The reason is mainly historical but also influenced by the happenings of the last one-decade and the projections for the future. It has been more than 70 years since those August mornings on which US B-29 planes dropped the fatal atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the worst destruction ever seen by mankind. Still, there is a debate going on as to whether these were necessary or not. Was it so important to end the war by dropping atom bombs that killed an estimated 200,000 people and then subjected the survivors to intense radiation exposure? Couldn’t a land invasion have been better?
It’s not just the rest of the world but even the Japanese are divided on this. Most of the Japanese today i.e. even the survivors have reconciled to the fact that America is now an ally of Japan. But then there is definitely a nascent or subdued feeling of anger at being wronged by the Americans.
Japan’s main regional rival is China. And the past decade has not been good for Japan that has had to see the huge rise of China. China overtook Japan as the world number 2 economy in 2010, a spot that was occupied by Japan for around 4 decades. Earlier, it was said that Japan is going to overtake USAand now the same is being said of China.
The rise of Trump and protectionist policies in America has compounded the problem further. Trump’s policies are increasingly alienating his allies including Japan. Japan today fears that once Trump gets a deal with China, his focus would shift to them and the worst part of that- the Japanese automobile industry-the mainstay of the economy, would be the first target.
Today there is a view that if China is unable to hit USA directly in the trade war, it may decide to instead hit Japan, much on the lines of North Korea threatening to nuke Guam or Japan to take on the US. The whole of Japan’s electronics industry would collapse if China were to stop the supply of rare earths to Japan.
Japan has been hurt by Trump’s sanctions on Iran. Japan was one of the largest importers of Iranian crude oil. And for that record, no country seems to agree with Trump regarding the sanctions on Iran though they share US concerns on Hezbollah and Houthis in Yemen. Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Iran- the first ever by a Japanese leader since the Islamic Revolution; can be seen as an indicator of discord with USA. Trump, however, seems to have put out his displeasure quite mildly when he tweeted- “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”
For how long can Trump continue to pursue policies inimical to allies and expect them to stick along with him is something that has to be seen.
And add to that Japan is not like say a Pakistan that changed over from USA to China for support. Japan may think it to be better to go independent rather than submit to Trump’s plans of ‘Cost plus 50’ of getting allies to pay the full cost plus 50 per cent for US troops stationed there.
It just needs a leader who can capitalize on the anti-US sentiments based on the dropping of the atom bomb. Trump’s confrontational approach might hasten that.
Adding to that is the fact that USA has not been successful in controlling the Chinese activities in the Indo-Pacific, especially the South China Sea. Both China and Russia are not at all deterred by US presence when they lay claim to the Senkaku Islands and South Kuril Islands. Japanese leaders can well say- ‘We were better off alone. After all, if we could control so many Pacific islands on our own during the 2nd world war, why can’t we secure the Pacific on our own today after so much advancement in technology? That way we can also be the leader in Asia.’ It is undeniable that Japan has made tremendous advancements in electronics, nuclear technology and even Artificial Intelligence (AI), the new buzzword.
Even the present PM, Shinzo Abe, has been trying to come out of the shackles’ of USA. He has been trying to change the constitution from a pacifist one, i.e. bringing back the right of the Japanese State to use war as a means to settle disputes, allow Japanese forces to fight abroad and even allow the restarting of nuclear power plants. If not for the Fukushima catastrophe, public opinion in Japan against nuclear power plants may not have been as much unfavourable as it is now. Already indications of this are there- there has been an official reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow Japanese forces to fight for allies abroad and it is said that for the first time, PM Abe did not mention the Three Non-Nuclear Principles of Japan in his speech at the 70th Hiroshima anniversary.
And then there is another factor, most of the Japanese are educated and know about the details of the bombings. Then there is the stress on the retellings of the bombings as they happened by the still remaining survivors. Every child knows the story. Whatever it may be, it is very difficult to completely forgive even if 100 years pass.
Add to that, the US has never apologized for the bombings and rather tried to justify them by saying that dropping the bombs ended the war earlier and spared many more lives that could have been lost. Contrast this to the case of Israel. Definitely the number of Jews who died, around 6 million is much more, but Jews have got Israel, a homeland, and Germany has apologized and even announced a $1 billion compensation for Holocaust victims. Jews all over the western world have received sympathy. Cutting across party lines, Anti-Semitism is condemned, as seen in the case of the Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.
But what is not on Japan’s side is the ageing population and the population decline that has been forecasted. According to an article in the Japan Times titled ‘Is Japan becoming extinct?, in 2014, the population of Japan was around 127 million and this is expected to drop to 107 million by 2040 and further to 97 million in 2050.
Abe may not be the leader during whose tenure, Japan breaks away from the US alliance to strike out on its own, but Abe might be the man who is going to set the process in motion. And the same can be said of Trump.
And now coming to the question of whether war between Japan and USA is inevitable, well I must say it is difficult to say so now. What is more possible is Japan coming out of the US fold even if it does not become totally anti-USA. After all, the US and Japan have had a long history of cooperation and such a dramatic change in policy would not be easy to push through. And, if US policies change, then many of these concerns may be addressed without Japan having to come out of the US alliance.
Rajesh Saravanan is a student at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He has a keen interest in foreign policy and aspires to be a diplomat. He is doing his internship with The Policy Times and occasionally blogs at Indian Zest.