Japan moves toward a new assertiveness

Sense of insecurity and crisis prompts lawmaker and public

In recent months Japan's government has:

*Begun building its very own spy satellites.

*Allowed its warships to fire shots in anger for the first time since World War II.

*Partially approved a law allowing police to tap phones.

*Opened debate on whether to declare a flag and anthem evocative of the war as national symbols.

*Initiated the process of revising this country's pacifist Constitution.

One by one, these items barely register on the news seismometer. Taken together, they seem to signal the emergence of a more assertive Japanese state.

For many Japanese and many other Asians, a strong government in Japan inevitably recalls the run-up to World War II, when militarists acting in the name of the emperor created an intolerant, authoritarian regime.

Then isn't necessarily now, of course. But feelings of insecurity - internal and external - are prompting Japan's government to do things that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, such as all of the above. "Some non-Japanese people might say that the country is becoming more assertive, nationalistic, strong, et cetera," cautions Terumasa Nakanishi, a professor of international relations at Kyoto University. "As I see it, it's more that [a] sense of crisis has brought people together, making both politicians and the public alike think that they should 'do something.' "

Underlying this sense of crisis are reasons ranging from the historical to the psychological. Analysts say a decade of economic stagnation has created a yearning for decisive action and made an evolving sort of "neo-nationalism" more appealing.

The end of the cold war, combined with US insistence that Japan take more responsibility for policing Asia, has prompted the country to think anew about its defense. Driving the point home is nearby North Korea, which periodically rattles the Japanese with missile launches and other menacing gestures.

Within Japan, this decade has brought terrorist attacks by a religious group, rising juvenile crime rates, and a gradual fraying of the social order. The moribund economy has diluted old assumptions and models.

In politics, the '90s have meant turmoil, confusion, and widespread voter apathy. But now the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has more or less led the country since 1955, is assembling a mighty coalition that could dominate parliament until the next round of elections and perhaps beyond.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and other leaders seem to have noticed that tough-sounding rhetoric and appeals to national pride bring results. Voters in Tokyo, for instance, on April 11 elected an avowedly nationalistic writer and politician as their governor.

Shintaro Ishihara won that race because there was "no other choice," says Ronald Morse, an American academic and veteran Japan-watcher who teaches economics at Reitaku University outside Tokyo. Still, he adds, "what we have here is neoconservatives in Japan finally having a voice."

"There's a whole new wave of political concern about the priority of Japan's national security needs," he says. "It's a consciousness change."

Thanks in large part to North Korea, concerns over defense do seem paramount, but the state's rising assertiveness extends to other areas. The LDP and cooperative politicians have taken up initiatives that were once considered taboo.

For example, parliament held hearings this week on Japan's de facto national flag, the familiar red-and-white banner, and a short hymn to the emperor that functions as a national anthem. Both symbols have been in customary use since well before World War II - a time that they evoke for many older Japanese - but they have never been declared official symbols by the government, a step Mr. Obuchi wants to take now.

In recent decades, the discussion alone would have been considered too nationalistic and an unnecessary stirring up of painful World War II memories.

"It is symbolic," says a concerned South Korean diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity about the flag and anthem debate. "It means Japan is looking to the past."

Effects on US

What impact the emergence of a more assertive Japan might have on this country's cold-war-era security alliance with the US remains unclear.

The CIA's National Intelligence Council, an in-house think tank, convened 20 experts on May 11 to analyze change in Japan. They detected a two-track approach in which Japan works to maintain the alliance while "hedging its bets by pursuing greater autonomy or independence," according to a published summary of the discussion.

The experts were divided over how the "profound" changes under way here would ultimately affect the country's defense posture, but some argued that the US and Japan "may be drifting apart in the security realm."

Japan has agreed to a new set of guidelines covering defense cooperation with the US in regional emergencies, fulfilling an American desire born out of frustration that Japan could not offer more than money during the Gulf War.

Even so, some key decisions suggest that this country aspires to a more equal relationship with its longtime protector. Last year officials announced they would develop their own reconnaissance satellites, rather than relying so heavily on the US for intelligence. This past March, Japanese ships and aircraft fired more than a thousand warning shots at suspected North Korean spy ships that came close to Japan's coast. US forces assisted in tracking the ships, but Japan's action was unusually forthright - the first time its destroyers had fired in anger since World War II.

On July 6, lawmakers in parliament's Lower House approved the creation of a committee to consider ways to revise the Constitution, drafted by the US during its postwar occupation of Japan. Although a revision could take a decade and lacks a clear direction, many reformers want to eliminate or alter an article that renounces Japan's right to the use or threat of "force as a means of settling international disputes."

As Professor Nakanishi notes, many Japanese do not feel as safe as they once did, even in their own homes. This insecurity seems to be the reason that Mr. Obuchi was able to win Lower House approval for an unprecedented measure that will give police the power to place wiretaps in investigating organized criminal organizations and certain types of crime.

Big Brother-like moves

The government is also considering more seriously than ever before a plan to give every Japanese a single number to facilitate official record-keeping and is expanding its network of round-the-clock surveillance cameras on the nation's highways.

These measures give privacy and civil-liberties activists a bad feeling. "I just cannot stop feeling the emergence of neonationalism in this country," says Mizuho Fukushima, a widely admired lawyer who sits in the Upper House. A member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, she says that bureaucrats and ruling-party politicians alike are intent on building a "stronger country."

But Nakanishi says democracy is too deeply entrenched here to allow a recurrence of pre-war fascism. The more assertive tone of recent months is the effect of the government trying to "balance" itself and claim some of the internal and external powers wielded by democratic states all over the world.

Sadaaki Numata, the spokesman of Japan's Foreign Ministry, is unhappy with the word "assertive," perhaps because the idea of a pushy Japan makes other Asians anxious. But he is willing to talk about his country as "a nation that is more conscious of its identity, its place in the world, and its own interests, and that wishes to be more active in the pursuit of those interests."

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