Thursday, January 29, 2015

An Excuse to Rearm?

 While leaders around the globe strongly condemned the beheading of the Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa and the threat to do the same to a second Japanese hostage, China’s reaction to the whole crisis was extraordinarily grudging.
While offering pro-forma condolences for the dead hostage, the official press quickly used the crisis as an excuse to pummel their favorite target, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a war monger.

“The killing is the price that Japan has paid for its support of Washington [war on terror]”, said the China Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. It went on to speculate that Abe will eventually use the crisis as an excuse to repeal the country’s pacifistic constitution
The Global Times, a newspaper published by the communist party but aimed at international readers, predicted that the crisis would be a new excuse for Japan to relax the restrictions now imposed on its armed forces. “Abe is more concerned about promoting rightest policies than rescuing hostages.”

Of course, it is hardly news that relations between China and Japan are in the pits these days, or that Beijing holds a special animas for Japan’s prime minister or that everything Tokyo does these days is automatically seen as a march toward “remilitarization.”
Tokyo supports the international coalition against the Islamic State, organized by Washington. It’s most concrete contribution, is a $200 million package of nonmilitary aid for coping with refugees that Abe announced in Cairo during a trip to the Middle East.

The Islamic State promptly latched on to that figure and turned it into a ransom demand that they soon dropped after killing Yukawa and substituted new demands for releasing a convicted terror bomber now in Jordanian custody.
Abe has talked a lot about wanting to raise Japan’ profile in international affairs, yet it would be misleading to say that this effort raised Japan’s profile to a higher level. After all, Tokyo contributed billions of dollars to the coalition formed in 1991 to retake Kuwait and was shocked at how little thanks it got.

So when the second Iraq War came around in 2003, Tokyo was determined to send at least some “boots on the ground” in the form of a construction battalion that operated under severe restrictions to conform with the constitution. Japanese navy oilers also refueled coalition ships supporting the war in Afghanistan.
The latter two actions required special legislation. The Abe government is currently considering a series of new amendments to the Self Defense Forces Act to enable even closer military cooperation between Japan and the United States and possibly other “allies.”

So it is not wrong to speculate on how the hostage crisis, once it is resolved, will impact Japan’s future defense posture. There have, after all,  been plenty of signs that Abe’s government wants to enhance the country’s military, such as has increasing defense spending in a modest way since taking power two years ago.
In July the cabinet issued a statement “re-interpreting” the constitution to allow for “collective defense”, which mainly means working in concert with it main ally, the United States, and potentially other countries with which it has a close relationship.

Even as the hostage crisis unfolded. Japan’s defense minister Gen Nakatani and foreign minister Fumio Kishida were in London discussing closer cooperation on jointly developing new armaments. Tokyo last year relaxed its traditional ban on weapons’ exports.
Before collective defense can go into effect, however, the Japanese parliament has to pass a bunch of new laws and amendments to the Self-Defense Act. This was to have been accomplished in the last session, but the Abe administration pulled the bills rather than have this divisive issue become part of the snap election last month.

The new parliament, elected late last year, went into session this past week, will be called on to pass those laws. Opinion polls have shown the public about equally divided on the issue. There has been no new polling on this issue since the hostage crisis broke out.
The hostage crisis cuts two ways. In one sense it raises long-standing fears among the Japanese public that their country will be dragged into Middle East conflicts as part of American-led coalitions. In that respect, many fear any weakening of the constitution’s prohibition on using force to resolve international disagreements.

The call for collective defense is primarily motivated by perceived growing threats from China and North Korea. China and Japan are involved in a heated dispute over ownership of several islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Daioyu in China.
But some of the proposed amendments could impact the Middle East, such as provisions allowing the Japanese navy to sweep mines in the Persian Gulf, for example. Japan is entirely dependent on the region for petroleum imports.

On the other hand, the crisis adds to Japan’s current sense of impotence and helplessness to defend its citizens in danger. It is deeply humiliating to Japan’s leaders that they have essentially had to out-source the handling of the hostage crisis to Jordan.
The same sense of impotence was felt in an earlier hostage crisis that took place in Algeria just one month after Abe took office in December, 2012. Militants took over an oil refinery in a remote part of Algeria. Ten Japanese hostages died when the Algerian Army stormed the site.

