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Japan Faces a Crucial Test of Growing Military Role After Barbaric ISIS Murders

The recent, brutal beheadings of Japanese citizens Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto by members of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) have shocked and awakened the people of Japan to the growing threat of radical Islam, which may prove to be a turning point in the country’s global role.

The barbaric acts provoked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised that he would make the terrorists, “pay the price.” The question is, will Japan increase its role working with Western countries and allies against the global Islamist threat, or will it turn inward and isolate itself more from connection to the conflict?

Abe’s aggressive words have perplexed many in the Western media given what is seen as the “pacifist” and “isolationist” nature of Japanese foreign policy, largely constrained by a constitution that hampers military buildup. However, Japan appears to be on the cusp of taking on larger responsibilities in the fight against Islamic terrorism while also potentially filling a role as a counterbalance to a rising China and aggressive Russia, largely at the urging of Western leaders. Because of Japan’s increasing strategic importance, there will be a great deal of focus on Abe’s statements regarding the future of his country.

As analyst Robert Kaplan wrote, “Whatever Japan’s Constitution says, the decades of quasi-pacifism are long gone, and the ‘active pacifism’ proclaimed by the ruling Liberal Democrats amounts to a global declaration of full military normalization.”

But the Abe Administration has sometimes fallen into the trap of opening up old historical wounds related to World War II which could undermine Japan’s successful move toward greater independence and security responsibilities. Abe, grandson of Kishi Nobusuke—a prominent official during the war who was accused of being a war criminal—has made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, aggravating South Korea. The shrine contains the names of prominent Class A war criminals such as Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Abe will be making an important statement later this year regarding the 70th anniversary of World War II and his country’s international role since that time. To fully grasp the challenges facing Japan and its Western allies, it is important to understand the history of Japanese foreign policy beyond the 70 years that have passed since Imperial Japan was defeated in World War II. Though a growing Japanese military role may generally be a positive for the United States and the pacific region, there are reasonable concerns given the results of the last Japanese deviation from isolation.

Beginning in the mid-17th century, Japan shut itself off from the world due to its fear of Western influence and power. Visitors, even accidentally shipwrecked foreigners, were treated as felons and dealt with harshly. European nations attempted to open trade with the hermit nation in the early 19th century, without success. However, in the early 1850s, an American naval expedition commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry shook Japan out of its isolation and sent the country on the perhaps the fastest modernization campaign in human history. Influential Japanese leaders marveled at the powerful military steamships that entered the Bay of Yedo (later named Tokyo) and quickly understood that Japan would be powerless against such weapons.

Commodore Perry ended up making a treaty that brought Japan into a close friendly relationship with the United States. Historian Thomas A. Bailey wrote of Commodore Perry’s mission in A Diplomatic History of the American People, “In achieving his aims, he fired no shot, as he might well have done, and left with little or no rancor. His statesmanlike diplomacy not only won respect of the Japanese but laid the foundation of the famous ‘historic friendship.’”

Japan reentered the international picture as a friend of the United States, and immediately embarked upon the project of modernizing its political institutions, economy, and military. This came at a fortuitous time, as a powerful Russian flotilla made an appearance near Nagasaki a month after Perry arrived. Bailey noted that, “If the Land of the Rising Sun had continued its exclusion-seclusion policy, it might have soon been dismembered by Russia, for the scattered islands were far more vulnerable to naval attack than the sprawling Chinese Empire.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan did more than modernize its technology to match Western standards. The country also tried to duplicate Western values, such as respecting individual rights and democracy. Though it may seem perplexing to those who have studied Japan’s actions toward POWs in World War II, the country was noted for its humane treatment of enemies in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In fact, one foreign observer wrote that “Russian prisoners are much better off in Japan than Russian administrative exiles are in Siberia. In other words, Japan treats her enemies better than Russia does her subjects.”

Gavan Daws wrote in Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific that in their war with Russia Japan wanted to be seen as “people of elevated morality in the modern world, fitted to make twentieth-century war in a civilized way, up to Western standards.” Daws continued, “Prisoners of war of the emperor, the Japanese regulations said, were to be treated with a spirit of goodwill, never subjected to cruelty or humiliation, et cetera. And that is how the Russians were treated.”

However, this Japanese policy changed dramatically along with the direction of the Japanese people in the early 20th century, and by the 1930s the island nation almost entirely rejected Western values.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote about the incredible transformation in Japan in his book, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power, and its unfortunate reversal in the 1930s.

Hanson wrote:

In one of the more remarkable revolutions in the history of arms, Japan found herself in more than a quarter century (1870-1904) the near military equal of the best of European powers… The Japanese mainland was unchanging—before, during, and after its miraculous century-long military ascendency—but what was not static was its radical nineteenth-century emulation of elements of the Western tradition completely foreign to its native heritage.

According to Hanson, many Japanese came to have an “ambiguous attitude about their own breakneck efforts at Westernization” according to Hanson. He wrote that “Most unfortunate was the official stance of the Japanese government that slowly sought to form a systematic apology for the admitted incongruity of a country adopting wholesale the technology and industrial process of an entirely different—and purportedly corrupt and barbaric—culture.”

