Written by Zhiqun Zhu

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been portrayed as a staunch nationalist bent on revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution. From visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to his claim that “invasion” is not clearly defined internationally, from pressuring McGraw-Hill to revise a history textbook, to beefing up Japan’s military power, Abe has repeatedly demonstrated his revisionist view of history and his stance of being unafraid of going against the international community.

Except for his awkward hand-shake with Xi Jinping during the November 2014 APEC summit in Beijing, Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have deteriorated considerably since Abe assumed office in December 2012. Despite initial signs of improvement in relations in recent weeks, political tensions between Japan and its two neighbours are likely to remain high for some time. It is tempting, but simplistic, to attribute all the diplomatic problems in Northeast Asia to Abe. The truth is both international and domestic environments provide an inviting setting for Abe to carry out his conservative foreign policy agenda.

The international environment has significantly changed since the beginning of the 21st century. Global terrorism continues unabated and even re-energized with the rise of ISIS. The United States is experiencing relative decline while China continues to expand its power and influence. Terrorism and China’s rise will be the two largest security challenges for the United States for many years to come. In both challenges, the United States has found the most reliable and perhaps indispensable ally in Japan.

Japan has become an ardent supporter for the US-led global campaign against terror and America’s “pivot” to Asia. While domestic debate over whether and how it should become a “normal” country is inconclusive, Japan,nominally still a pacifist nation based on its Constitution, has charged onto the forefront of international affairs, in coordination with the United States. The recent hostage tragedy in which two Japanese citizens were killed by ISIS terrorists highlights the depth of Japan’s involvement in international affairs. The true intentions of America’s “pivot” strategy remain elusive, but it is at least partially designed to counter China’s growing power. Japan has welcomed America’s strategic rebalancing and taken actions to assist it, such as working to permit the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to exercise the so-called “right of collective self-defense”—a step further to turning the SDF into a regular military.

Japan’s potential remilitarization used to be alarming to everyone. The United States and many other countries were once concerned about letting the “genie out of the bottle” should Japan remilitarize. Allowing Japan to rearm “is like giving chocolate liqueur to an alcoholic,” commented the late former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Today, it seems only China and South Korea firmly oppose Japan’s move to the right. During her visit to Japan in March 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Japanese leaders to face history “openly and squarely” while also nudging Japan’s neighbours to be more generous. Unfortunately, other world leaders have not spoken out unambiguously against Japanese leaders’ revisionism and denial of history. The United States, the most influential country in Japan’s foreign affairs, expects and even encourages its ally to become more militarily involved in international affairs. A victim of Japan’s past militarism, the United States has not come out strongly criticizing some Japanese politicians’ attempt to rewrite history.

Admiral Robert Thomas, Commander of the Seventh Fleet and the top U.S. naval officer in Asia, said in an interview with Reuters, the United States would welcome help from Japanese air patrols to monitor the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Though Thomas’ comments are in line with broader U.S. support for Japan’s military playing a more global role, they are essentially elbowing Japan to get involved in the territorial dispute despite the fact that Japan had not publicly expressed such an interest itself and Japan is not a claimant to the South China Sea islands. Other US defence officials have also encouraged Japan to be more involved in the region. US Under Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman’s remarks that “Nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy” may not be just a slip of tongue but are a revelation of America’s siding with Japan in the current imbroglio between Japan and its neighbors.

Typically Japanese leaders who get the support of the United States are more likely to stay in power for longer. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, from the Democratic Party of Japan, wanted to shift Japan’s focus from an America-centric foreign policy to a more Asia-focused policy. He worked to deepen economic integration with the East Asian region. Under his leadership, Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea greatly improved. He ended an eight-year SDF refueling mission in Afghanistan, displeasing the United States. His foreign and domestic policies backfired, and his tenure lasted just 9 months.

In the past three decades, only two Japanese prime ministers had stayed in office for as long as 5 years: Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi.  Nakasone was prime minister for 5 years from 1982 to 1987. A nationalist who twice visited the Yasukuni Shrine, Nakasone was best known for his close relationship with President Ronald Reagan, popularly called the “Ron-Yasu” friendship.

Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister from April 2001 to September 2006. He was criticized for actions such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine annually which allegedly ran contrary to his expression of remorse on the 60th anniversary of WWII’s end. He focused on closer relations with the United States and went further to pursue supporting US policies in the War on Terrorism. He deployed the SDF to Iraq–the first mission in active foreign war zones since the end of WWII. He developed a close personal friendship with President George W. Bush. An avid Elvis Presley fan, Koizumi traveled to Graceland during his final visit to the United States in June 2006, personally accompanied by President Bush.

