The new prime minister’s unrepentant attitude to war crimes could threaten the world’s most important economic zone

The election of Shinzo Abe as the leader of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party and now prime minister will have profound repercussions for Japan and east Asia. Most western commentary during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi has been concerned with the extent to which Japan has allowed a freer rein to market forces. While that is important, the question that should really detain us is Japan’s growing nationalism. Although Koizumi was not a rightwing nationalist, he was, in a pragmatic way, acutely sensitive to the public mood and, in this context, mindful of a growing nationalist sentiment: his annual visits to the Yasukuni war shrine were one consequence.

Abe is a very different figure. He is much younger – the first Japanese prime minister to have been born after the war – and a product of very different historical circumstances, which has no doubt helped him to articulate the growing nationalist drift. His familial roots, moreover, lie firmly in the nationalist tradition: his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime cabinet minister later imprisoned as a class-A war-crimes suspect, who by 1957 had become prime minister. Abe has carefully avoided expressing his opinions on Japan’s wartime record, although he has made it clear that he rejects the consensual view that Japan waged a war of aggression and invasion in Asia. He has also cast doubt – in a way that Koizumi never has – on the validity of the postwar Tokyo trials in which Japan’s wartime leaders were tried and many found guilty.

The Japanese ruling establishment has long fought shy of coming to terms with the country’s role in the war. The most that it has uttered is a formulaic apology that Koizumi again repeated after the anti-Japanese riots in China last year. There has been nothing like the cathartic process that Germany has undertaken since 1945. Abe has even refused to endorse the ritualised apology that was first issued in 1995. It would appear that he sees little or nothing to apologise about.

The argument is not simply about history; it is crucial to Japan’s relations with its east Asian neighbours. Japan’s aggression in China and Korea – and to a lesser extent elsewhere – remains a huge source of resentment in these countries, its failure to apologise only serving to intensify their sense of grievance. The election of Abe threatens to exacerbate these tensions.

When Abe inherited his parliamentary seat after his father’s death, he joined with other conservatives in lobbying the prime minister to visit Yasukuni – where Japan’s war dead, including war criminals, are enshrined. He also pressed for the revision of school textbooks, arguing that they should show more national pride and that details of certain war crimes should be excised. The key moment in Abe’s rise as a nationalist politician came in 2002 when, in response to North Korea’s admission that it had kidnapped some Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, he adopted a hardline stance. After North Korea’s missile tests last July, he argued that Japan should consider acquiring a pre-emptive military capacity. His attitude towards China has been aggressive and unapologetic. He has been a strong supporter of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni and a regular visitor himself.
These stances set the tone for what we can expect from an Abe premiership. He has made it clear that he wants to revise the US-imposed pacifist constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education – which was enacted in 1947 as the basis for postwar schooling – in order to emphasise moral values, patriotism and tradition. The alliance with the US is likely to become even more important in the face of China’s rise, and, with the Americans’ encouragement, Japan will continue to assume a wider global role.

Far from being persuaded by the growing power and prosperity of east Asia – and in particular China – to turn over a new leaf in its relationship with the region, it would appear that Japan is determined to continue with the mindset that has dominated its attitude ever since the Meiji restoration in 1868, namely one of superiority and detachment. For most of that time, in contrast with Japan’s glittering success, the east Asia region has been mired in backwardness. But that is no longer the case, and Japan is now driven by a growing fear of China and its understandable sense of historical grievance. Negative feelings in Japan towards China have been steadily growing, with only 28% holding a positive view in a recent poll, compared with 55% in 2002. In the same poll, 50% of Japanese viewed China’s growing power as a bad thing, notwithstanding the fact that it has been credited with pulling Japan out of a long recession.

Abe’s premiership is likely to presage growing tension between China and Japan over the latter’s conduct in the war, their respective roles in east Asia in the context of China’s ever growing influence, and the disputed Diaoyu (or, as Japan calls them, Senkaku) islands, whose territorial waters are believed to contain major supplies of oil and gas. His election will be viewed with considerable concern in Beijing, although that outcome has been fairly predictable for some time.

As east Asia consolidates its economic position as by far the most important economic region in the world, Abe’s election makes it likely that east Asia will be the subject of increasing friction between Japan and China, the second and third most powerful economies in the world respectively. As such, the ramifications will not simply be regional, but increasingly global.