Shinzo Abe

Japan's leaders are fanning the flames of war-time enmity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 4:15am

The sensitivities of East Asian history require that Japan be ever-mindful of its militaristic past. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government appears intent on doing otherwise. In recent weeks, the leader and other senior members of his cabinet have seemingly gone out of their way to infuriate further a region already at odds over territorial disputes. Sustained growth and development require peace and stability; politically driven nationalism can derail such possibilities.

Abe is at the centre of the latest apparent infraction, featuring in photographs involving military hardware. In one that has received wide coverage on Chinese microblogs and in South Korean media, he is wearing military garb and in the cockpit of a Self-Defence Forces training jet, smiling and with his thumb up. In another from last month, he is standing before a latest-generation tank which, for unexplained reasons, was on display at a convention for geeks and video gamers. There was no nationalist message in the comments he made at the events at which the images were taken, but the signal to neighbours invaded and brutally occupied during the first half of the last century is that Japan is again a threat.

A series of similar incidents compounds the impression. Abe wore a military uniform at an electoral event last month, the first time a Japanese prime minister has dressed in such a way since the end of the second world war. At a ceremony to celebrate Japan's regaining of sovereignty from the US in 1952 - the first of its kind - the prime minister urged attendees to shout "banzai", a wishing of long life for the emperor, but also a chant of Japanese soldiers during the war. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, a former prime minister, hinted during a visit to India that good ties between Japan and China were unlikely as the nations had not had "extremely smooth relations" for more than 1,500 years. Aso was among almost 170 lawmakers who last month paid respects at the Yasukuni shrine, which honours war dead, criminals among them.

As heated rows with China and South Korea over disputed islands simmer, such actions are provocative. They come on top of Abe's agenda of a tougher defence strategy, ostensibly aimed at boosting Japan's global standing, and improved relations with Asian countries, a number of whom share contested borders with Beijing. Fanning nationalism will lead only to greater tensions. If there is to be growth, Japan has to work with China and South Korea, not against them.