North Koreaâ€™s first nuclear test on 9 October was not the only recent shock in northeast Asia. The region had been just as disturbed two weeks earlier by the election of Shinzo Abe as Japanâ€™s new prime minister on September 26.
Abe, like his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, is a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has dominated Japanese politics since 1955. At 52, he is Japanâ€™s youngest prime minister since 1945, and the first to be born after the end of the second world war. The Japanese left views him as an ultraliberal, archconservative nationalist. His enemies in the region regard him as a hawk.
He is a member of a leading rightwing dynasty that has never apologised for its brimstone past (1). His father was once minister for foreign affairs. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a minister in the government of Manchukuo, imperial Japanâ€™s artificial state in occupied Chinese Manchuria in 1932.
Back in Tokyo in 1941, he joined Hideki Tojoâ€™s war cabinet, which ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1945 the United States arrested and imprisoned Kishi on suspicion of being a war criminal, but he was not brought before the Tokyo war crimes tribunal (the equivalent of Nuremberg) because the US wanted to rebuild the Japanese political right at the beginning of the cold war. Kishi served the US faithfully. After his release in 1948, he served two terms as prime minister, from 1957 to 1960, and signed a new mutual security treaty with the US that sparked violent popular protests in Japan.
Abeâ€™s great-uncle, Yosuke Matsuoka, was a foreign minister who promoted Japanese expansion in Asia. In 1941 he brought Japan into the Axis with Hitlerâ€™s Germany and Mussoliniâ€™s Italy. He too was accused of war crimes but died in prison before he could be brought before the tribunal.
Japan has never officially sought forgiveness for war crimes committed against Korea and China. Abe, far from disowning his family history, has minimised Japanâ€™s past responsibility and denounced those who take a â€œmasochisticâ€ view of Japanese history. He and Koizumi have been regular visitors to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours those â€œwho gave their lives for Japanâ€, among them Abeâ€™s great-uncle and 14 convicted war criminals. These visits have made Koizumi persona non grata in Beijing and Seoul; they accused him of being a revisionist who sought to glorify Japanâ€™s military past.
Abe is on the right wing of the LDP and has successfully played on the Japanese mediaâ€™s racism to exploit a major issue. During the 1970s and 1980s, when Kim Il-sung controlled North Korea, his special forces abducted civilians from Japanese beaches. There was something demagogic about the insistence with which Abe demanded the return of the surviving abductees and called for sanctions against North Korea, even when only one case remained unresolved.
On 19 September this year he demanded and secured new sanctions against North Korea in response to Julyâ€™s Nodong missile tests (2). He used the â€œNorth Korean threatâ€ as a pretext to call for a referendum allowing article 9 of Japanâ€™s pacifist constitution (3) to be changed to permit the strictly defensive forces to be changed into fully fledged armed forces released from the limitations imposed by the victors in 1945 (4). This ambition now enjoys the support of the group surrounding President George Bush, which feels the need for a powerful military ally in northeast Asia to help contain China.
Japan already has the worldâ€™s second-largest military budget (the US is world leader) giving rise to real fears that its rearmament could accelerate an arms race already under way in one of the worldâ€™s most dangerous regions. Most Japanese oppose the idea and on 10 October Abe found it necessary to emphasise that Japan, protected by the US military umbrella, had no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons (5). Japan has at least 43.8 tonnes of plutonium, produced by its civil reactors, and it would take only a few months to build a nuclear warhead.
The North Korean nuclear test was inexcusable. But by deciding to carry it out on the day that Abe visited Seoul in South Korea, North Korea clearly signalled how dangerous it believes him to be. This was an irresponsible way to make the point, and alarmed the globe. It is clear confirmation that without some — improbable — relaxation of Abeâ€™s nationalist posture, tensions will not decrease in Asia.
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) See Philippe Pons, â€œShinzo Abe, prince de la droiteâ€, Le Monde, 21 September 2006.
(2) See Ignacio Ramonet, â€œNorth and Southâ€, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, October 2006.
(3) This article stipulates that â€œthe Japanese people for ever renounce warâ€, and that â€œland, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintainedâ€.
(4) See Muto Ichiyo, â€œRevise the Peace Constitution, Restore Glory to Empireâ€, Japonesia Review, no 1, Tokyo, 2006.
(5) El PaÃs, Madrid, 11 October 2006.