Japanese destroyer during a naval fleet review. (Yuriko Nakao / Courtesy Reuters)
Over the past year, as Japan has engaged in ugly territorial tussles with China and South Korea, outside observers have fretted about the country's shift to the right. That trend seemed to be confirmed by the election of the conservative Shinzo Abe, who returned to office as prime minister last December, having previously served in that role in 2006-7. Given Abe's hawkish statements on the campaign trail, some concluded that his return to power meant that Japan would suddenly turn the page on the pacifist strategy it has pursued since World War II, charting a more muscular and nationalistic course. The Economist boldly asserted that Abe's "scarily right-wing" cabinet is full of "radical nationalists," which "bodes ill for the region." According to this narrative, Tokyo will look to further contain China and North Korea and take a tougher diplomatic stance with South Korea and Russia.
This argument is based on several shaky pillars. First is the fear that Abe's government is revising Japan's treatment of its wartime history, signaling a newly confrontational posture. China and South Korea are concerned that Abe will continue, in spite of their protests, to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan's war dead, including those from World War II. (Abe last visited the shrine last October, as leader of the opposition.) Whether the perception is accurate or not, Yasukuni remains a symbol to South Korea and China that Japan is not interested in coming to grips with its expansionist past. Seoul and Beijing further fear that Abe will repudiate or amend the Murayama and Kono statements -- official apologies that previous Japanese administrations made for the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II.
The second reason outsiders expect Japan to take a hawkish turn is the growing tension in Northeast Asia. During his election campaign, Abe assumed a firm stance on Japan's territorial disputes with China, South Korea, and