Alphen, The Netherlands. 24 July. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I like the dreams of the future, better than the history of the past”. To nowhere does this Jeffersonian aphorism apply more than contemporary Japan. With Sunday’s clear victory of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in elections to the Upper House of the Diet, Japan’s Parliament, Japan maybe about to cross a threshold between a challenging past and a challenging future. Japan must be set free to play its full role on the world stage where it belongs. Why Abe and why now?
More than any other country Japan is still seen by many through the lens of the apocalyptic political settlement imposed upon Tokyo by the victorious Americans in 1945. That must end. World War Two’s other aggressor power Germany is steadily and rightly emerging as a respected leader on the European continent. Berlin has earned the right to play such a role because Germany has transformed itself into a model democracy and a vital pillar of the liberal international order. Japan is also a long supporter of the same liberal order and as competition grows between those that justify power via prosperity and those where the people still get to have a say Japan stands as a beacon for liberal democracy in the world’s strategic centre of gravity - East Asia.
History as ever remains eloquent. In 1902 Britain and Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty. Britain then worked with Japan to build the Imperial Japanese Navy. Of course, history will also recount that in December 1941 Britain’s support for Japan backfired spectacularly when the self-same Japanese Navy sank HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse off what was then Ceylon. However, Britain’s 1902 strategic logic was impeccable. Faced with the rise of the Kaiser’s Imperial High Seas Fleet the security of the eastern British Empire could no longer be secured by even the mighty Royal Navy. Modern day sequestered America looks ever more like over-reaching 1902 Britain as the sun began to set on the British Empire.
Frankly, America’s Asia-Pacific-centric grand strategy and the new global balance of power that is driving change needs a strong but responsible Japan. Japan is already the world’s fifth biggest defence spender and this year Prime Minister Abe ordered the first increase in Japanese defence expenditure for a decade. Like it or not Japan faces a China that has been growing its defence budget by over ten percent per annum since 1989. European liberals may hate it but it is power that is driving change in Asia not ideas. Therefore, whilst the US plays a key role in Japanese security, Japan plays an ever-more-important role in American and world security.
Prime Minister Abe clearly understands the new strategic balance. However, if he is to realise his ambitions for Japan and finally escape the shackles imposed on Tokyo in 1945 Abe will need to strike a balance between strength and responsibility. He will also have to tread carefully. Abe has already indicated his desire to scrap the pacifist elements of the post-1945 constitution imposed upon Japan. He may well be advised to follow Germany’s step-by-step approach to ‘normalisation’. Rather than radically alter the German constitution, which is still based on the 1949 Allied-influenced Basic Law, Berlin chose instead to progressively re-interpret the constitution against the background of change in contemporary international relations. Germany’s Constitutional Court has played a crucial role in the legitimisation of the use of German force which started in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Japan has taken similar but very limited steps in support of humanitarian objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
However, the challenge maybe Prime Minister Abe himself. He is often accused of being a nationalist although that is much exaggerated by those who would use history to further constrain Japan’s international role and influence. However, he is a radical and a patriot and can at time use intemperate language forgetting that for the powerful there is no such thing as a domestic audience.
Equally, with majorities in both the Upper and Lower Houses of the Diet Abe now has an opportunity to move Japan and its international relations into the twenty-first century. Critically, at least three years of stable government is in the offing together with an end to the ministerial merry-go-round which has helped make Japan an at times mercurial and unreliable partner.
L.P. Hartley once wrote, “the past is another country”. Germany has earned the right to lead because both the country and its people confronted a painful past. Japan has never and will never confront that past in same way as Germany and Japan’s past may not quite be the foreign land it is to Germany, but it is today a distance place.
Therefore, it is finally time to free Japan from the past…and for Japan to free itself.