Japan, geographically separated from the rest of Asia by three seas, has politically distanced itself even further through the recent actions of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Abe was Japan’s Prime Minister from 2006 until his resignation less than a year later due to plummeting poll ratings. He was recently re-elected in December of 2012. During his time in power, he has repeatedly exercised extremely conservative politics and has won infamy for his attempts to revive Japanese nationalism by revising its history.
Some of his government’s most recent efforts at reviving national pride have been directed at a tiny island cluster called Taketomi, home to 323 residents and a popular tourist site for its coral beaches.
The community has been under pressure to institute a new set of textbooks that cast Japan’s role in World War II in a more positive light. In particular, they portray the constitution adopted after Japan’s surrender as a foreign imposition designed to keep Japan weak.
Replacing the constitution has been a longstanding goal of Abe’s. The current set of textbooks praise the document for its emphasis on peace.
Taketomi has resisted the efforts, and its school board has voted to reject the new textbooks. The school superintendent, Anzo Kedamori, told The New York Times, “We have an obligation to teach the horrors of war to future generations. Why can’t they leave us alone to teach the value of peace to our children?”
Lawmaker Hiroyuki Yoshiie disagreed, telling the New York Times: “This is not about going back to militarism, but just teaching the love of country that is normal in the United States and other nations.”
Japanese nationalism has been heavily dampened since Japan’s defeat in World War II, and Abe’s administration intends to bring it back.
Abe has not given up on his textbook push in Taketomi. His government has been attempting to turn the power over the school districts to the local conservative mayors. In the past, a conservative mayor of one Taketomi island attempted to impose a similarly conservative textbook. The school district immediately rejected the proposal.
Another historical revision in particular has earned Abe criticism: his downplaying of the significance “comfort women,” a cadre of sex slaves taken by the Japanese army in WWII. Young women from Japan-occupied countries, such as China and Korea, were abducted into service or tricked with promise of paid work. The original comfort women were volunteers, but the Japanese army quickly ran into a shortage of Japanese volunteers and turned to other countries.
Abe has maintained that the women were not abducted but were in actuality all voluntary prostitutes, and that the suggestion that they were captured or tricked into service is a product of Chinese and Korean propaganda. He has also denied that the government had a role in the acquisition of prostitutes.
Recently, Abe incited an uproar for the visit he paid to the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, which memorializes Japanese individuals killed in the second World War—including 14 “Class A” war criminals. The shrine also houses a museum that portrays WWII as a heroic resistance against imperialism by whites.
Chinese leaders have since canceled a planned talk with Abe to discuss tensions between the two countries.
Chinese spokesman Qin Gang said in a news conference that the war criminals memorialized in Yasukuni are “the historic sinners of the Far East Military Tribunal. Their hands are stained with the blood of the people of victimized nations. They are fascists. They are the Nazis of Asia.”
China and Japan have already found heated disagreement over territorial disputes in the Pacific, and some fear that rekindling a conservative Japanese nationalism could lead to dangerous tension and even outright conflict.
The American Embassy in Tokyo has said that “the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”
Abe has expressed regret for not visiting the shrine during his first term from 2006 to 2007.
The Emperor of Japan, although only a figurehead, has in the past refused to visit the shrine, as had his predecessor. The Emperor has also spoken praise for the peace-oriented constitution.
Things became heated when the Chinese ambassador to Britain compared Japanese militarism to Voldemort and the Yasukuni Shrine to a horcrux that sustains it. The Japanese ambassador to Britain responded that China itself was the Voldemort of Asia for refusing dialogue between the two countries.
Aside from his political conservativism, Abe’s primary election platform has been his plan for “Abenomics,” which is designed to pull Japan out of the economic mire it has sunk into over the last 15 years. He considers himself a “taboo breaker,” according to the New York Times, and has pushed for culture changes that would instate more women in corporate leadership positions. Abe’s plan to rescue Japan from a decade and a half of inflation has found him widespread support and won him two elections, even if not all of Japan is on the same page with his political and historical views.