East Asia’s Sins of the Fathers

NEW YORK – One way to look at the growing military tensions over a few tiny islands in the East China Sea is to see in recent events a straightforward case of power politics. China is rising, Japan is in the economic doldrums, and the Korean peninsula remains divided. It is only natural that China would try to reassert its historical dominance over the region. And it is just as natural for Japan to feel nervous about the prospect of becoming a kind of vassal state (the Koreans are more accustomed to this role, vis-à-vis China).

Being subservient to American power, as Japan has been since 1945, was the inevitable consequence of a catastrophic war. Most Japanese can live with that. But submission to China would be intolerable.

And yet, because East Asian politics remains highly dynastic, a biographical explanation might be just as useful. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, once the top industrial bureaucrat of wartime Japan. Imprisoned by the Americans as a war criminal in 1945, Kishi was released without trial at the beginning of the Cold War, and was elected Prime Minister as a conservative in 1957.

Kishi was a nationalist with fascist tendencies during the 1930’s and 1940’s. After the war, an equally deep aversion to Communism made him a staunch ally of the United States; Richard Nixon became a close friend. His lifelong quest was to revise the pacifist Japanese constitution, written by the Americans just after the war, and turn Japan into a proud military power once more.