The Abe World
As this 4th year of the second Abe (Shinzo) government draws to a close, how are we to understand the Abe agenda? 1 The Abe government describes itself as committed to the universal values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law. It lets fly policy “arrows” to revive and energize Japan’s “hundred million people” and have Japanese women “shine.” It calls attention to Japan the beautiful. It preaches the gospel of what it calls “resilience,” and declares to the world a commitment to “positive pacifism.” To Okinawa it insists that it is making every effort to “reduce the burden” of the US military presence.2 Abe’s government enjoys high levels of support (60.7 per cent as of November 2016)3 and Abe himself, having triumphed in four successive national elections, under party rules revised to clear the way for him to do so, now stands a strong chance of staying in office as Prime Minister for three terms (nine years), in addition to his earlier term between 2006 and 2007. By 2021 he might become both the longest serving of Japan’s modern Prime Ministers, and (if he manages to accomplish his agenda) its most consequential.
Yet many in Japan see things very differently. Philosopher Takahashi Tetsuya of Tokyo University attaches the label “extreme right” to Abe’s Japan.4 Filmmaker and journalist Soda Kazuhiro sees what he calls a “fascism of indifference” in which the Japanese voters are like frogs in slowly heating fascist water.5 Kagoshima University historian Kimura Akira believes that “Japan is already no longer law-governed or democratic and is moving towards becoming a dark society and a fascist state.”6 Scholar of German literature Ikeda Hiroshi of Kyoto University points to the similarities between Abe and Adolf Hitler.7 Political scientist Yamaguchi Jiro of Hosei University feels “a sense of crisis that Japan has begun a steep decline towards civilizational collapse.”8 Author Yamaguchi Izumi sees a “fundamental corruption of politics” spreading through every nook and cranny of Japanese society.9 One could go on.
Little of this sense of urgency is perceptible in the writing about Japan published outside the country. The fine labels Abe and his colleagues chose for themselves have to be critically dissected. As for myself, I have tended to organize my thinking about the Japanese state around some key propositions, in particular the “construction state,” the “client state,” and the “colonial state” (doken kokka, zokkoku, and shokuminchi kokka), to which I now add “war state” (senso kokka).
While widely recognized for its peace constitution, Japan is one of the world’s top military spenders, ranking officially (in 2015) at No 8 (after US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK, India, France) but if the military subsidy it pays to the Pentagon (over $6 billion) is added to its own military budget, it probably passes India and France to become No 6).10 It has supported and provided facilities for US wars from Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria more recently. Seven decades after being defeated in war and occupied by US forces, it insists that the US continue to occupy its territory, especially in Okinawa.
In September 2013, Abe first enunciated before the United Nations General Assembly the principle of Japan as a “positive pacifist” (sekkyokuteki heiwashugi) country.” 11 A few months later, he set up a “National Security Council” on US lines, centralizing and removing the exercise of war powers from parliamentary scrutiny,12 and in 2013 adopted a draconian State Secrets Protection Law. In 2014) he dropped the ban on weapons export, and in 2015 adopted a radically revised interpretation of the constitution’s Article 9, hitherto understood by all previous governments to forbid any combat role that allowed “collective self-defense”, followed by a package of security bills that actually freed Japan’s Self Defense Forces for global missions alongside U.S. forces.13 Meanwhile, Abe applied himself assiduously to the construction of facilities for the Marine Corps on Okinawa, Guam and the Marianas, and for the SDF throughout the Southwest Islands (between Okinawa Island and Taiwan). His Japan, he assured the UN, would be “even more actively engaged in collective security measures, including peacekeeping operations.” 14 Abe’s Japan, the “peace state,” became Japan a war capable state.15
As for nuclear weapons, till at least the early 1970s Japan hosted, whether or not involuntarily, those of the US and served as “a major US logistics centre for nuclear warfare in Asia,”16 and to this day it clings to the US nuclear weapons-based security system under the principle of “extended deterrence” (the “umbrella”). When a resolution on “no first use” of nuclear weapons was brought forward in the UN by an 8-country “New Agenda Coalition” in 1998, Japan abstained. In 2003 it pleaded with the United States not to rule out possible pre-emptive strike against North Korea.17 In 2008-9, while joining with Australia to co-sponsor an International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament” (ICNND), covertly it urged Washington to maintain its nuclear arsenal, insisting that it be
