Shinzo Abe’s vision for a more proactive Japan

ISIL’s brutal murder of two Japanese hostages has reinforced Shinzo Abe’s popularity and resolve.

Japan''s PM Abe delivers his policy speech at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo
Japan's PM Abe delivers his policy speech at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo [Reuters]

Far from tarnishing his image of tough leadership, ISIL’s brutal murder of two Japanese hostages (Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa) has reinforced the popularity and resolve of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has vowed to increase Japan’s contribution to battling extremism in the Middle East.

Confronting the tragic conclusion of the 12-day hostage crisis, which shocked Japanese society to its core, Abe has vowed “to make the terrorists pay the price”.

It was a remarkably strong diplomatic language from the leader of a country that has long been known for its pacifist, non-violent foreign policy doctrine. After all, as Kunihiko Miyake, a foreign policy adviser to Abe, puts it, the horrific demise of the Japanese hostages represented Japan’s own version of “9/11”, eviscerating the age-old perception that “noble intentions would be enough to shield it from the dangerous world out there…”

As the Japanese people mourned the horrific death of their compatriots at the hands of ISIL, Abe doubled down on his efforts to reduce constitutional restrictions on Japan’s ability to project military power and more proactively participate in the international system.

Neighbours criticise

But as Asia marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan’s estranged neighbours – particularly China and South Korea, which suffered terribly as a result of Imperial Japan’s aggression – have stepped up their criticism of the Abe administration’s perceived attempts to supposedly make Tokyo once again a military powerhouse. Beijing is expected to take the unprecedented decision to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Japan with a big military parade.

ISIL hostages: Japan’s life or death dilemma

Intent on revamping Japan’s post-World War II foreign and defence policy, Abe, in his state of the union address to the Japanese parliament (Diet) on February 12, called for the revision of the Japanese pacifist constitution, which bars the Asian powerhouse from developing a standing army and an offensive military posture.

Abe has described the amendment of Japan’s highest legal document, imposed under US occupation, as the “biggest reform since the end of the war”.

In an impassioned address before Japanese parliamentarians, Abe called upon his compatriots to revisit their deeply pacifist instincts, a legacy of World War II, and reimagine a more globally proactive Japan.

In his most emotional speech yet, Abe declared: “People of Japan, be confident… Isn’t it time to hold deep debate about revising the constitution? For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this parliament the biggest reform since the end of the war?”

So far, there is limited sign that he will be able to secure the two-thirds majorities in both the upper and lower houses of the Japanese parliament to amend war-renouncing provisions (ie, Article 9) of the constitution. Key parliamentary allies such as the New Komeito party, as well as certain members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have continuously opposed any overt revision of the constitution.

The memory wars

Meanwhile, surveys suggest there is also little chance that more than half of voters will ratify such an amendment in an eventual public referendum. Japan’s neighbours have been particularly alarmed by Abe’s constitutional manoeuvres, especially in light of controversial statements by high-level Japanese officials that seem to smack of “historical revisionism”, underplaying the atrocities of Imperial Japan during World War II.

In a monumental display of their growing solidarity, Chinese President XI Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have agreed to attend each other’s celebrations of victory over fascist powers in World War II. They have also extended invitations to the leaders of North and South Korea to attend the ceremonies. Beijing and Seoul have been particularly sensitive to visits by top Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine, which is associated with 14 Class-A war criminals and dedicated to 2.5 million soldiers from the Japanese Imperial era.

Abe invited criticism from a whole host of allies and neighbours when he visited the shrine in late-2013, prompting even Washington, Tokyo’s top ally, to frankly express how it was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours”.

Even Southeast Asian countries with a long history of constructive ties with Japan have chimed in. Most recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented that there is “a new generation in the Japanese government which wants Japan to be a normal country without wanting to assume responsibility [for historical atrocities]…”

Abe is deeply aware of the potential diplomatic fallout of his efforts to revise the constitution, and has accordingly sought to assuage lingering anxieties among neighbours. Recently, the Abe administration reiterated that it “upholds the position of previous cabinets regarding recognition of history as a whole”, particularly former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s formal statement -in August 1995 – of apology, where he expressed deepest regrets over Imperial Japan’s aggression, which caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations”.

Japan has convened a special panel of experts to advise Abe on his formal statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year. Washington and Tokyo are also working on a joint statement, underlining the immense importance of Abe’s diplomatic language ahead of highly emotionally charged ceremonies to be held in neighbouring countries in coming months.

Overall, Abe’s attempt to push ahead with his vision of a more proactive Japan will largely depend on his ability to navigate the ongoing memory wars and deep-seated historical animosities with estranged Asian countries. 

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist on Asian geopolitical/economic affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.