Japan is expected to take on a tougher stance in its long-festering territorial rows with South Korea and China as a hawkish leader of its main opposition party is seen likely to take its premiership in elections expected within months.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday returned to the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party, pledging to make Japan a “strong nation” ― remarks highlighting his conservative, nationalist policy orientation.
Abe has said that he would visit the Yasukuni Shrine honoring war criminals, seek to recognize Japan’s right of collective defense and reverse a series of Tokyo’s apologetic statements over its wartime atrocities.
These, should they be put in action, may seriously damage ties with South Korea and China, where resentment over Japan’s past militarism runs deep, with its territorial claims fanning nationalism ahead of leadership changes in both nations, experts warned.
“Abe is basically a central figure of the country’s ultra-conservative forces that push for their hard-line policy even if that means straining ties with neighboring states,” said Lee Ki-wan, political science professor at Changwon National University.
|Shinzo Abe of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party speaks in Tokyo after winning the main opposition party’s top post during an election on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)|
“Coupled with the domestic situation where a pivotal figure to bring national unity is absent, his perception of history and the country’s growingly conservative foreign policy line could deepen the simmering rows with Korea.”
The security hawk is a maternal grandson of Nobusuke Kishi who was once jailed as an A-class war criminal after World War II and served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. His father Shintaro Abe served as foreign minister from 1982-86.
Abe is particularly unpopular among Koreans here as he has set the legal ground for what they call historical distortions.
While Abe was in office in 2006, Tokyo revised the Fundamental Law of Education with an aim to strengthen patriotism. The law was enacted in 1947 to curb prewar-era nationalism.
His recent remarks on his consideration over a possible reversal of earlier apologetic statements by Tokyo over its colonial atrocities also drew sharp criticism here. The statements include the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.
Kono expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” for the sufferings of the victims, euphemistically called “comfort women.” It raised the hope for the resolution of the thorny issue, which was stymied amid strong opposition from Japan’s rightist politicians.
Opinion polls show that the LDP, which ended a half-century of almost unbroken rule in a 2009 election debacle, is expected to win in the upcoming polls to elect the 480 members of the lower-house of the country’s bicameral legislature.
In a recent survey by Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, the LDP garnered 21 percent while the ruling Democratic Party of Japan gained 15 percent. The LDP expects itself to win around 220 seats and gain a majority through a parliamentary coalition.
Although the term for the lower-house members is to end in September next year, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has agreed to call elections soon in a deal with the LDP to pass the controversial bill aimed at increasing consumption taxes to curb public debt.
Elections were expected to be in November. But as Noda plans to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, the vote is expected to come after the summit.
Despite Abe’s hawkish stance on security, some experts argue that his tough-line position can be mitigated as his party, on its own, may not be able to wield overwhelming legislative power.
“Although the LDP is likely to return to power by next February, it will be in the form of another coalition government. Coalition partners will pose constraints on Abe as the DPJ-led coalition members have constrained Noda and his two predecessors,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Korea Herald.
“There remains a shift toward more conservative policy in Japan, but this has a lot to do with concern about China. North Korea should continue to be a strong common interest pushing forward ROK (Republic of Korea)-Japan ties.”
Some argue that although he has spewed provocative remarks, he may opt to choose a more moderate stance over issues related to South Korea including the territorial fray over Dokdo.
“In order to keep China in check, Abe could take a realistic policy line such as withdrawing many of his pledges in efforts to normalize strained ties with South Korea,” said Chin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the think tank Sejong Institute.
After all, to curb Japan’s policy stance that could worsen ties with its neighboring states, America’s mediating role is of great importance, experts pointed out.
Washington has apparently been unnerved over escalating regional territorial spats including the chain of islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. In efforts to defuse tension, it sent its chief diplomat and defense minister to the region, urging the Asian powers to resolve the rows through dialogue peacefully.
“The conservative trend in Japan has continued on with the simmering conflicts among the Asian powers. This poses a diplomatic task for Washington as the U.S. is the country capable of putting the brake on these issues in East Asia,” said Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)