• Abe and Okinawa’s Governor Square Off on U.S. Base Plans

    March 23, 2016 // 2 Comments »

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    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the governor of Okinawa Takeshi Onaga agreed in early March to take a dispute over the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (seen above) out of the courts and back offline to the negotiating table.

    Abe “accepted” a freeze on construction work at a contentious new location planned for the base as part of the agreement, though work had already been put on hold while Tokyo and Okinawa fought a legal battle over the site.


    The deal is only the latest step in a more than two decade long tussle by Japanese and American officials to move the base. National officials want to move the base to a less crowded part of the island, but Onaga and a majority of Okinawans oppose the plan because they want the Marines moved off Okinawa altogether, to Guam. Currently, about half of all American military personnel assigned to Japan are on Okinawa.

    Also, a group of 70 prominent Americans, including filmmaker Oliver Stone, have signed a petition criticizing U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy for her backing of the plan to relocate the Marine Corps base.

    Adding to the complexity, the proposed relocation site on Okinawa, Henoko, would see a pair of runways built on landfill in what is now a pristine coral-filled bay.



    Okinawa, Tokyo and the Americans

    Memories on Okinawa are long, and anger over the relationship among the island, the central Japanese government and the Americans runs deep.

    For centuries the Okinawan people have seen themselves as separate from mainland Japanese. The islanders have their own native language, a long, unique, cultural tradition and, many believe, even a completely different genetic makeup than “the Japanese.” Natives refer to the archipelago as the Ryukyu Islands, not Okinawa. Feelings that the island is ruled by mainland, but is not a part of it, are widely-held.

    Tangled in all that is a belief that Okinawa was the scene of some of the WWII’s bloodiest land fighting, with massive civilian casualties, because Tokyo was prepared to sacrifice the island to slow down the overall American advance towards the home islands. It was Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who spread rumors among the local people that the Americans would slaughter them, forcing mothers to watch their children die. Whole grades from a girls’ school leapt off a cliff together into the sea.

    In 1951, America formally annexed the island of Okinawa, running it under the control of an American governor until the place was “returned” to the Tokyo government in 1972. During this period of time, massive American bases were established, ultimately to consume a significant percentage of the useable land area of Okinawa. In the 1950s when they were established, a fair number of the facilities were on the outskirts of urban areas, but growth over the years has seen the cities envelope the bases such that transport planes land at rooftop level over homes, and fighter jets crack the skies at night. Add to that the steady beat of crimes American military personnel commit on Okinawa, to include several high-profile rape cases. It is not a pretty picture.



    Art of the (Non-) Deal

    There is no end in sight to the conflict among Tokyo, the U.S., and Okinawa.

    Abe and Onaga have not budged from their fundamental positions. “Relocating to Henoko is still the only option,” Abe said. Onaga insists he will not “allow a new base to be built at Henoko.”

    This month’s deal only requires Tokyo and Okinawa to drop their competing lawsuits and return to negotiations; there is no timetable for the talks. Japanese and American officials had hoped to move Futenma to its new location on Henoko Bay by 2023. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the United States Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the move would be delayed to 2025 or later.

    Some media outlets have played this story as a victory for one side or another. That is a false narrative; instead, following a long-used Japanese negotiating strategy, both sides chose to withdraw, waiting for an opening to allow them to reengage the attack under more favorable circumstances.

    With that in mind, 2025 is probably a very optimistic estimate.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Military

    The Consequences of a Newly-Militarized Japan

    September 2, 2015 // 12 Comments »

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    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing through legislation to give his country’s military the power to strike offensively for the first time since the war.

    It is hard to understate the potential impact of this development.



    The What

    Domestically, Abe is putting his own job on the line. Voters oppose the new legislation roughly two to one, opposition parties walked out of the vote in protest and the government’s support ratings fell to around 40 percent. The lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the legislation set off the largest demonstrations in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear accident; a crowd of 100,000 people gathered with signs reading “Abe, Quit.”

    Abe took this action knowing that 55 years ago similar protests forced his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, out of the prime minister’s job after he rammed a revised U.S.-Japan security pact, seen as too militaristic, through parliament.

    Abe’s move is also darkly symbolic both in and outside Japan.

    Most Japanese remain proud of Article 9 in their postwar constitution, through which they became the only nation in modern times to renounce the use of offensive force. Abe’s walking his country away from this achievement represents the end of the last great ideal to emerge from World War Two, and an almost contemptuous disregard for his citizens’ view of themselves.

    In addition, as China contests islands in the seas south of Japan, North Korea rattles its nuclear saber and Japan’s Southeast Asian neighbors remember their own World War Two experiences, the new legislation throws additional fuel onto the coals of East Asian tensions. China’s foreign ministry said the move called into question Japan’s postwar commitment to “the path of peaceful development” and urged Abe to learn the lessons of history.

    Chief among the practical concerns in Japan is that Abe’s legislative end-run around the constitution will block case-by-case debate on the use of the nation’s military.

    For example, Japan’s only post-World War Two deployment of troops abroad, a single battalion to Iraq in 2004 in support of U.S. reconstruction efforts, met intense scrutiny to the point where the government published images of the small arms the soldiers carried, which were to be used only for self-protection, to assure the public of its non-martial intent. A separate, one-time-only law, passed in the wake of 9/11 to allow Japan to refuel American ships in the Indian Ocean, restricted Japanese vessels to “areas where no combat is taking place.”