“Credible (reliable forces including modernized warheads),
Flexible (capable of holding a variety of targets at risk),
Responsive (able to respond to contingencies quickly),
Discriminate (including low-yield options for minimum collateral damage),
Stealthy (SSBN/SSN [strategic attack and submarines] deployments
Visible ([nuclear-capable] B-2s/B-52s deployment to Guam),
Sufficient (to persuade potential adversaries).”18
Following the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, a “Humanitarian Pledge” outlawing use of nuclear weapons was by August 2015 endorsed by 159 countries.19 Japan (and Australia) stood apart, calling instead for a “progressive approach” that would be acceptable to the nuclear powers, i.e. to the United States.20
In May 2016, US president Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Abe stood together at Hiroshima to declare their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. Neither made any reference to the obligations of the US and other nuclear powers to reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapons under the Non-Proliferation Treaty or to the US government’s commitment to a 30 year, one trillion dollar program to “modernize” and “improve” its nuclear arsenal.21 In October 2016 the First Committee of the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted 123 to 38 (with 32 countries either abstaining or simply absent) a resolution initiating a process of outlawing possession or use of nuclear weapons to be carried forward during 2017. Under heavy pressure from the US, Japan voted against it.22
In other words, despite its public stance of opposition to nuclear weapons, Japan’s “extended deterrence” policy amounts to fulsome cooperation with the US in deployment and readiness to use them. Strictly speaking, Japan is both a “war state” and (by collusion) a “nuclear weapons state.”
The Abe administration’s nationalist facade is contradicted by the substance of its subservience to the US, as client state or zokkoku. 23 Abe performs “nationalism,” but it is what Nakano Koichi calls “air nationalism.”24 When, following the war and occupation, sovereignty was returned to Japan in 1952 it was done on such terms as to entrench US control and to flesh out the oxymoronic formula of “dependent independence” or “servile sovereignty.”25 The unequal relationship has been repeatedly confirmed and reinforced since then. Other states too are obsequious to the US super-power, but Japan is unique in having a state structure actually created by it and in being still occupied by a chain of its military bases.
In the post-war, post-San Francisco Treaty era of contest between factions, one “autonomous” and one “servile,26 “autonomist”-inclining Prime Ministers, most recently Hatoyama Yukio in 2009-2010, are eliminated while “servile” ones thrive, with today’s Abe Shinzo the very epitome (as Magosaki Ukeru puts it) of “slavish mentality.”27
Even as the seven decade-long era of US hegemony erodes, and its unending wars spread chaos and terror but cannot secure victory, Abe’s Japan clings to its position as “client state” and rests its security on subordination to the US and military confrontation with China. It is a stance steeped in contradiction as China becomes the world’s largest economy, double Japan in gross size and steadily widening the gap.28 Peace and security in East Asia now depend on Japan transcending its servility and regaining its sovereignty. Donald Trump was only stating the obvious when he said that the US could no longer be “the world’s policeman.” In the long term, some form of East Asian cooperative regional arrangements are called for to replace the six decades-old San Francisco, Washington centered system. So long as Japan persists in seeing everything through the prism of its subordination to the United States, there is a risk that persistent servility might spark a lurch to the opposite: a new era of independent militarism and direct nuclear weapon status.
When Abe formed a government at the end of 2012, he did so on the improbable combination of commitments: to “shrug off the husk of the postwar state” and “recover Japan’s independence;” 29 to confirm and intensify diplomatic, military, and economic cooperation with the United States, and to pursue a central role in a 21st century East Asia. It meant determination to cling to the San Francisco formula which ended the US occupation on condition that US troops would remain in Japan and the US-Japan Security Treaty (AMPO) would define their security relationship. Despite the avowal of priority to the US, Washington viewed with concern Abe’s declaration about “recovery of Japan’s independence” because that could only mean replacing U.S.-imposed structures with “Japanese” ones, since the “Japanese” ones Abe was most attached to were pre-1945, fascist, emperor worshipping, Yasukuni-centred and “Greater East Asian.”