Hanson wrote that the eventual answer to this problem was “framed in mostly racist and chauvinistic terms: Europeans were derided not merely as decadent, ugly, smelly, and self-centered, but also innately spoiled, pampered, and soft—lazy men who triumphed only through clever inventions and machines rather than the inherent courage of their manhood.”

In a new, and enlightening book, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, historian Eri Hotta describes the transformation of Japan in the 1920s and the ultimate reasons Japan decided to strike Pearl Harbor and initiate a catastrophic war with the United States.

Hotta explained how many in Japan became disillusioned with the tenants of liberal internationalism and felt that Western powers were unduly restraining them from their broader imperial ambitions. She wrote that dissenters in the nation “believed the so-called status-quo, or ‘have,’ powers, especially Britain and the United States, were bent on keeping Japan from achieving true greatness because they were selfish or racist,” she continued. “In the late 1920s and 1930s, when Japan faced severe social problems stemming from a deepening economic depression, such a claim gained currency.”

Initially for Japan, becoming a great power was not simply about becoming “industrialized and militarized” according to Hotta. It was also about “playing by the rules and gaining international respectability.” However, by the 1930s, “such modesty and humility had been willfully forgotten by most Japanese. Its success as a modern nation-state, coupled with historical resentment over having been treated unfairly by the West,” lead the country to believe that it could pull through international crisis through “sheer force of determination.”

The powerful and expansive nation returned to its “old chivalric code of Bushido, the Shinto idea of a chosen Japanese people,” writes Hanson, which transitioned to the “harsh and patently racist idea in the industrial age that foreigners were weak and cowardly and fair game for the worst sort of atrocities when war broke out.”

Outside of Japan, the brutality with which the Japanese treated POWs and conquered peoples is well documented and uncontroversial as a matter of historical fact. However, the Japanese themselves have not come to terms with their war record and many lash out at any suggestion that the country did anything wrong during WWII.

For instance, Abe recently attacked an American textbook that mentioned the use of over 200,000 South Korean “comfort women” prostitutes by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Abe said, according to The New York Times, “I just looked at a document, McGraw-Hill’s textbook, and I was shocked. This kind of textbook is being used in the United States, as we did not protest the things we should have, or we failed to correct the things we should have.”

Incidents that downplay the cruelties of Imperial Japan–the protest over an uncontroversial Virginia textbook, the recent reaction to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, and the Prime Minister’s shine visits have damaged the potential of a longer-term defense buildup by causing other Asian allies, especially South Korea, to worry a modern return to 1930s style Japanese militarism is possible.

Likewise, Western statements painting an overly-flattering picture of the Japanese war record in World War II in an attempt to bolster relations between the countries is also a mistake. It both whitewashes history and insults victims, many still alive, who suffered at the hands of brutal captors. American and Australian POWs of the Japanese often remark that they could forgive but never forget what their Japanese captors did. Their country’s leaders should respect this and avoid needlessly distorting what occurred.

Nevertheless, it is also important for the United States and other allies of Japan to move beyond the constant appeal to past grievances and focus on larger threats such as the fast-rising China and global Islamist terrorism.

As Bruce Klingner of the the Heritage Foundation noted:

By embracing a greater role in its own security and that of its allies, Japan is not signaling a return to its militarism of the 1930s. Indeed, such reform will allow Japan to shed its self-imposed constraints against assisting allies under attack or developing a capability to repel Chinese maritime and amphibious incursions—developments that will help to stabilize the region. Any assertions to the contrary are factually wrong and designed to appeal to base emotional responses in China and South Korea.

The barbaric ISIS murders of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto are a perfect time for Japan to show more commitment to defense, alongside a commitment to Western values. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese military treated captured POWs with brutality and inhumanity as Islamists undoubtedly do in the 21st century. Military opponents and subjugated people of the Japanese had every right at that time to be outraged and demand retaliation, just as the Japanese today have every right to be outraged by the murder of their citizens in a similarly brutal manner.

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the defense challenges that poses will be an even bigger problem now that ISIS and other Islamic terrorists have Japan in their sights. So far, Abe’s response to the attack has only been to double down on sending humanitarian aid to countries that oppose ISIS, but he has proposed making larger changes to the way Japan handles defense.

Abe has suggested expanding the limits of deploying the country’s Self-Defense Forces to anywhere around the globe and creating a special forces unit similar to the Navy Seals. These changes, among others would allow Japan to deploy at least minimal force around the globe. Japan lacked a striking force and even significant contacts in the Middle East which made rescuing the two Japanese hostages from ISIS nearly impossible. Japan had to simply trust Jordan to find a way to save them.

If Abe and Western leaders carefully navigate the road to greater security, while acknowledging and avoiding the pitfalls of country’s history, Japan can be an asset in the war on global Islamist terrorism, not a menace such as they were in World War II. The coming months will be a crucial test of which direction the country will go.

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