Japan, the Poisoned Chalice

March 19, 2013 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: Japan

Japan, the Poisoned Chalice

Tokyo's rising hardliners aren't the right folks to balance Beijing.

Making Japan a centerpiece of the U.S. drive to contain China is a seductive idea—but one to which Washington should not succumb. Containment may or may not be the right policy for dealing with China, but even hawks should realize that pushing the most emotive buttons of a potential adversary amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

At first blush it may seem wise to draw upon Japan for support. As Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post put it, “Abe’s legacy is of little concern to most Americans. But as the United States seeks to contend—on a limited budget—with a rising China, the ability of its most important Asian ally to contribute…matters a great deal.” Getting Japan involved is a form of burden-sharing. Moreover, Japan hardly needs to be pushed; it is raring to go. It feels both threatened and aggrieved by China, and is shedding the pacifist plumes it acquired after World War II.

Japan’s new leader, Abe, inflames nationalist sentiments, building on a wave of WWII revisionism and some elements of a militaristic revival—although he is careful to tone down these themes when he visits us. He recently accused China of promoting anti-Japanese sentiment in order to draw attention away from its domestic problems. These lines apply at least as readily to Japan, which has been floundering economically while the sun has been shining on China.

The problem with trying to draw more on Japan to contain China is that such a move is sure to deeply offend and mobilize China. The two countries have a well known long and bitter history. The Chinese (as well as many Western historians) see their country as one that for centuries has been occupied, exploited and humiliated by several foreign powers. Yet none of these occupations involved atrocities of the kind Japan committed after its occupation of Manchuria and much of coastal China during World War II.

In the most notorious of these war crimes, the Nanking Massacre or “Rape of Nanking,” Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed prisoners and civilians while engaging in widespread looting and rape. The Japanese conducted medical experimentation on prisoners and tested chemical and biological weapons on the Chinese population, with some scholars estimating over 200,000 civilians killed by Japanese experiments with germ warfare. In addition, the Japanese also forced hundreds of thousands of women—most from China and Korea—into sex slavery for the “comfort” of Japanese soldiers.

Unlike Germany, which has faced up to its past and engaged in major educational efforts to inculcate in its people a sense of responsibility for the past and lessons for the future—as well as forge a union with its historical enemy France—the Japanese are rather reluctant to even acknowledge many of the atrocities they committed.

Although Japanese officials have issued apologies for their nation’s actions during the war, they have undermined these apologies’ sincerity. For example, though Abe issued an apology as prime minister in 2006 to those harmed by Japanese colonial aggression, he has been criticized for other signals: in 2012, prior to reclaiming the office, he visited a shrine commemorating killed Japanese soldiers—including those who committed severe war crimes. The shrine is viewed by China as symbol of Japan’s refusal to repudiate its past, and Abe’s visit prompted outrage. Abe also denies that Japan coerced the “comfort women” into sex slavery and has promised to revise Japan’s official 1993 apology for the practice.

There is a growing a current of historical revisionism on the Japanese right that seeks to downplay Japanese atrocities. For example, in 2000 and 2001, a vocal and well-funded right-wing group managed to get the ministry of education to approve a school textbook in which accounts of Japanese war crimes were either diluted or omitted entirely. The “New History Textbook” described the Nanking Massacres as a controversial “incident.”

More generally, the country has seen a persistent historical revisionist movement seeking to characterize Japan as a victim of Western aggression rather than an imperialist invader. As Daniel Sneider put it very well indeed in the pages of The National Interest , Japan, much like its wartime ally Germany, “can assume the mantle of leadership only if it abandons a morally repugnant defense of its wartime criminality.” Abe has shown few signs that he comprehends this crucial point and quite a few indicating that he does not.

The United States might conclude, after a thorough review—say of the kind that preceded the surge in Afghanistan—that China is hell-bent on becoming an aggressive global power, out to “eat our lunch,” as a Pentagon official put it. Then it would have to give up on the hope that we might resolve our differences in a peaceful and mutually beneficial way. In this scenario, perhaps egging on a Japan, whose nationalism is rising and militarism is stirring, might make sense. But such a review has not taken place and there are many reasons to believe that if properly conducted, it would lead to the opposite conclusions. As I have argued previously, China has neither the intention nor the capability to threaten the United States—although we could make an enemy out of China if we keep working at it.

If we are going to find a policy that allows China to find its place as a regional power—with the expectation that it also buys into the international order—then inflaming Japan is a penny-wise but pound-foolish. Japan can certainly be enticed to increase its military expenditures and commitments, as well as help confront China. However, the costs of such a strategy will be high indeed. China will feel even more cornered and provoked. It will become even less likely to cooperate in matters we care about a great deal, including addressing the threat posed by nations like North Korean and Iran. And it might greatly accelerate its military build-up, which so far actually has been quite limited.


Washington mobilizing Japan to “balance” China may seem a prudential step toward burden sharing—but the result is likely to be a much greater burden. It could lead to a China provoked to the hilt, its nationalism stoked and its defense budget further increased.

Some will respond that this is how we broke the Soviet Union. But in those days we had a very strong economy, while that of Soviets was in shambles. This time, the economic tea leaves fall rather differently: China can afford an accelerated military buildup far more readily than the United States.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World .