North Korean provocations have caused a lot of changes in East Asia, but one of the biggest changes is how the relentless tide of belligerence has shifted Japanese attitudes.
Japan has a troubled history with militarism that it still has not fully addressed or come to terms with. Unlike Germany, Japan doesn’t seem very contrite about its conduct in the last world war, and instead, it seems to mostly be sorry that it lost. Japanese revisionist history has slowly but surely whitewashed away mention of Japan’s enormous criminal behavior in the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific Theater of World War Two in Japanese curriculum. Even some members of the Japanese government essentially deny any wrongdoing, a tone equivalent to Holocaust denial for the millions of victims of Japan’s aggressive wars.
The rest of Asia remembers, though, particularly the Chinese, who were exterminated in even greater numbers than the Jews in Hitler’s Holocaust, under policies such as the Three Alls, and the infamous Rape of Nanking, that came to symbolize the inhuman savagery of the Sino-Japanese War. Korea remembers attempts to eradicate their culture, and impose sexual slavery on their women. The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and others, soon came to be acquainted with Japanese “liberation” from European colonial powers, inducting them into the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (dubbed the “co-poverty sphere” by its miserable, conquered inhabitants).
It is in the context of this cultural memory, along with a seemingly unrepentant Japan, that there is some nervousness at the thought of what all these belligerent actions by North Korea and China are doing to help foster a resurgent Japanese militarism. Japan has gone from whitewashing the past to re-interpreting its constitution to allow it to defend others, and now, to considering pre-emptive attacks on sufficiently threatening nations.
While most of East Asia has a dim view of Japan (and its increasingly whitewashed view of history), it is China who has made itself the neighborhood bully in recent years. China’s apparent green light to North Korea to go as far as it wants to without actually attacking has every nation in Asia is looking to its defenses, and scrambling for allies, even with strange bedfellows: China has menaced its neighbors to the point that even Vietnam has floated trial balloons about letting the U.S. military back in to set up a base at Cam Ranh Bay.
Yes, you read that right. Communist Vietnam, with whom we fought such a long and bitter war, would rather American soldiers be based on its soil than being increasingly “leaned on” by China, in the South China Sea.
It’s hard to argue with Japan taking steps to defend its people from the reckless behavior and military threats of North Korea. It’s also hard to argue with standing alongside all the allies we can get in the face of this threat. China may not be able to project its power (beyond nuclear missiles) but has a formidable army and air force, and has invested heavily in area-denial weaponry to shut out our navy from the area. Even a modestly re-armed Japan, in the event of war, (God forbid), would be a welcome and needed assistance.
One question that remains that causes such emotional memories is what will a militarized, fully re-armed, total-war footing Japan that also hasn’t learned the lessons of its violent past do after such a war?
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