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Abe here to spruik his invigorated Japan


Shinzo Abe

23 years ago I published a book called Serendipity City about a Japanese proposal to build a ‘multifunction polis’ in Australia: an urban development combining work and leisure, with the highest environmental values and modern amenities. The MFP was attacked from pillar to post. Critics on the Left likened it to Japan’s Manchurian adventure; critics on the Right warned of a flood of Asian immigration. 

I mention this bit of history to highlight the contrast between the hysteria then, when Japan came offering us a different sort of relationship, and the general complacency today when Australia and Japan are entering into economic and security commitments of greater consequence than any multifunction polis. 

In recent years this has produced a Security Co-operation Agreement, an Acquisition and Joint-Serving Agreement (facilitating joint military exercises and exchanges of military technology and hardware) and an Economic Partnership (aka ‘free trade’) Agreement. At a political level, especially since the return to power of conservative governments in both countries, relations have never been closer. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while in Canberra this week, is joining a meeting of the National Security Committee and address Parliament  –  the first Japanese leader to do so. Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who came this way in 1957, would describe Japan’s relationship with Australia as ‘the next closest’ after the United States. It seems we have come full circle, and the emergence of China has counted for nothing. 

Without wishing to be ungracious, however, what is Australia buying into with Abe?

On the plus side, he has undoubtedly lifted Japanese spirits after decades of economic malaise: industrial output is ticking up, deflation is receding and nominal wages are rising. But the economy is not out of the woods yet (energy imports have risen enormously since the nuclear reactors were shut down), and numerous structural impediments remain. 

On the negative side, Abe has done nothing to repair relations with China and South Korea damaged prior to his taking office. Indeed, he has made things worse. Abe is an unabashed nationalist who believes the pacifist constitution Japan adopted during the Allied Occupation has outlived its usefulness. His Cabinet’s recent decision to ‘reinterpret’ the constitution in order to embrace the right of ‘collective defence’, i.e. the right to fight alongside other powers to defend the nation, was taken despite majority public opposition. Abe could have put forward a constitutional amendment, but knowing this would fail he chose the less democratic route. Australia and the United States have both welcomed the change despite its legal fragility.

Abe’s perspective on modern history would also offend most Australians. He sits in the camp that believes Japan fought a defensive war and that the younger generation should be taught to admire past achievements rather than dwell on errors. Though his government has backed away from revising the Kono Statement of 1993, which admitted that the Imperial Japanese Army forced women (mainly Korean women) to work in military-run brothels, few would doubt that Abe disagrees.  

Another worrying aspect is his assiduous cultivation of senior news editors. He wines and dines them much more than his predecessors, ensuring his administration receives a softer ride than the former centre-left government. The national broadcaster, NHK, where Abe has installed a tame president, is conspicuous for its uncritical handling of contentious issues: another subject on which Shinzo and Tony might enjoy exchanging views.

While he is here, Abe is seeking to reassure Australians that a more assertive Japan will be better at keeping the peace than one hobbled by an outdated dependence on others for security – he has said so to his own people. Perhaps he is right. Canberra, on the whole, thinks he is. Abe and Abbott will adopt a series of measures for strengthening joint military exercises, enhancing people-to-people exchanges, deepening co-operation on humanitarian support and disaster relief, maritime security, peacekeeping operations and capacity building, as well as stronger trilateral security co-operation. The first specific areas suitable for transfer of defence equipment and technology will be discussed (despite speculation, it is too early for anything substantial to be agreed, such as a joint submarine project), and an announcement is possible on the first use by the Japanese military of training facilities on the Australian mainland. The formal signing of the ‘free trade’ agreement, and television news coverage of the two leaders touring the iron ore-rich Pilbara will provide suitably grand images of new bonanzas ahead. 

It promises to be a full-course meal that Australians would be advised to chew over well.

Walter Hamilton headshotWalter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.

Topic tags: Walter Hamilton, Shinzo Abe, Tony Abbott, Japan, free trade, defence, international relations



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Existing comments

Japan, like Turkey and unlike Germany, has never accepted and integrated its Shadow. I like the country and I like the people. Accepting what happened in WW 2 will be very difficult for many because it means losing face. This is a dishonour. This is a Japanese problem. Australia can help by not airbrushing things just to get help with our next submarine project; overall defence and economic needs. The Japanese respect us, we should respect them. As with all Asian people there is a way of getting things across without seeming like Les Patersons. We also need to look to our own national security. This entails many things.

Edward Fido | 08 July 2014  

The war was a long time ago; they have made their apologies and we don`t now need to rub their noses in it. Japan plays Rugby Union; we have so much to sustain our relationship with, especially when they join super 18!

Eugene | 09 July 2014  

Like always, it seems that Japan and Germany are the only countries ever having done anything wrong during war times. It seems to escape a lot of people that Mussolini in Abyssinia, Stalin across Europe and dear Queen Victoria across Africa and the India were not behaving like saints. I believe that we should leave history where it belongs, in the past. It is in Australia's best interest that all our friends are strong and therefore it will be less likely that our country will be dragged into other future conflicts.

Beat Odermatt | 09 July 2014  

Let us pray for P M Abbott ---that his affirmative political experience and his forthright approach to life will support him in these delicate negotiations – that with his skills & God’s grace benefit will come to all .

Placid Pete | 09 July 2014  

This is geopolitics, who is siding with who, America will protect Japan from China, Australia will follow America, Indonesia?, we all want those barren rocks, filled with oil, gas and minerals. Japan seems very strongly 'nationalisticly conservative' and arrogant.

Jude Silber | 09 July 2014  

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