During the first year (2012-2013) of his current term, Washington asserted its priorities over a somewhat recalcitrant Abe. His December 2013 Yasukuni visit drew US rebuke (“disappointment”) and led him to step back, refraining thereafter from any repetition.30 Thereafter, he deleted from his vocabulary all talk of shedding the husk of the postwar state and spoke increasingly of “positive pacifism.” This was music to Washington’s ears. In April 2015 Abe was honored with a state visit, an address to a joint sitting of the two Houses of Congress, and a press conference with the president. The bilateral relationship was acclaimed as an “alliance of hope” and declared by Joseph Nye to be in “the best condition in decades.”31 Senator John McCain, chair of the US Armed Services Committee, said he was looking forward under “positive pacifism” to the dispatch of the Self Defense Forces to Korea, the Middle East, and the South China Sea.32 In short, “positive pacifism” would supplant constitutional pacifism.
Between 2009 and 2012, non-LDP governments undertook a critique of the public works-centred policies of conservative governments over the preceding decades which they referred to as “construction state” or “doken kokka,” in which for decades state-led investment in infrastructure had been sacrosanct. Coming into office, the Democratic Party reconsidered the priority attaching to roads, bridges, river systems, sea walls, power and transport systems, opened to reconsideration of major projects such as the Yamba dam on the upper reaches of the Tone River system north of Tokyo (first planned in 1952), and in general strove, however ineffectually, to shift the priority from concrete to people.
Site of Yanba Dam, 2011
From 2012, however, with the country still reeling from the Fukushima shocks, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) took back the reins of government and adopted the slogan of “resilience” (kokudo kyojinka). 33 It was an evocative, over-arching, almost irresistibly attractive term, with the same positive associations as the terms “kinshizen” or “tashizen” (near-nature or added nature) that had been applied even before Fukushima to heavily engineered doken kokka projects. Under the “Basic Law for National Resilience” adopted in 2013, the Abe government set about revamping and “securing” the archipelago.34
If any country needs resilience, it is surely Japan, where, following the Fukushima and Kumamoto disasters of 2011 and 2016, with 70 per cent probability experts predict a Nankai Trough35 quake of an 8 or 9 level magnitude to occur within the next 30 years.36 Such a “Great Western Japan” quake/tsunami event would be roughly the same intensity as in Fukushima in 2011 and as is currently predicted for the San Andreas Fault in California.37 It might cause hundreds of thousands of deaths along Japan’s densely-populated Pacific belt and economic harm of perhaps 120 trillion yen, (42 per cent of GDP) compared to 17 trillion (3 per cent of GDP) in the “Fukushima” East Japan Quake of 2011.38 And, if that were not enough, seismologists reckon that Mt. Fuji, dormant since 1707, could blow at any time.39
As Abe and his government pursued their “resilience” policies, admirers began to describe the Abe state itself as “resilient” (i.e., “tough,” “flexible,” “strong,” and “responsive,”) and its resilience promotion measures as a “global benchmark” and even as a “keystone for reviving democratic politics.”40
Many projects adopted under the title of “Fukushima recovery” were in due course exposed as public works boondoggles unlikely to benefit victims or advance real recovery.41 Huge infrastructural projects including the Central Linear Shinkansen, New Tomei Expressway,42 the Great Tohoku Seawall 43 came to be promoted under the “resilience” banner. Furthermore, after initial hesitation, the incoming Abe government restored the role of nuclear power in the future resilient Japan, and the Prime Minister adopted with enthusiasm the role of nuclear plant salesman.
