A worrying vibe in Japan

Toru Hashimoto. That’s a name we might hear more in coming weeks. He is the mayor of Osaka. In the current election in Japan, he has aligned with author, nationalist and former mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara to form the Japan Restoration Party. They are hoping for a sizable showing in Japan’s elections.

Hashimoto (and Ishihara) wants to turn the page on the endless backroom consensus politics endemic in Japan and “restore” the nation’s pride. Hashimoto is anti-nuclear power but pro- military. He wants to reform parts of Japan’s economy and social state. Oh, yeah, he thinks that to jumpstart Japan’s reform, the nation needs a dictator checked by a legislature, elections, the media. “Politics must be by dictatorship within this balance,” he has said.

And yet, in a country that has been adrift in a world of mainly depoliticised consensus, you can see how his politics may have some allure. His critics call his politics Hashism. Ishihara, for his part, has once denied the Rape of Nanking occured. Much more recently he helped esclate the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with China.

And look at the linkages.

Politicians who wants to restore Japan’s pride, facing a larger Asian nation/antagonist that by a huge coincidence, wants to reassert its top place in the pecking order in Asia. On the Japanese side there is the feeling of impotence after years of post-war US occupation followed by economic stagnation. For the Chinese, not only is there the deeply held belief that the country is finally assuming its rightful place, there is still a living memory for the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese.

What could possibly go wrong here?

The JRP is not expected to win a majority although it may place second in the vote. How well it fares will say a lot about the current desire for glory in Japan.

Keep your eye on the Japanese elections

After the US election and the leadership transition in China, Japan has called an election. Look for surprises. With Japanese democracy long in a slump, the country on its sixth government in five years, and an economy slowly shrinking and stalling, Japan generally has fallen off the global news radar. With tensions swirling in the East China and South China Seas, expect Japanese politicians to have plenty to say on these topics.

In the current election cycle, the ominously named Japan Restoration Party, currently polling in second place, is calling for a scrapping the 1 per cent of gross domestic product defense spending cap in place for decades while increasing Japan’s maritime surveillance. The same day Reuters reported China plans to begin boarding and searching foreign ships in the southern island province of Hainan. Can you see a pattern here?

For the Japanese, this will be a decidedly right leaning election. The Japanese have the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, their unemployment rate stays low not through a growing economy, but a continual and steady exit of retirees from the workforce. All together this add up to more appetite for the restoration of the country’s pride. Just look at the 2007 movie “Little Big Man” about an aged and diminished Japanese giant, looking back on the past glory of his father and grandfather in defending Japan from invading monsters.

But it’s not all bad news for Japan. Sixty-seven years of post-war peace for Japan have engendered a robust output of art, design, pop-culture, fashion, animation and cuisine that has extended the reach of Japan’s soft-power. It might win them friends from afar in a difficult time.

The Passport Map Flap

I’m not sure if this issue has received much play outside of the region but China has set off a storm of protest by issuing passports with maps that effectively resolve all of the territorial disputes in the region in favor of itself. (See the dotted line in the photo).

If only it was that easy, China….

And it’s not just the disputes through the South China Sea, but border areas with India.

The Indians, the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, the Filipinos have all protested with the Vietnamese going so far as to issue separate visa sheets to holders of the new Chinese passports.

The US, while accepting the new Chinese passports, questioned whether it was “politically smart or helpful” to add such maps to passports that “antagonize countries.”

It’s another small step that ratchets up the tension.

The South China Sea as Asia’s Palestine?

The outgoing secretary general of ASEAN Surin Pitsuwan told the Financial Times that the South China Sea could “evolve into another Palestine” if countries like China, Vietnam and the Philippines don’t dial down the tensions over territorial disputes. I’m not sure if Palestine is the right metaphor. But already you can see that sides are being taken.

Countries aligned with China:

Cambodia. In the FT article which I won’t reproduce here, Mr Pitsuwan said Cambodia did “what it had to do” at the ASEAN summit last week by preventing the 10-member group from addressing the South China Sea disputes. China clearly wanted this and Cambodia delivered.

Countries aligned with the US:

Japan and the Philippines, with the latter reprising some of its Cold War relationship with the US.

The US and Japan are adjusting their post-WWII security guidelines to reflect the modern realities of Asia. The NYTimes article gives some insights into how Japan is reviewing its security arrangements in the region. Recall that post-war Japan, like post-war West Germany, emerged with clear restrictions on their type of military forces they could build.

Countries somewhere in between: all the others. The conventional wisdom not long ago seemed to be that countries like Vietnam and Indonesia didn’t want the US to exit the region, but didn’t want to be forced to choose between China and the US.

I wonder if already the calculus behind the risk has changed. There has been no shortage of accusations and claims, causing a lot of nations to reassess their best options.