    The new legislation does not immediately become law. The measure moves to the upper house, where no vote is expected to be taken. After 60 days, the measure will automatically return to the lower chamber, where Abe’s coalition holds a comfortable majority. In theory, the decision could then be challenged in the supreme court as being in violation of Article 9, though the court historically rules in favor of the government.



    The Why

    That addresses the “what.” The “why” remains much harder to discern.

    Abe says the legislation is in response to threats facing Japan, including from China. He also cites the murder of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State, suggesting his military could have rescued them. While these views play well to the ultranationalists who help fund the prime minister’s party, Abe’s critics see them as blather; American security guarantees protect Japan without a (Japanese, at least) thumb in the eye of its neighbors. And even if Japan had the special-forces capability to pull off a hostage rescue, such an action seems well within the intent of Article 9.

    Abe also says that the new legislation would allow Japan to help defend the United States, something his critics feel could lead to entanglements in U.S. aggression against China, or even in the Middle East. Abe’s own arguments about defending Japan aside, one real factor is the United States pushing the leader into a more aggressive stance under the banner of “collective defense.”

    However, the real “why” likely rests deep inside Abe. He has long held a hyper-conservative view of World War Two. He stated, for example, that Japanese leaders charged with war crimes were “not war criminals under the laws of Japan.” American occupiers arrested Abe’s grandfather, Kishi, as a war criminal for his role in the war. Some say Kishi, who helped raise Abe, pressed into his grandson his own dream of remaking Japan as a military power and throwing off the postwar constitution.

    Abe is a politician who found himself powerful enough to act on his own ideas, apart from what many feel are his nation’s legitimate security needs. Abe is apparently willing to pick a fight, risk his job and anger his country, all in service to his own ideology.




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    Posted in Embassy/State, Military

    Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Won’t Apologize

    September 1, 2015 // 10 Comments »

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    As part of the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the Pacific, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in a nationally-televised event about the deep remorse his nation felt over the events of the war.

    While many in Japan seem satisfied that Abe appropriately helped put the past in its place, most outside Japan expressed disappointment in his well-chosen words.

    Did Abe accidentally miss the mark in his speech, or did he purposefully hit his target dead on?


    Abe’s speech emphasized remorse. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He acknowledged Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” when it “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”

    But in the same text, Abe also said “we must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” emphasizing that 80% of Japan’s population was born after 1945. He blamed the western colonial powers for entering Asia in the 19th century, and mentioned Japan’s civilian casualties in the specific — Hiroshima, Tokyo, Okinawa — without touching on events such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, which took 300,000 Chinese lives, the importation of Koreans into Japan for forced labor and the sexual enslavement of 200,000 so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia.

    Criticism of Abe’s speech from abroad was sharp. China’s Xinhua news agency said the speech was insincere, and his “adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard.” Abe, Xinhua said, sought to “close the page of history.” In South Korea, which calls August 15, the day of Japan agreed to surrender to the U.S., Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye said Abe’s statement “left much to be desired.”


    The duality of Abe’s words was not by any accident, and he took great pains to ensure any explanations or condolences would not be confused for an apology. Why?


    Whenever a senior Japanese leader speaks of the war, he must parse out where he will create offense, because in the pattern that has evolved in East Asia, no Japanese leader can satisfy both his domestic and international audiences. He must decide where to spend his points.

    Abe’s choice fell solidly on the domestic side, not unexpected given his drive to remilitarize Japan. The word “apology” in the context of the war is seen by conservatives in Japan, which include many of the wealthy donors who support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party party, as near-profanity. The same for specific mentions of events such as Nanjing or Japan’s system of sexual slavery; many in the far right-wing in Tokyo still deny those events took place. Abe referring to Japan’s own losses as he mentioned Japan’s victims, was a sop to his supporters and, by Asian sensibilities, a slap in the face to those who died under Japan’s hand.

    Some in Japan will respond by asking how many times must they apologize for events that most young people in Japan barely know about. The answer lies in comparing Japan’s post-war actions to Germany’s.

    Japanese textbooks still gloss over the war. Japan has a poor record of providing compensation to the sex slaves and care to the Korean victims of the atomic bombs.

    Abe appointed unapologetic revisionists to high-profile posts, and has made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted of war crimes are enshrined along with millions of fallen soldiers and sailors. The Shrine also hosts a museum of World War II artifacts, including a locomotive from occupied Manchuria seen as an endorsement of Japanese colonial ambitions. Though with no connection to Abe, many in Asia are also acutely aware that World War II Emperor Hirohito’s son sits on the throne in Japan.

    Unlike in Germany, what happened was never kneaded into Japan’s national consciousness, something that underlies Abe’s recent speech, and actions as Prime Minister.

    Understanding Abe’s speech, and Japan’s actions, through Chinese or Korean eyes can be difficult. But imagine a German government beholden to Holocaust deniers, one that deletes its Nazi legacy from textbooks, one that never apologized and compensated its victims, and one where the Prime Minister made a yearly pilgrimage to a site holy to the National Socialists, perhaps with an attached museum featuring rail cars from Dachau. All with Hitler’s son as the symbolic head of state.

    So when a Japanese Prime Minister stands to speak of the Pacific War, he speaks in a type of code, including certain words he knows will please his domestic audience, and knowingly leaving out many others whose omissions offend and inflame much of his international listeners. Shinzo Abe choose his words with great care, and hit his target this time dead solid perfect.



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    Posted in Embassy/State, Military