The Japanese killed in that incident were not adventurers like Yukata, drawn to danger, but ordinary engineers working on an international infrastructure project in a presumably safe country like thousands of other soldiers for Japan Inc.
The incident shattered the illusion that Japan was largely immune to international terrorism from radical Muslims. Having to depend on the special forces of another country was especially galling. There were no Japanese forces trained in these kinds of operations and no legal grounds for Tokyo to use them even if they existed.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan






Monday, January 26, 2015

Poignant Memories

One Monday morning in 1995 Kazumashita Takahashi , an assistant station master on the Chiyodu Subway line in central Tokyo, was on duty when the 8:10 train pulled in. Many of the passengers were civil servants, whose offices were in the nearby Kasumigaseki government district next to the Imperial palace.
Before the doors slammed shut Takahashi noticed some liquid spilled on the train floor. He mopped it up and waved the train on. Shortly after he collapsed on the platform and died. Within minutes commuters were staggering out of the subway exits gasping for breath, coughing, rubbing their eyes and foaming at the mouth.

Urban terrorists had planted sarin nerve gas at five widely scattered locations along three downtown subway lines in what must have surly been the world’s first use of a weapon of mass destruction delivered in a waste basket.
This year Japan will be commemorating and contemplating meanings about several poignant anniversaries. In addition to the 20th anniversary on March 20 for the sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system, there is the 20th anniversary, just past, on the Kobe earthquake.

Looking further beyond is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. Even though the date, August 15, is months away, much speculation is building in Japan as to what the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe will say on that occasion.
The earthquake that struck Kobe early on the morning of January 17 was the most severe quake to hit Japan between the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Some 6,434 people died in the Kobe quake.

The magnitude 7.3 quake shattered the safety myth of urban life in modern-day Japan. The collapse of elevated expressways, which became the iconic symbol of the disaster, and fires that burned down whole neighborhoods underscored the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters.
The more recent March 11, 2011, Great East Japan quake was even bigger and deadlier, but most of the victims drowned to the tsunami that followed the quake, where as most of the victims of the Kobe quake were crushed in collapsing houses and buildings.

Kobe did not regain its pre-quake population until 2004, and today about 44 percent of the population now has no first-hand experience with the event, underscoring the need to keep knowledge and memories of the disaster alive.
It is hard to forget the nerve gas attack in Tokyo, when, 20 year after the event, there are still accountings to be settled. The trial opened January 16 for one of the alleged members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that perpetrated the terror attack.

Katsuya Takahashi, now 56, went on trial for murder and several other crimes relating to the cult’s nefarious activities. A fugitive for 17 years after the attack, Takahashi was finally apprehended in June 2012. His trial is expected to last for four months with a verdict announced in April. He has pleaded not guilty.
If the trial progresses along this timetable, it will seems like the speed of light compared with the trial of the cult’s mysterious leader Shoko Asahara. He was convicted and sentenced to death after a trial that lasted nine years.

Asahara is still alive and awaiting execution, which in Japan, are never announced in advance. He will know he has met his date with the hang man only the morning when it actually happens. During his lengthy trial, Asahara never spoke out or offered any kind of excuse or reason for his cult’s bizarre attacks.
Of course, the most eagerly anticipated anniversary of 2015 will be the 70th year following Japan’s surrender in August, 15, 1945. This would be a pregnant date under any circumstances, but it is all the more interesting in that all will be curious to see how Abe handles the event and what he says in the inevitable anniversary declaration.

Abe is known to question the veracity many of the war crimes that Japan has been accused of fomenting during its invasion of China. Indeed, he has even questioned whether “aggression” is the correct term to describe Japan’s actions.
However, he is also the leader of Japan and responsible for Tokyo’s diplomacy abroad, so he will have to suppress many of these private convictions in order not to stir more trouble with nearby neighbors, China and South Korea. Properly phrased it might even help to alleviate some of these tensions.

Naturally, his government, including Abe himself has been eager to put a positive spin on the event, saying he hoped that any statement would be foreword  looking as well as expressing remorse for Japan’s actions in World War II.
“I would like to write Japan’s remorse on the war, its post-war history as a pacifist nation and how [Japan] will contribute to the Asia Pacific region and the world,” Abe said in his first press conference of the new year. “We hope Japan can match its words with actions, honestly facing up to its history.” countered a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

Abe’s statement will be even more closely scrutinized than the one issued by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the war. The premier admitted in that statement that Japan bore responsibility for wartime atrocities and for it colonization of Korea. It has been viewed ever since as an unambiguous, formal apology.
However many on the far right in Japan believe that Murayama’s statement went too far. That it was issued by the only socialist prime minister Japan has had since the days right after the war, adds to their contempt for the statement and their probably unrealistic hope that Abe might actually retract part of it.

That is certainly not in the cards as coming from a premier who, though personally something of a historical revisionist, is also keen on restoring Japan’s relationships with its near Asian neighbors.