Construction of the (Rinea) Chuo Shinkansen commenced in 2014. 44 It is a superconducting, magnetic levitation transport system, costing around nine trillion yen (at 2007 estimate), offering speeds up to 500 kph and cutting the journey time from Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka to 40 minutes and one hour respectively, scheduled to open services to Nagoya in 2027 and to Osaka by 2045. 86 per cent of the route to Nagoya (246 of the 286 kilometers) is to be below ground, through tunnels under the Japan Alps at a maximum depth of a staggering 1,400 metres. For en route towns and villages, it will mean 12 years of dump trucks, drying of rivers, dumping of excavated soil. Once operating, the maglev trains will require an energy input roughly three times that of the existing shinkansen. Initially, a JR Tokai (i.e., private sector) project, the path to use of public funds was opened on grounds of its provision of an alternative link between east and west Japan in the event of other (shinkansen and Tomei expressway) links being cut by disaster. With minimum public debate and serious doubt that it could ever be technically, let alone economically, viable, construction got under way in 2016. 738 residents along the route launched a suit to have the project cancelled,45 but the Abe government committed public funding to the sum of three trillion yen in low interest credit for the nominally “private” sector project.46
In the name of resilience, the Abe government’s commitment to such projects as the Linear Shinkansen, its old and new “Three Arrows” and its national mobilization under the “One Hundred Million All Active” slogans and policies, showed the intent to maximise GDP irrespective of the environmental consequences for Japan or the world. Its public finance policies flooded the markets with yen and opened the financial sluice gates to pour public pension funds into stock manipulation. They succeeded in driving public debt figures to stratospheric levels (ca. 230 per cent of GDP as of 2016, way above any OECD country, Greece included), boosting exports and ratcheting up the stock exchange,47 but they exacted a large price, and bespoke recklessness rather than resilience.
The Abe government refuses to learn the one, perhaps key lesson in resilience from Fukushima: that Japan’s highly unstable islands, site of one tenth of the world’s earthquake activity, are the world’s most dangerous place for a nuclear complex.48 Three years after Prime Minister Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that matters at Fukushima were “under control,” cancer rates in the vicinity continue to rise,49 the “ice-wall” to block radioactive waters reaching the sea has failed,50 the whereabouts of the melted cores of three of the reactors has yet to be determined and radioactivity continues to leech into air, soil, and sea. The cost of decommissioning, clean-up, ongoing nuclear waste storage, and compensation for the 2011 disaster continue to rise, doubling just in 2016 from roughly ten trillion to roughly 20 trillion yen, and will continue through the remainder of this century.51
Not even the 7.3 level quake at Kumamoto in April 2016, the first in modern times to occur on the Median Tectonic Line that bisects the country from Kanto to Kyushu, was sufficient to shake the Abe government’s nuclear faith. It resolved to keep the two Sendai reactors (in Kagoshima prefecture) running,52 and pressed ahead with works to step up the quake resistance of the other reactors on the country’s nuclear grid. However, reinforcement was designed to withstand a direct sub-ground magnitude 6.5 quake. If or when the predicted magnitude 8-plus quake strikes along the Median Line it is predicted to exert a force 11 times greater than the Kumamoto 2016 quake. Reactors, however reinforced (and including Sendai), could not be expected to cope.53
The government is nevertheless intent on restoring as much as possible of the national grid of about 40 reactors, promoting the export of nuclear technology to the world, notably India, Turkey, Indonesia, and the UAE. It plans a 2018 switch-on of the Rokkasho plant under construction in the far north of Japan’s main Honshu since the late 1980s and costing $25 billion-plus thus far, where it would enrich uranium, fabricate MOX plutonium fuel, recycle the wastes of the country’s reactors for re-use, and provide high-level waste storage.54 The “positive pacifist” Japan would then be producing “roughly 2,000 bombs’ worth of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium a year.”55
While Japan thus strives to revive its nuclear sector, the East Asia region as a whole gears up for a substantial nuclear expansion. By 2030, there are likely to be over 100 reactors, 80 of them in China concentrated along the East China Sea facing Japan and the others in Korea and Russia. 56 Vietnam and Korea were on this list till 2016 when both decided to abandon (Taiwan) or not to pursue (Vietnam) the nuclear path. Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive government was to scrap its existing three reactors by 2025 and mothball a fourth completed in 2015. 57 If Japan’s 40 or so were back on line by that time, the potential for catastrophe is clear. A massive radioactive discharge could be occasioned by eruption of hostilities between states, accident, natural disaster (earthquake and/or tsunami), or terrorist attack. Japan leads the region into a high-risk future, at odds with the notion of “resilience.”58
