Recent news from Southeast Asia has been dominated by maritime conflicts, and then trade negotiations in second place. However, nature has once again reminded us all that it is not just conflicts among nations that threaten the life and property of citizens. The reminder has come in the shape of a terrible typhoon, known as Haiyan or Yolanda.
Japan is taking a major step in its military strategy, conducting a large-scale amphibious drill designed to put on display its ability to conquer an island. This follows Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated references to the Falklands in his speeches, a polite and indirect, yet unequivocal way, of warning China that an “invasion” of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands would be met with an amphibious counterstrike.
As anyone who studies Japanese political history of the 1930s can attest, the rightwing forces in this nation can be a fractious lot. Once the spirit of nationalism rages, any sort of moderate, compromising behavior can be denounced as treason. Shinzo Abe came to power as a spokesman for the hard right, but after ten months of reasonably cautious behavior, a good chunk of this movement is ready to turn against him.
The people who wrote this constitution lived in a world more dangerous than ours. They were surrounded by territory controlled by hostile powers, on the edge of a vast wilderness. Yet they understood that even in perilous times the strength of self-government was public debate and public consensus. To put aside these basic values out of fear, to imitate the foe in order to defeat him, is to shred the distinction that makes us different.
Deputy Prime Minister-cum-Finance Minister-cum-Minister of Financial Services Taro Aso, who is a former prime minister, grandson of the legendary Shigeru Yoshida, and related by his sister’s marriage to the imperial family, is increasingly becoming an international laughingstock and a political embarrassment to the Abe administration. After his latest gaffe, there is widespread speculation that Abe will simply dump him from the cabinet in the reshuffle expected next month.
Since we are based in Tokyo and not in Washington DC, we may not be the best source available for understanding US government policy, even its policy toward Japan and Asia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration is taking an unexpectedly cool posture toward Shinzo Abe and his band, and that this is having a major political effect here as well. It is also obvious that the Obama policy toward Japan is radically different than what US policy was a decade ago under George W. Bush.
After about a year of hanging about in the background, the issue of Japan’s participation in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations was suddenly thrust back into the front rank of political debate. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has been in favor of Japan’s participation in TPP negotiations all along, as was his predecessor Naoto Kan. However, it appears that Noda decided to soft-pedal the matter late last year as he faced the daunting challenge of raising the national consumption tax, a divisive issue within the ruling party that he saw as the bigger priority.
The long string of incidents off the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands this summer and the wider maritime territorial disputes in East and Southeast Asia have been overshadowing a major development with great potential implications for Japan: The northern sea route, linking East Asia with Europe through waters traditionally closed by ice to commercial navigation, are increasingly accessible during the Arctic summer thanks to the global warming.
Perhaps the law is a subject better left to lawyers and courts, but the reality is that the law often collides with international politics as well, so it can never be completely ignored. We couldn’t help but notice that there were two court cases this month in which a judge in a foreign nation made some claim upon Japan, but that the domestic reaction was entirely different.