Prime Minister Abe has developed a close relationship with President Barack Obama. Although US officials privately urged Abe not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, he still went in December 2013, and the harshest reaction he received from the United States was a mere expression of “disappointment”.  Abe will visit the United States in late April and become the first Japanese prime minister to speak at a joint sessions of US Congress. The United States is offering unconditional support to Abe without knowing what he will say about Japan’s past on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

With strong support from the United States and little opposition from the international community, the Abe administration is forcing forward its assertive and revisionist foreign policy, and the United States is only happy to have such a royal, cooperative and pliant deputy sheriff in its global strategy.

Ichiro Ozawa’s 1993 book Blueprint for a New Japan generated heated debate over the future of Japanese foreign policy and constitutional amendment.  Constitutional revision used to be a taboo topic in Japan, but support for amending the Constitution especially its war-renouncing Article 9 steadily increased in the 1990s and early 2000s. Japanese public opinion favoring constitutional amendment rose to over 50% by the early 2000s before declining in the following years.

A recent survey by Yomiuri Shimbun shows that on the thorny issue of Abe’s hope to revise the Constitution’s Article 96, which will potentially pave the way for him to try and garner enough support to amend Article 9, 51 percent said they oppose the idea, compared with 35 percent who support it. The hurdle for constitutional change remains high.

Yet Abe’s overall approval rating is strong, with over 50 percent supporting him, even though sales tax increase in April 2014 and lacklustre performance of Abenomics led to a decline in his public support. After the ISIS hostage crisis, Yomiuri Shimbun found that support for Abe’s government had risen to 58 percent. Abe does not have the mandate for constitutional revision, yet he remains a strong and popular leader, and Japan’s rightward drift becomes speedier under his leadership. Through introducing national security bills to bypass the constitutional constraints, the Abe cabinet is building momentum to inch towards eventually revising the Constitution.

Buoyed by the results of the December 2014 elections and a modest growth of Japan’s economy now, Abe is poised to push forward constitutional revision as a major policy objective. Meanwhile, there is little domestic pressure for him to improve relations with China and South Korea. His November 2014 meeting with Xi Jinping and December 2013 Yasukuni Shrine visit did not noticeably affect his domestic support one way or the other.

Though the Komeito serves as a break on Abe’s aggressive agenda in the coalition government, and the Japanese Communist Party fights hard against his policies, overall, opposition in and outside the Diet is not stiff enough to compel Abe to change his revisionist mind. Japan’s peace groups seem to have failed to restrain him either. With a more “recalcitrant” North Korea, a more “aggressive” China and a more “nationalistic” South Korea, Abe is winning growing support at home to expand the role of the SDF and to amend the Constitution. With sporadic and feeble domestic resistance, Abe has been able to selectively frame security issues to justify his desired policy changes.

Few would oppose Japan’s more active political, economic, and cultural involvement in international affairs. But due to its war history and Abe’s lack of sincerity in reflecting upon the past, Japan’s growing military role abroad and constitutional amendment will create unnecessary tensions in its foreign relations. Japan may have come to terms with the imperial war domestically, but it is not perceived so by the outside world. Abe’s revisionist views have become a stumbling block in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea. Unless the international community especially the United States becomes more forceful in resisting Abe’s historical denialism and unless Japan’s peace movement is revitalized, little will prevent Abe from attempting to translate his ultra-nationalist outlook into policy.

Emotionally, some Japanese feel that the Constitution was imposed by the United States during the occupation period. For Japan to become a “normal” country, it needs an authentic Japanese-drafted Constitution. So revising the Constitution will get some support – sometimes even over 50 percent of the public. However, the pacifist Constitution served Japan well in the past 70 years. Revising the Constitution and building a stronger military will not improve Japan’s international standing or ensure safety of Japanese citizens abroad. A Kyodo News poll after the ISIS hostage crisis in February 2015 showed 57.9 percent of the respondents said Japan’s support for war against terror should be non-military. Prime Minster Abe should heed what the Japanese people say and defend Japan’s status as a global civilian power.

If Abe succeeds in amending Japan’s Constitution, the global image of Japan as a peace-loving nation may fundamentally change. And if Abe does not fully and sincerely address the wartime history on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, he will be considered a leader without integrity and courage, and Japan may find itself facing an increasingly suspicious and hostile international environment. Instead of blaming Abe, the international community and Japanese public should help him make wise choices now.

Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, USA. He is currently a visiting professor at Doshisha University in Japan. Image Credit: CC by mariusz kluzniak/Flickr.