A true 21st century commitment to resilience would have to take account of the growing planetary crisis. On 12 May 2016, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 400 ppm was confirmed from the remote Australian site of Cape Grim, highest in at least 400,000 (and likely many millions of) years. 59 The northern hemisphere passed the mark earlier, including all three of Japan’s measuring stations in 2015. The rate of growth, rising from 0.94 ppm in 1959 to 3.05 ppm in 2015 constitutes a spike in the history of the atmosphere “exceeding any in the geologic record,” and appears to be heading inexorably towards the 450 ppm zone that scientists generally believe heralds “catastrophe.”60 When the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was adopted in 1997, 400 ppm was thought to signal probably uncontrollable warming, melt of the polar icecaps and glaciers, sea rise, storms, drought, flood, coral collapse and species loss. The climatic extremes now being experienced suggest the process referred to as the Anthropocene era may indeed be underway, and that the planet may be undergoing a “Sixth Great Extinction” comparable to the 5th which occurred 65 million years ago and wiped out many species, including dinosaurs.61 Even a stabilizing of CO2 levels at 400-450 ppm would be “likely to lead in the long-term to a 9 meters sea level rise.”62 If resilience means anything it has to mean sustainability of the earth and the shifting of policy priority from national to planetary considerations.
Remarkably, the Japan that proclaims resilience is intent upon filling in much of one of its richest, most bio-diverse regions, Oura Bay. Till now, the coral and other biota of Oura Bay has fared better under climate change than elsewhere in the Pacific (notably, it has fared far better than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Thailand, Fiji), only to be assaulted in 2015-6 by an Abe government determined to host the Marine Corps there. If Abe’s Bay reclamation works do not prove fatal to coral and other species, then the combination of the prolonged heat (with marine temperatures in the summer of 2016 not falling below 30 degrees) and acidification (with the coast of Japan “already 30 per cent more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution” and heading towards a possible 150 per cent in the coming half-century),63 may well do so.
The assault on the ecological treasure house of Oura Bay and the insistence on prefecture-wide Okinawa submission to US military priorities offer a concentrated expression of the continuing strength of “construction state” (doken kokka), “client state” (zokkoku), and “war state” (senso kokka) principles. The political substance of the Abe world is best to be seen in the way it imposes a “colonial state” (shokuminchi kokka) formation over Okinawa. The future of democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of law in Japan depend on the outcome to the struggles currently underway in Okinawa.
On 16 September 2016, the Naha Branch of the Fukuoka High Court ruled that Okinawa’s Governor was in breach of the law by his cancellation (in July 2015) of the reclamation license on Oura Bay issued by his predecessor (in December 2013). Okinawa prefecture is now appealing to the Supreme Court against this decision. Even if the Supreme Court should uphold the present ruling, negative to the prefecture, Governor Onaga has strongly hinted that, he will still exercise all powers at his command to fulfil his pledge to not allow the Henoko construction plan to proceed.
By any conventional reckoning, with his control over the levers of state power, Abe will bring Okinawa to heel. But, after nearly four years, he faces no greater challenge and has managed so far only to stiffen the Okinawan resistance.
Brandishing the slogans of “positive pacifism” and “resilience,” Abe proceeds to widen state prerogatives and to put multiple, often violent, pressures upon the country’s democratic, citizen-based, anti-militarist forces. Treating the citizens who try to block his forceful impositions at Henoko and Takae as the enemy, brooking no dissent and offering no justification, the intransigent demand for submission drove many into resistance. On 26 September 2016, the ruling party members of the House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet rose to their feet to acclaim the Prime Minister’s Diet-opening speech at the point where he expressed the gratitude Japan owed to the Coastguard, police and military. The message to the people of Okinawa was clear: the Abe state would continue to mobilize and deploy force against them, secure in its large parliamentary majority and high levels of public support.
