John Menadue. Australia-Japan – friends should be frank.

May 29, 2014

Tony Abbott is shortly to visit Japan. He should be aware of the serious ultra-nationalist trend in Japan. That ultra-nationalism in the past has brought tragedy to the Japanese people and our region. The chief exponent of this ultra-nationalism in Japan is Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe,who will be his host.

I believe that Japan is at a tipping point in its domestic politics and in its relations particularly with China and the Republic of Korea – countries that it has invaded and colonised in the past. 

I am presently in Japan and my friends express to me increasing concern about the rising trend of ultra-nationalism. The nature of that ultra-nationalism is set out in my earlier post, which is below. My friends grew up in Japan where the majority was clearly influenced by the tragedies of the past and wanted to maintain a pacifist approach to the future. That approach has served Japan well since 1945. There is now concern however that generations of young people in Japan have never experienced the tragedy that war brought to their parents and grandparents. 

There are encouraging signs that elements within Prime Minister Abe’s government and also Coalition partners, Komeito, are concerned about what Prime Minister Abe proposes. Hopefully they will prevail. Tony Abbott would be wise to urge caution on his host when he visits Japan. But I wonder if he understands what is at stake.      John Menadue

Tony Abbott has told us that Japan is Australia’s best friend in the region. I don’t think the relationship with Japan should be expressed that way, but if we take what Tony Abbott says literally, a good friend should tell the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe that there is disquiet in the region and amongst Japan’s many friends about the ultra-nationalist course that Prime Minister Abe is pursuing.  His actions and those of his colleagues including the Foreign Minister are causing particular concern in China and in the Republic of Korea who suffered from Japanese occupation. This is not just a silly cultural war that PM Abe is conducting over words and with few consequences. With Japan’s history this is serious. Germany has gone to great pains to purge so much of its past. But Japan’s past keeps coming to the surface when it is bidden.

Prime Minister Abe upped the ante in a visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the core of the discredited State Shinto of earlier years that brought tragedy to Japan and the countries of the Pacific. Prime Minister Abe says it was a private visit but it was a public denial of Japan’s wartime atrocities. Yasukuni honours the souls of 2 million war dead but also fourteen Class A war criminals. It features a museum that attempts to whitewash Japan’s war record. The US Embassy in Tokyo objected immediately to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni.  Julie Bishop took a month to respond and in a very lame way. “Such events (as the visit to Yasukuni Shrine) escalate the already tense regional environment”she said.

Prime Minister Abe has clearly set out to rewrite history and provoke both China and the ROK. His actions also offend the memories of Australian service people who suffered at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. It is remarkable that he attacks the ROK which is led by a conservative Korean President. His ultra-nationalism blots out any affinity with a fellow conservative. In his plans to rewrite Japanese history he continues to apply pressure to the Education Ministry and teachers to ensure that their textbooks are rewritten to be more “patriotic”.

Prime Minister Abe has made it clear that he wants to amend Article 9 of Japan’s war renouncing constitution and develop a significant counter-strike military capability. I have not yet heard any suggestion that he will discuss this with Japan’s neighbours or Australia.

With his symbolic visit to Yasukini Shrine PM Abe can rely on a coterie of acolytes to carry on his revision of history.  He has appointed five new members out of twelve to NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster which is similar to our ABC. All the five new members are close to the Prime Minister. That is not so surprising, but one of the appointees, Naoki Hyakuta, described the Tokyo War Crimes Trials as designed to ‘fool people’. Hyakuta went on to add that the 1937 Nanjing massacre of possibly 300,000 Chinese by the Japanese Imperial Army was a fiction.

Katsuto Momii, with the strong backing from Prime Minister Abe, has been appointed Director-General of NHK. At his first press conference Momii said that the recruitment of ‘comfort women’ was not a problem. He has refused to retract that comment. He endorsed Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

The Asahi Shimbun reported this week that “books and periodicals highly critical of China and South Korea are flying off the bookshelves”. At the Tokyo Municipal election last weekend Toshio Tamogami an ultra-nationalist candidate ran fourth with 611 000 votes or 12% of total votes. He was a former Air Self-Defence chief who said during the election as reported by Asahi Shimbun that “the war of aggression, the 1937 Nanking Massacre and comfort women were all fabricated”. The Secretary General of PM Abe’s LDP party said that “Tamogawa was in complete agreement with LDP policies.” The public mood is moving to the nationalist right.  More and more people including officials will bend with the prevailing wind that PM Abe is generating.

To show his friendship to Japan, Tony Abbott sided with Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Australia should stay out of that dispute. In respect of the dispute over the islands with China, Prime Minister Abe has suggested that war between Japan and China is possible as he made clear by likening the situation to 1914.

One cannot visit the sins of the grandfather on the son or the grandson, but Prime Minister Abe  is pursuing the same hostile and ultra-nationalistic attitudes to the region as shown earlier by his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuki Kishi. In 1935 Kishi became a top official in the industrial development of Manchuko, where he was subsequently accused of exploiting Chinese labour.  He was appointed Minister of Munitions by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. After the war, Kishi was held at Sugamo prison as a Class A war crimes suspect.  Unlike Tojo, he was released from Sugamo prison in 1948 and was never indicted or tried. Kishi’s relationship with grandson Abe may seem unimportant but they both share similar ultra-nationalist aspirations.

When Tony Abbott visits Japan in April he should tell Prime Minister Abe that neighbours and many friends of Japan are worried about the course on which he is set. He is the most belligerent leader that we have seen in Japan for decades. He foolishly attempts to conduct diplomacy with the US and Australia over the heads of his neighbours. Their hostile response is not surprising. We have an interest in telling the Japanese Prime Minister and being frank with him that we are concerned.

Many countries and many people have put great effort into reconciliation with Japan and its people. I have tried to do my part. We must ensure that that reconciliation is not undermined by a reckless Japanese Prime Minister.

John Menadue was Australian Ambassador to Japan 1977-1980. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australia Japan Foundation and was subsequently Chair of the Foundation. He was also instrumental in establishment of the Working Holiday Agreement with Japan, the first between Australia and a country in the Asian Region. He was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese Emperor in 1997 for services to Australia-Japan relations.

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