkaku islands (known in China as the Diaoyu islands) from a private owner, there was outrage in Beijing. Riots, tacitly backed by the CCP, led to protestors smashing Japanese branded cars, vandalising Chinese owned shops selling Japanese goods, and even throwing rocks through the windows of Japanese restaurants. Despite the news in October that Huawei 5G will not be banned from Japan as well as the recent agreement to set up a military hotline by the end of this year, tensions continue to rise. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s new PM, unveiled his first budget recently, but it did little to calm worry as it included a record US$52 billion defence spend - sending a very clear message that, despite its pacifist constitution, Japan is prepared to fight. Whether China takes this as the start of an arms race is up to them, but it seems the Japanese won’t back down.
Ill feeling resulting from history occurs in Japan’s relationship with South Korea too, perhaps best portrayed by the breakdown in relations that occurred after a 2018 Korean Supreme Court decision over compensation from Japanese firms towards Korean ‘comfort women’ - girls that had been enslaved into sexual work for Japanese soldiers before and during the war. In a series of deteriorations, Korea seized the assets of Japanese firms that refused to comply with the rulings, which was followed by Japan’s removal of South Korea from its list of “White countries” thereby unfurling their favourable trade status in certain sectors. For example, this action imposed export controls on important companies like Samsung in Korea’s electronics sector whose revenue alone counts for about 15% of the nation's GDP. Korea followed this in November of 2019 by pulling out of an intelligence sharing deal it had with Japan, only to return as a result of US pressure soon after. Relations have slowly started to improve once more in 2020, with a September call between Suga and President Moon of South Korea emphasising better bilateral relations, but it seems both sides are stubborn, outside of US insistence, to really bury the hatchet.
They’ll need to find a way to do so soon though, as the threats they both face continue to increase. Last week's Russian and Chinese joint exercise which flew over the contested Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan is a timely reminder that as China and Russian ties improve, so do their operational ability. Firing warning shots as Korea did last year when a similar incursion occurred, may not be enough in future, and worst of all, a stray bullet could lead to a major international incident.
In light of these facts, how Japan is able to navigate its future diplomatic problems and opportunities depends on the strength of its leadership. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has come into the role with vast experience as former PM Shinzo Abe’s right hand man, but with a lack of any vision above continuing his former boss’s policies, and with the next LDP leadership election to come in late 2021, it is not a certainty he will be PM for long. History in this case, once more does not bode well for Japan. The worst thing that could happen now is for Japan to return to its political experiences of 1989 – 2012 when there were 17 different PM’s, for short serving Premierships do nothing to improve long term stability.
Japan faces multiple difficulties as it enters 2021, both at home, and overseas. At home, the virus still lingers, and threatens to push the fragile economy back into deflation. Overseas, the Chinese continue to undiplomatically declare their interests concerning the Senkaku islands and there is the constant threat from a potential North Korean missile launch. The last thing Japan can afford is the years of uncertainty that cursed its recent past and led to the feeling of constant decline. Paradoxically, Shinzo Abe, with his fluent appeals to Japanese history, had been able to temporarily overcome these feeling of failure. In doing so however, he also unleashed the wrath of his neighbours who remember a very different history. Whether Prime Minister Suga is able to control the emotions set off by Abe both within Japan and outside of it, is what will define the country’s experience as it continues into the New Year.