The Abe government’s representation of its war preparations as “positive pacifism,” of its high risk and nature denying policies as “resilience,” and of its clientelist subservience to the United States as a partnership between “allies” has been remarkably effective. It remains to be seen how successful Abe will be during the 5th year of his second government, and how he will weather the challenges of those who (in Okinawa and elsewhere) attempt to re-assert the fundamental values of constitutionalism, peace and democracy.
Trump(ery)64 1. Something showy but worthless. 2. Nonsense or rubbish. 3. Deceit; fraud; trickery.
In November 2016 the Abe state design was shaken by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election. Abe had paid little attention to Trump. At the height of the election campaign, on 20 September, he had met in New York with the Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, and secured her endorsement of his view of the Japan-US relationship. Plainly he had expected her to win.
When Trump won the day on 8 November, Abe and his government were therefore shocked. Cabinet was summoned to an emergency meeting, a congratulatory message sent off and a senior adviser dispatched to New York. A meeting between Abe and Trump was hastily set up for the following week. 65 Trump was not known to be close to the well-established “Japan handlers” of the Washington beltway and during his campaign he had been notably “cool” towards Japan, accusing it of free-loading under the US nuclear umbrella and pledging to make it pay more for its “protection.” He also declared opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which for Abe was the economic counterpart to the “pivot” strategy of confronting and containing China under a US-centered security design. No other world leader had devoted so much time and political capital to the TPP cause as Abe.
They met on 18 November in the New York Trump Tower. Apart from Abe saying afterwards that he had found Trump to be “trustworthy” there was little to indicate what they might have discussed. It is even possible they did not touch on anything much of importance because, although Abe had sought a private conversation, he found himself meeting not only Trump but Trump’s national security adviser (General Michael Flynn) and his daughter and son-in-law, in effect, the Trump family. However, from Abe’s well-known policy positions, it can be assumed that he made or intended to make the same points on Japan-US relations that he had made in his meetings two months earlier with Hillary Clinton, stressing in particular close strategic and military coordination and reinforcement of the Japan-US relationship in the face of a common Chinese foe, that is, “in the context of increasingly severe security environment in the Asia-Pacific.”66 He would have wanted to dispute Trump’s “freeloader” charge, presumably providing details of the many (more “generous” than NATO or South Korea) contributions Japan was making to the Pentagon, including not only that under the so-called “sympathy” budget (just under $2 billion in 2016) but many other subsidies, direct and indirect, for an overall total of between $5.5 billion and $7 billion.67
He must also have alluded to the efforts his government had been making towards militarization of the Frontier or Southwest Islands stretching deep into the East China Sea, potentially cutting off Chinese Navy access to the Pacific Ocean, and to the efforts he had been making to evade or neutralize Japan’s constitution so as to ensure that in future regional or global conflict Japanese forces could fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their American counterparts. Abe must reasonably have assumed that such steps would surely please Trump. In return, he would have hoped to secure commitment from Trump to long-established Obama era policies on North Korea and China, including the pledge that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had given to back Japan’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea. He might also have hoped to soften Trump’s hostility to the TPP,
Abe would also have had to inform Trump of his forthcoming meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, scheduled for 15 December in Nagato City in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Media speculation was rife that this meeting might confirm the return, or partial return, to Japan of the disputed so-called “Northern Islands” (the Southern Kuriles) between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula Sakhalin and Japan’s Hokkaido. It would also likely be marked by steps towards the adoption of a peace treaty. The islands had been held by Russia since the end of war in 1945 and reconciliation now between the two countries depends on somehow satisfying both, hitherto irreconcilable sides’ public opinion, which in both countries resolutely opposes any territorial concession. A peace treaty would be momentous, formally ending the hostilities of the Second World War and greatly modifying the subsequent Cold War arrangements. Among other things, it would call for Japan’s acceptance of the Russian state’s borders (including Crimea). As policy towards Russia is widely debated around the world, such a shift on Japan’s part would be bound to attract a lot of criticism, but the positive, even respectful, view of Putin that Trump had shown from time to time during his campaign suggested that he might be prepared to risk this.
Map of Kuril Islands showing historical national borders
So, while it has been widely assumed that the two smaller island groups (7 per cent by area of the territory as a whole), Habomai and Shikotan, would be “returned” to Japan, the disposition of the two larger islands, Kunashiri (Kunashir) and Etorofu (Iturup), present much greater difficulty The two sides had after all agreed to rank Habomai and Shikotan reversion in 1956, only to have Japan withdraw from that agreement under pressure from a United States fearful that reconciliation between Japan and the then Soviet Union might lead to Japan slipping out of the bi-polar Cold War system into neutralism. Kunashiri and Etorofu, however, are very large islands indeed. In fact they would as Japan’s largest and second-largest islands (after the four main islands that basically constitute the country). Both are larger than Okinawa Island at the country’s other extremity and Etorofu is even two and a half times greater. It would not be easy but some kind of verbal formula that was acceptable to both countries while postponing their ultimate disposition to an indeterminate future might be possible, tempered by interim agreement on cooperative development and conservation measures.
The meaning of the territories, however, has changed substantially with the ratification of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Any returned territory now carries with it significant sea, and it seemed improbable either that Putin would permit an island reversion that brought US naval presence (under the US-Japan Security Treaty) to his very front-door, or that the US government would agree to creating an exclusion zone, exempting the islands and their surrounding seas from the US-Japan-protected Northwestern Pacific zone. At least one veteran Japanese commentator, former Foreign Ministry Russian specialist Sato Masaru, believes that Abe might have decided to concede precisely this point – accepting a partial reversion that excluded the US Navy from the land and sea zone that reverted.68 It would imply, however, a relativizing and downgrading of the Ampo security relationship (which Abe has repeatedly insisted he was intent upon reinforcing). With or without US consent, it would be a crack in the edifice of the San Francisco Treaty system
Nor were the discussions between the two countries by any means confined to islands and seas. Both sides had drawn up their lists of favoured projects, whittled down by the time of the Yamaguchi meeting to thirty “priority projects” for consideration. They ranged widely across the development of Eastern Siberia and Northern Russia, especially resources (oil and gas), but also infrastructural projects (pipelines, railroads and ports). At their most ambitious, possibly fanciful, extreme, they include a railway crossing by tunnel under the Soya [La Perouse] Strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin and a bridge across the Mamiya [Tartar] Strait between Sakhalin and Siberia (just 7.3 kilometers at its narrowest point), establishing a through rail link from Japan via the Trans-Siberian and BAM railway systems to China, Russia, and Europe.69
Such mammoth schemes, hitherto little more than pipe dreams, appear now to be back on drawing boards in Moscow and Tokyo. With good reason therefore, the Japan Institute of International Affairs commentator remarked of the forthcoming Yamaguchi summit:
“It would be no exaggeration to say that this exceptional summit meeting between Japan and Russia could very well turn into a historical event having a major impact on the international situation in and beyond the mid-21st century.”70
There are two further matters that Abe might well have alluded to in his Trump Tower meeting: nuclear energy and very vast trains. Abe’s government is determined to press ahead with nuclear energy projects, both for domestic energy generation and as an export sector, This despite the continuing unresolved Fukushima disaster and the pending cancelation of the massive white elephant “Monju” fast breeder reactor project. At least one trillion yen had been spent on “Monju” between commencement of construction in 1986 and 2016, yet scarcely any electricity had been generated and as of 2016 the most likely prospect was for decommissioning and dismantling, likewise at prodigious expense.71 Since Trump during his campaign had loosely alluded to the possibility of Japan choosing to become a nuclear weapon state it was conceivable that he and Abe might see eye-to-eye on such civil projects but that Trump would be likely to insist on strict US supervision.
