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Rise of the right in Japan

  • 24 February 2014

Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Tony Abbott was in an ebullient mood when he met his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Brunei in October.

Abbott repeated his view that Japan was Australia's 'best friend in Asia' (he had said so before, in 2010), and, more significantly, he endorsed the 'normal country' mantra used by Japan's conservatives to promote their nationalist agenda. (According to this formula, the war-renouncing constitution Japan adopted during the postwar occupation made it 'abnormal'.) For his part, Abe declared an ambition to take the bilateral relationship into a 'new phase', emphasising the 'basic values and strategic interests' shared by the two countries.

We can expect to hear more expressions of mutual regard when Abbott journeys to Japan in April and Abe reciprocates the visit in July, at which time it is expected that a free trade agreement will be signed. Australia and Japan are also moving to cement closer defence cooperation — a not-insignificant aspect of what Abe calls the 'new phase', or the new 'normal'.

When I was a correspondent in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s I was sometimes asked by visitors whether the country was swinging back to the right. Perhaps they had witnessed one of those vans belonging to a right-wing group cruising the streets of Tokyo broadcasting martial music and patriotic slogans.

I can remember interviewing Bin Akao, a notorious rightist, who was then in his 80s, and being struck by just how idiotic these throwback fascists sounded and appeared. The white-haired Akao squatted in front of an altar dedicated to the young fanatic who assassinated Japan's Socialist Party leader in 1960, with several of his aides lined up along the adjacent wall. It was more sickening than menacing, and seemed far removed from the prevailing attitudes and interests of the great majority of Japanese.

When I appeared in 1992 before a Senate committee in Canberra looking into these issues, I argued that Japan's defence ambitions were modest and profoundly constrained by a public aversion to all things military. No, Japan's extreme right might be noisy but it was largely irrelevant.

After 35 years following Japanese affairs I am coming around to a different view of the present situation. The danger comes, I think, not from the shady bellicose fringe, with its links to the yakuza and their fellow travellers, but from the political mainstream, supported by a broad shift in