Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to amend the Constitution and the current trade skirmish between Japan and South Korea can be traced back to history—a history that Japan seeks to put behind, but so far with little success.
Japan, the quiet sentinel of Asia, lives in the future and yet cannot quite extricate itself from the past—caught in the net of history whilst seeking to escape it. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to amend the Constitution and the current trade skirmish between Japan and South Korea can be traced back to history—a history that Japan seeks to put behind, but so far with little success.
In fact, Japan’s new era, the Reiwa era (literally, beautiful harmony), began May 2019 with the abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Emperor Akihito. The abdication marked the end of the three decades of the Heisei era (peace everywhere). With the Tokyo Olympics 2020 scheduled next year, there is much optimism in the air—an understanding that it will repeat for Japan what Tokyo Olympics 1964 did, which boosted its economic renaissance.
Japan’s aspirations reflect in the winds of its domestic politics under the 64-year-old Abe, now in his seventh year of office. In fact, the years of political instability seem to have passed. If Abe stays in office until November 2019 (which is a certainty), he will surpass 2,886 days in office (tolled by PM Taro Katsura in the early 20th century) and become Japan’s longest-serving PM in history. Some achievements, as Abe articulated at Davos 2019, are growth in Japanese GDP by 10.9% (in his six years of office), female labour participation hitting 67% and an ageing population (above 65) accessing job opportunities. But observers such as political scientist Lully Miura say that Abe continues to be in power because of “an exceptional combination of specific conditions,” including his foreign policy and the administration managing its public image carefully.
But it is Abe who has sought to turn a page in Japan’s constitutional history, seeking an amendment for the first time in its 72-year history. Japan’s surrender in the Second World War led to a postwar pacifist Constitution. Despite being a formidable power in its own right, Japan is dependent on the US for defence—it is bound to the US by a defence treaty (1951, revised in 1960) where the US has military bases in Japan in exchange of protecting Japan in case of an attack. Abe and his allies have sought a revision of the Constitution, seeking the formalisation of Japan’s de facto military, Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which would entail parting with the Article 9 (no-war clause) of the Constitution. Article 9 says that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained.”
The recent July elections to the upper house of Parliament (House of Councillors) impacted amendment. Of the 124 seats, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito won 71 seats (57+14), and the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) 53 seats in the 245-member house. The parties in favour of amending the Constitution, the LDP and allies Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) and Komeito (total of 157 seats), fell short of the two-third ‘super-majority’ (164 seats) needed to initiate the amendment. A day after the elections, Abe sought to keep the issue alive by discussing it. He now seeks amendment in 2020. The issue of Japan remilitarisation continues to be alive. The public increasingly believes that Japan is vulnerable, ineffectual and impotent as a balance to a rising China, which boasts considerable military prowess.
History is also at play in Japan-South Korea relations, both staunch US allies, but who cannot see eye to eye. Japan and South Korea have several common concerns, including the security dilemma in the Northeast peninsula (North Korea and China), but a trilateral (US-Japan-South Korea) has not been forthcoming. Relations between the two are rocky because of ‘historical animosity’ that dates back to Japanese colonisation of the peninsula (1910-45). In fact, the recent move by Japan to strike South Korea off its ‘white list’ (of 27 preferential trade partners) effective August 28 is not because of a trade dispute per se, but because of history.
The dispute sparked when the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies Nippon Steel, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nachi Fujikoshi compensate wartime forced labour. Japan views this as flogging the acrimonious past. As Japan views it, this was resolved in 1965 when relations were normalised, and in terms of reparations, Japan paid $2.4 billion by way of loans and aid to Korea.
But the issue of forced wartime Korean labour in mines and factories, the forced prostitution of Korean women to provide sexual services to the Japanese army—‘comfort women’—and the plight of the Koreans who continue to stay in Japan (regarded as second-class citizens) has haunted bilateral ties. In 2015, President Park Geun-hye inked what Japan called a deal to “finally and irreversibly” settle the issue of ‘comfort women’ through a $9-million deal, which many viewed as a pittance. In 2018, the foundation that Japan funded to support and provide funds to the ‘comfort women’ was dissolved.
Japan was alarmed with the decision of the South Korean court to order the seizure of Japanese assets, which it viewed as damaging Japanese trade and investment in South Korea. Citing ‘national security grounds’ of ‘declining trust’ between the two, Japan slapped exports to South Korea with restrictions. Japan has targeted three chemicals (hydrogen fluoride, fluorinated polyimide and photoresists) used by South Korean companies in smartphone displays and chips. This will disrupt the supply chain of South Korea’s semiconductor, display (electronics) and automobile industry, and companies such as Samsung, SK Hynix and LG will be affected. Japanese exports to South Korea now need case-by-case approval.
South Korea has responded with strong public opinion and visible nationalist outrage, and has accused Japan of ‘weaponising trade’. South Korean customers are boycotting Japanese products in the supermarkets, and South Korea wants to stop military-intelligence sharing with Japan, which has implications on the security of the peninsula. But Japan is unrelenting.
The issue shows no immediate signs of abating, with the US unable to resolve the acrimony of the past. While the US will eventually step in and resolve the posturing, for South Korea, with legislative elections in April 2020 round the corner, backing down may indicate ‘loss of face’. The biggest trade dispute of recent times, the US-China dispute, is tied to forced technology transfer and intellectual property rights. But for Asia’s quiet sentinel Japan—be it constitutional amendment or trade dispute with South Korea—both are tied to its long and arduous struggle to emerge from the pages of history. The US and now Japan are cases in point of the new dynamics in international relations, where economics is a powerful instrument of political arm-twisting, and so is history.
(The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal)