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Japan is marching back to military power, or more precisely, "is being marched" by the United States toward a new militarism, as its neo-nationalist prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who like many hawks has never served in the military, acts as eager drill sergeant. Meanwhile the putative army, the Japanese people, remains unenthusiastic.
The nation and its population are unique in the world, having honored 60 years of official pacifism since their disastrous imperialist wars from 1931-45. These ended in defeat with three million Japanese dead, and a US occupation force writing a new constitution that renounced war "forever." That was then. Now, despite opinion polls still showing a pacifist public in the high 60s percentage, Japan’s warmongers exert their influence. The new militarism is not trumpeted, even the Pentagon’s drums are muffled, but almost every week an event occurs to push six decades of peace further into history.
In January, for instance, the Ground Self-Defense Force, the name Japan must give its well-equipped and powerful army, was for the first time ever exercising jointly with US military for three weeks at the giant Pendleton Marine base in southern California, north of San Diego, staging amphibian operations against an "armed guerrilla occupation" of Japanese islands. Why?
It so happens that a nasty dispute exists between Japan, China, and Taiwan, over five desolate little outcrops in the East China Sea the Japanese call Senkaku, from the original British-named Pinnacle Rocks, and the Chinese, Diaoyu islands. Controlled by Japan since its 1895 annexation of Taiwan (an earlier Japanese imperialist adventure), both the People’s Republic and Taiwan now claim the isles for a predictable reason. Oil deposits lie around a "median line" drawn by Japan, which has already protested drilling on the Chinese side. Fishing rights are disputed too, and Taiwan dispatched a frigate last June as Japanese patrol boats harassed Chinese vessels.
Yet it’s hardly guerrilla territory. Occasional Chinese protesters have landed, to be promptly ousted by Japanese coastguards. Amphibious commando ops — as well as Tokyo’s development of new shallow-water torpedoes — pose a graver threat, from Japan. Presumably that is the combative point to be taken. It certainly fits Japan’s chauvinistic foreign minister Taro Aso’s explosive Christmas week assertion that China’s military defense budget (less than Japan, the world’s third highest) was a "considerable threat." Beijing denounced this remark as "highly irresponsible," ending the year’s Sino-Japanese relations at the lowest point in decades.
In Tokyo other militarist steps have been taken. In the last two years Japan has passed over 10 new laws and introduced fundamental bureaucratic "reforms" that promote the means to war or make it easier. One is the forthcoming promotion of the SDF agency to a full Ministry of Defense; another is closer technical collaboration with US missile defense projects, contrary to Japan’s ban on such ventures. More momentous events are due shortly. The main one will modify the anti-war constitution. A draft has already been published and enactment could begin this year.
Meanwhile, the GSDF is also for the first time serving in a war zone, the Iraqi town of Samawa, where its mission of "reconstruction and humanitarian assistance" was recently extended for another year. (Its 500 troops, protected by Australian soldiers, are almost as unpopular as Americans, and reportedly have failed their requirement to provide reliable electricity and water.)
But the main move that threatens a new and potentially dangerous alliance between Japan’s neo-militarists and Washington jingoists, was the joint declaration in October titled "US-Japan Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future." It extended Japan’s previous defense-only stance to "develop options and adapt the alliance to the changing regional and global security environment."
The inclusion of the key word "global" can be taken to mean what the title implied: a militant new Japan-US pact to transform and structurally alter their joint military position in the world. An interesting analogy with Britain exists here: like its role in the Atlantic, Japan is to become America’s new unsinkable aircraft carrier in the north-east Pacific, something the Pentagon has longed for. As if to seal this promise at last, the US further announced that despite a previous Japanese port ban on nuclear warships, America’s replacement in Japan for the ageing USS Kitty Hawk conventional carrier will be the atomic-powered USS George Washington, but not the originally drafted USS Harry Truman, because of that president’s A-bomb attack on Hiroshima.
October’s brothers-in-arms pact was further enhanced by the vision of Japan as a base for US intervention anywhere. This would come by increasing Tokyo’s logistic support; combining command centers at the massive Yokota US air force base in Tokyo’s suburbs; the naval SDF’s acquisition and deployment of fast transport ships; a commitment against "terrorism" (even if not directed against Japan) with a combined Rapid Reaction Force based south-west of Tokyo; and most important, integrating both nations’ forces in fortress Okinawa. Here, Japan’s southern island has long accommodated — unwillingly — three quarters of the US military’s 45,000 Japanese complement spread over 90 bases and installations.
Okinawa makes an odd but useful comparison to Hawaii. Both these annexed islands in the Pacific were forced to act as militarized colonies under their mainland masters, and bear the brunt of foreign attacks against them: Hawaii at Pearl Harbor and Okinawa in the Pacific War’s final battle. That lasted nearly three months and killed 240,000 on both sides, a quarter of them Okinawa civilians. The victorious US remained in control there until 1972, when the former Pacific kingdom (as was Hawaii) became just another Japanese prefecture.
