Is Japan making a sharp turn to the right? Appearances can be deceptive, especially during a political campaign when jingoistic posturing grabs attention. But talk is cheap. Polls indicate that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the conservative nationalist party that ruled Japan for much of the past half century, will win the most seats in the Dec 16 elections for the lower house of the Diet and is likely to win an outright majority.
Shinzo Abe, 58, the former LDP prime minister infamous for denigrating comments about the comfort women and nicknamed KY (clueless), seems to be a lock for a second term. It would be a mistake, however, to read this prospect as grassroots support for Abe's hard-line foreign policy. The LDP's victory will owe more to the disappointing performance of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and voter frustration with festering economic problems than to nationalism run amok. The government recently confirmed that the Japanese economy has slumped into another recession, and households are feeling the pinch. In such times of trouble, Japanese voters seek refuge in the familiar. And what could be more familiar than the party that ran Japan for five decades of nearly uninterrupted rule?
None of this means that Abe will shy away from claiming a mandate for his hawkish agenda. He has promised to boost the status and budget of the military forces, reinterpret and revise the constitution to remove constraints on the military, station government personnel on a chain of disputed islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China), and bolster patriotic education in schools. He visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in October and has repeatedly lambasted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for not standing up to China. "We will strongly appeal to voters on the need to restore the Japan-U.S. alliance, which was badly damaged by the Democratic Party government. That will help us defend our beautiful country, territories and national interests," he vowed in November.
Abe, who first came to office in September 2006, was the most ideological premier in Japan's post-WWII era, but was forced out of office by party elders in September 2007 because he was seen as out of touch on bread-and-butter economic issues. He seems to have learned his lesson: In this campaign, he has touted plans to revive the economy through inflation targeting and massive quantitative easing, appealing to voters who are desperate for improvement and willing to gamble on Abe's aggressive plans to force the Bank of Japan to further ease its already loose monetary policy.
None of which is to say that Japan's rightward shift is a myth. In April, Shintaro Ishihara, 80, then the querulous, nationalistic governor of Tokyo, announced plans to buy three of the Senkaku islands from their private owner and raised nearly $20 million in public donations to do so. The central government, sensing a problem and seeking to pre-empt Ishihara's plans, announced in July that it would buy the islands instead, and sealed the deal in September.
Beijing was furious, and violent anti-Japan protests erupted around China -- the worst anti-Japanese outbursts in decades. Chinese patrol vessels also made numerous incursions into Japanese-claimed waters, while angry rhetoric from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stoked the row. Many events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties were cancelled, as were several grassroots exchange programs and conferences.
China's anger was partly due to feelings of betrayal. Since a flare-up in tensions in 2010 over the islands, Beijing and Tokyo had agreed to dial down the rhetoric and shelve the issue. And so it had gone until Ishihara, looking to provoke tensions with China as a way of boosting nationalism in Japan, made his move. Tokyo meant well: It intended to marginalize Ishihara and prevent him from further disrupting bilateral relations, but Beijing saw instead a blatant disregard for the 2010 understanding.
The Chinese reaction played badly in Japan. A Pew poll taken in June indicated that favorable perceptions of China among Japanese had declined from 34 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. A Japanese government poll taken in November indicates that 81 percent of Japanese have negative views of China, prompted by the territorial dispute.
Nationalists have sought to take advantage of the shifting public mood -- portraying not just the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, but also the standoffs with Southeast Asian nations over islands and reefs in the South China Sea as emblematic of Beijing's increased assertiveness and unilateralism. Japanese conservatives insist that the DPJ has been too soft in dealing with China and that signs of reasonableness are taken as signs of weakness.
The nationalists have a point. Over the past two decades, China's military spending has increased by double digits annually, and was equivalent to about 2 percent of GDP over the past decade, funding a sweeping modernization that has boosted capabilities enormously. The Chinese military has benefitted from a sweeping technological overhaul, and now boasts a new stealth fighter jet, a Russian aircraft carrier, and an advanced anti-ship ballistic missile program. That worries Japanese policymakers -- as does the sense that China is beginning to flex its muscles in the region, diminishing Japan's regional clout. The election campaign has featured fiery rhetoric about the threat posed by China, as Ishihara warns crowds that Japan had better wake up before it becomes another Tibet.
Yet the mainstream public has remained relatively calm, and there has been no upsurge in grassroots nationalism, although xenophobic tirades are common on the Japanese Internet. As in the 2005 and 2010 flare-ups, there have been no attacks on Chinese interests in Japan or anti-Chinese demonstrations. Voters are anxious about a rising China, but don't seem to be responding to the identity politics offered up by politicians. In this sense, there is a profound disconnect between elite alarmism and public quietude.
Ishihara's antics have succeeded in one respect, however: pushing the LDP and public discourse to the right on foreign policy. During the party's presidential elections in September, which Abe won in the second round, each of the candidates vied to stake out the hardest line on the Senkakus dispute. Ishihara, meanwhile, resigned as governor and launched a new party that merged with the Japan Restoration Party established by Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka. These two nationalist firebrands will work hard to keep the LDP honest and prevent the moderate backsliding that usually occurs when a hard-line candidate becomes national leader.
But, does the public support this nationalist agenda? Not really. Like in the United States, foreign policy doesn't decide Japanese elections. Polls suggest that the economy, the doubling of the consumption tax, social security reforms, and nuclear energy are the primary concerns of voters. They seem more cautious than the conservative elite about saber rattling, mindful of the steep costs inflicted on Japanese companies exporting to or operating in China over the past several months. Polls suggest a majority oppose Abe's plans to bolster the military. And there is little enthusiasm for revising the pacifist constitution. Instead, Abe will probably secure a reinterpretation of the constitution to stretch the envelope of what is deemed constitutional, without tabling legislation or revision, allowing for expanded security cooperation with the United States.
Nor is it clear that Abe will be as hawkish as his rhetoric suggests. Last time he was premier, he quickly moved to thaw ties with China by visiting Beijing. There are hopes that he will again try to hit the reset button on bilateral ties and reach out to China's new leadership. But will he carry through on his campaign pledge to station government officials on the Senkakus? Probably not. Doing so will ensure heightened tensions and sabotage prospects for developing a mutually acceptable modus vivendi for managing this dispute, one that has harmed both nations economically.
That scenario relies heavily on a rational assessment of economic costs and benefits that may not prevail. Although the territorial feud started as a fight over island resources, it has morphed into a zero-sum game involving national identity. The Japanese public may not be keen to provoke escalation, but leaders are alarmed about China running roughshod in the region. And on the other side, unresolved historical grievances continue to resonate powerfully among Chinese, limiting the leadership's room for maneuver.
The most dangerous wild card is Ishihara, the man who ignited the current crisis with China and will now have a national platform to launch his broadsides and work against any meeting of minds. What will he do for an encore?