Opinionista Richard Poplak 18 December 2012

Shinzo Abe takes Japan… all the way to war with China?

While our own ruling party mucks about in the Mangaung sandpit, delivering exactly the sort of slow, tortuous decline we expect from it, the world’s third largest economy – master practitioners of the art of the slow, tortuous decline – has voted in a new government. And it appears intent on adding a flame to one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. 

The question is not, “Why should anyone care about another grey Japanese election when we have our own political theatre to consume?” Rather, “Why should we care about Mangaung when the Japanese head to the polls?” The Japanese are, after all, the world’s third biggest economy, currently embroiled in a dangerous territorial spat with the Chinese. Their economy is turgid, their population shrinks, their influence evaporates. Which corresponds, of course, with rising, rabid nationalism, and pervasive calls for the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF), which hasn’t fired a shot at anything more than a whale since 1945, to get into the belligerence game.

If South Africans believe they are without political options, they should make the trip to Tokyo. By comparison, we look spoiled. Three years ago, Japan went to the voting booths and chucked the bums out – the bums, in this case, being the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who had led successive governments since 1955. They replaced the LDP with a faceless, flavourless klatch of LDP has-beens, and other leftish members of Japan’s political class. The Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) victory was meant not only as a rebuke to the LDP, which had presided over two long decades of decline, but as a new start for a country that desperately needed one.

So much for that. The DPJ has matched the LDP inanity for inanity, and had the misfortune of ruling Japan through both a horrendous natural disaster (the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami) and, far more importantly, into a dangerous spat with China. The first, an act of God, was impossible to prevent. But it’s unlikely that the second was any less avoidable. Japan seems intent on a clash with its regional superior, and all major parties across the spectrum seem to equate provocation with sound politics.

But first, how sickly is the once mighty Japanese economy? Both better, and much, much worse, than it seems at first blush. The country is a high-tech, entitlement rich hyper-developed monoculture that still innovates at a rapid pace, and has its fair share of thriving multinationals. But 25% of the budget goes to servicing the country’s massive debt, and Shinzo Abe – the LDP stalwart once again destined to be Japan’s prime minister – is offering to flood the economy with money until inflation reaches 2%. (This is the country that made deflation a permanent fixture.) Okay, but what happens, as Foreign Policy asks so pointedly, to Japanese bonds in this case? What happens when foreign investors sell off Japanese debt, the yen tanks and Japan teeters on the edge of its own collapse? Japan is the definition of “too big to fail” –because there’s no bailing the joint out in the wake of its own financial tsunami.

Japan’s population is shrinking, the country has done an awful job of attracting talent from the rest of the world, and its uncompetitive rural constituencies are cosseted by the government to the point of absurdity. Solving the conundrum of progress without growth would seem to be Japan’s most pressing problem, but instead, Tokyo is focused on the Senkakus, a shard of rock you have read about often in these pages, AKA the Dioayus. Nomenclature is no small thing: if you refer to them as the former, you’re a Japanese nationalist who believes that the island is central to the country’s makeup. If you use the former, you’re a Chinese who recalls the Rape of Nanjing, and Japanese territorial ambitions, with trepidation cut by rage.

Shinzo Abe does not believe in succor when it comes to Sino-Japanese relations, and his likely friends in parliament – the far-right Japan Restoration Party (JRP), led by Japan’s 80-year-old version of Donald Rumsfeld, Ishihara Shintaro make him look like a pussycat. It was the JRP’s not-so-distinguished leader who came up with the inflammatory plan for the Tokyo Metropolitan government to “purchase” several of the islands from their private owner. Abe, though, would go further.

He has suggested that he would station “civil servants” on the island, official Japanese ergot for SDF personnel. Japan doesn’t have soldiers, so the terminology is meaningless China knows to interpret this as a provocation. It is a line in the sand that would certainly bring a response from China, and it’s hard to know where that response would land. Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has made a fine showing over the past several weeks of his attachment to the army, and there is absolutely no way he would allow the provocation to slide he is a hawk in hawk’s clothing. This would drag America into a conflict it can ill afford, but certainly doesn’t seem to be doing much to avoid. 

Foreign Policy magazine suggests that the temptation for Japan to go nuclear, for it to possess a nuclear arsenal of significant capabilities, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may be too tempting a geopolitical statement to ignore. The Americans would certainly appreciate this it neutralises the Chinese nuclear threat in the region, and resets the game at a belligerent zero. But this depends on such a swing in Japanese foreign engagement that for the moment, it seems unlikely. 

To no small degree, Japan’s future depends on the likelihood of an amendment to article nine of its constitution, the famous, American-penned “no-way” to a Japanese standing army. It needs massive political support in order to be rescinded, and the country does not quite seem to be there yet. Yet Shinzo Abe will push for exactly that, now that he finds himself in charge of the Titanic. 

We’re about to be reminded, as if we needed to be, of just how dangerous desperation can be. Think South Africa is in trouble? Well, sure it is. But we ain’t Japan. We haven’t climbed high enough to fall that far. DM


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money, though not nearly as much as its absence can cost global community. No country can live and prosper without truth - that's why it matters.

Every Daily Maverick article and every Scorpio exposé are our contribution to this unshakeable mission. It is by far the most effective investment into South Africa's future.

Join our mission to become a Maverick Insider. Together we can Defend Defend Truth.


A depressed 2019 voter turnout – SA democracy’s big enemy

By Stephen Grootes

Game of Thrones author George RR Martin uses WordStar 4.0a word processor from the days of DOS to write all of his books.