Second, Abe’s government was committed to developing large-scale infrastructural export projects, especially high-speed rail. Well aware of Trump’s pledge to fundamentally renew American infrastructure, Abe would certainly have wanted to press the case for Japanese shinkansen technology to be preferred in construction of a “fast train” linking New York City and Washington D.C.72 Whether he got the opportunity to do so we do not know.
Soon after the meeting with Abe, Trump made clear something that was surely obvious: his government would have no problem with bases for US forces in Japan being constructed and paid for by Japan (at Henoko and Takae).73 And, as he repeatedly insisted, Japan would have to pay more to support the troops that would operate them.74 For the citizens of Okinawa struggling for decades to prevent the encroachment of major new facilities for the Marine Corps on their forest and sea, the outlook in the Abe-Trump era is dark. The alliance partners remain intent on crushing their aspirations for a peaceful, base-free life in the name of “security.”
During his campaign, Trump had shown little interest in foreign policy (with the partial exceptions of Mexico and the Islamic world). In his September 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, he declared "We cannot be the policeman of the world, we cannot protect countries all over the world, where they're not paying us what we need.” Once elected, he was reported to be relying for advice on East Asian and base matters on his national security adviser, Michael Flynn who in turn was consulting the Washington think-tank, the Heritage Foundation.75 Since Heritage is known to have been close to Japan policy formation for decades little change in Japan-related policy could be expected. Japanese and US forces would coordinate and cooperate even more actively, containing and contesting China in the Western Pacific under Trump as Commander-in-Chief, with Japan paying a substantial and increasing proportion of the cost.
Once elected, the bluster of Trump’s campaign references to Japan quickly dissipated. He must have been delighted to have Abe, leader of a US client state and increasingly war-state, with immense wealth and technical expertise, rushing to pledge fealty. That reaction contrasted sharply with the reaction to the Trump ascendancy elsewhere. In Europe, fear and revulsion at the rise of an anti-democratic demagogue to leadership of the US (and the world) was widespread. Le Monde Diplomatique editorialized about Trump as “a billionaire of dubious character who has not paid taxes for 20 years, who lies through his teeth and flirts openly with racism, xenophobia and sexism,” whose rise was “an earthquake, game changer for Western democracy,”76 while the German magazine, Der Spiegel (12 November) featured on its cover an image of Trump as a world-destroying meteor. In Australia, abhorrence at the Trump rise was common, and influential voices were to be heard calling for renegotiation of the relationship, with attention being directed to the sharply critical views expressed by a former conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.77 By contrast, Abe’s uncritical and even positive pledges to “strengthen” the alliance, deepen military ties and integrate Japanese Self-Defense Forces within US regional and global strategy must have sounded to Trump almost too good to be true.
By and large, it was not only Abe but the country in general Japan appeared to welcome the prospect of a new master. Abe’s support figures rose sharply, by almost 7 points to above 60 per cent during the month of November and following his rushed visit to New York,78 and the major national media called in something like unison for maintenance and if possible strengthening of ties to Trump’s America. 79
To date, Abe has successfully ridden the contradiction between the aspiration to “cast off” post-war strictures and become a “normal” state (with a fresh constitution and unshackled armed forces) and the desire to continue Japan’s “client state” subordination to the United States, attaching priority to serving and pleasing it. But whether he will be able to continue to do so as unpredictable Trump-ish winds prevail across the Pacific, and whether he will manage to modify the existing US-Japan security treaty arrangements to sharpen the focus on China while normalizing relations with Russia, remains to be seen. Furthermore, his Abenomics package is now generally seen to have failed, the gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen, even if so far not stirring the sort of social and political upheavals experienced in Europe and the US. Abe talks of “resilience” but remains committed to the future of Japan as nuclear great power and exporter of nuclear energy projects to the world. Needless to say, he has no answer to the inherent geological instability of the Japanese islands, and his nuclear and linear projects look more like hubristic challenge to the gods than solution to the country’s problems.