I have to admit that I’m totally baffled by Japan’s spate of hard-line actions toward China and South Korea in the last couple of weeks. First came the dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo, those uninhabited islands in what Japan calls the Sea of Japan and South Korea calls the East Sea, during which Japan’s Shimane Prefecture went so far as to declare an official “Takeshima Day.” Then came the Japanese government’s approval of controversial textbooks that according to China and South Korea downplay Japanese atrocities during World War II. And now Japan has granted gas drilling rights in territory that China believes it owns.
Taken together, these moves are symptomatic of a rightward shift in Japanese politics. They are of a piece with Japanese moves to remilitarize and become more assertive as a major world power. And there is some justification to the Japanese view that after decades of good global citizenship, they should be allowed to move on once and for all from the nastiness of 60 years ago. Nor are the Japanese entirely wrong in feeling that South Korea and China need to meet Japan halfway, overcoming their own racism and accepting that the past is past.
What I can’t work out, though, is why Japan is stirring all of this up right now. As part of Japan’s growing assertiveness, they’ve made a bid for permanent membership on the Security Council. There is some chance that Japan might succeed, but to do so, it will need the votes (or at least abstentions) of all five existing Permanent Members of the Security Council — including China. Furthermore, South Korea has emerged as one of the most vigorous opponents of Japan’s aspirations. For Japan, stirring up anti-Japanese feeling in East Asia seems counterproductive, to say the least: conflict with China could completely kill Japan’s Security Council bid, while news videos of violent anti-Japanese protests across East Asia don’t exactly paint Japan as a respected regional leader.
So what on earth is Japan doing?