Under the new brothers-in-arms arrangement, US and Japanese SDF forces in Okinawa would be upgraded and consolidated. But could the grand military-imperial aspirations of Washington and Tokyo founder upon its shores? Okinawa’s ordinary people have maintained a strong 10-year protest over military plans for the island, particularly against replacement of the 50-year old US Marine and air base at Futenma in the south, now occupying a cramped urban area. The US and Japan decreed its expansion and removal northwards to the coast, with a huge floating runway extension. Yet not even the foundations were laid after public opposition supported by local politicians defeated two plans.
Now, under the October alliance, and with no local consultation, a new base with even bigger runway would run across a seaside cape to create a single giant US military complex. Foreign minister Aso immediately exercised his unfailing arrogance by declaring this proposal final and beyond review. President George Bush called it "positive."
Okinawans derided it as postively disgraceful and even the governor, a political ally of Japan’s ruling (conservative) Liberal Democratic Party, denounced it as "totally unacceptable." Now, bribes of improved rail and air links are being offered, but in an island increasingly talking about autonomy, if not independence, the outcome is uncertain.
Could the US and Japan be about to receive another unwanted lesson in the perils of imperialism? They represent massive force, but their military plans can be discredited historically, politically and morally.
The historical perspective, usually lacking in the mainstream media’s jargon-stuffed "defense" reporting, concerns a region where three wars involving dozens of nations, including the US, the then-Soviet Union, China, Australia, France, and in two instances Britain, occurred within the 20-odd years from World War II closure through the Korean conflict and Vietnam. Even today, Japan has yet to sign a Pacific war peace treaty with the former Soviet Union or today’s Russia. North Korea claims nuclear weaponry; China and Taiwan confront Beijing’s continued insistence that the island remains part of the People’s Republic. Above all, the astonishingly rapid advance of China’s economy renders previous regional assumptions invalid, but not irreplaceable.
The dean of Asian scholarship, Chalmers Johnson, former professor at the University of California at San Diego and Berkeley, and now head of the Japan Policy Research Institute, offers this perspective: "The major question for the 21st century is whether this fateful inability to adjust to changes in the global power-structure can be overcome. Thus far the signs are negative … Is China’s ascendancy to be marked by yet another world war, when the pretensions of European civilization in its US and Japanese projections would be finally put to rest? That is what is at stake."
He sees Bush’s encouragement of Japan’s re-armament as "dangerous" and adds: "Such a development promotes hostility between China and Japan, sabotages possible peaceful solutions in those two problem areas, Taiwan and North Korea, that were left over from the Chinese and Korean civil wars, and lays the foundation for a possible future Sino-American conflict that the US would almost surely lose. It is unclear whether these Washington ideologues understand what they are unleashing: a possible confrontation between the world’s fastest growing industrial economy, China, and the world’s second most productive … Japan; a confrontation the United States would have caused."
Politically, it is China’s advance that lies behind Washington’s push of Japanese leaders’ emerging militarism. Although deflected by Iraq, US neo-cons always regarded "containment" of China a logical sequence to that old Cold War attitude. Last February they launched it afresh with the first declaration of closer "security" ties between the US and Japan. In June came defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s aggressive speech on China, when he asked why it rearms when "no nation threatens it." This statement ignored even his own actions in supporting constant US warship patrols of China’s coast and aiming nuclear missiles at its mainland.
Uncle Sam’s motive here is appallingly simple: today’s Washington ideology that the US must remain the world’s overwhelming sole super-power, by "pre-emptive force" if necessary. Victorian Britain’s Lord "send-a-gunboat" Palmerston would understand instantly. Japan’s neo-nationalist politicians, who still regularly appear in coat-tails, seem to agree too. Certainly they see US dominance as a vehicle on which to ride again into a new "co-prosperity sphere" — the wartime fascist slogan — and toward military regional hegemony as well.
This is not only impossible, but immoral. Japan’s neo-militarism, having already thrust it into an illegal war in Iraq, must trade on historically discredited national animosities with no contemporary relevance. Yet its ruling politicians will not even discuss it. Debate does not exist. Opinion polls from Okinawa and other prefectures hosting US and Japanese troops, consistently report majorities opposed to military activity, as do national polls. Democratic process is ignored while relations with China and South Korea decline to where foreign ministers cannot even meet.
One poll shows disturbing figures. Only 32 percent of Japanese now feel friendly toward China, a drop from 50 percent 10 years ago. In one respect, nationalist talk is working. Meanwhile Koizumi and his cabinet cronies continue to provoke their two neighbors by justifying visits to the militarist Yasukuni shrine honoring Japan’s worst war criminals, including generals in charge during the 1937 Rape of Nanking where Japanese slaughtered over 300,000 Chinese. Japan’s leaders also decline to atone for other atrocities in the war and China since 1931.
Why do Japanese politicians behave like this? Have they not yet abandoned the racist supremacy of the fascist era? Apparently not — yet the subject is never discussed. Koizumi and his cabinet seem blind to the implications of what they are fostering. A possible result of their stupidity might be an incredible irony. Could their actions lead Japan once more to wartime obliteration by the world’s biggest economy — this time not America’s, but China’s?
CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist who lives in Japan. His email firstname.lastname@example.org.