The clash of three kingdoms in East Asia at anniversary of WWII

Aug. 15 marked the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II for Japan.

In Japan, as a Japan Times editorial commemorated, “Based on its reflections on the war in the Emperor Hirohito period, Japan made a fresh start after World War II and peacefully achieved high economic growth. It has also made extensive contributions to the international community, mainly through official development assistance and peacekeeping operations by the Self-Defense Forces. These steps by Japan have been applauded by the United States and many Asian nations.”

Although Tokyo has repeatedly apologized for its wartime actions, signs of boiling tensions are ubiquitous across East Asia, between Japan and two other major East Asian powers, South Korea and China.

On the 68th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, dozens of members of Japanese parliament, as well as three Japanese cabinet ministers, including Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada, paid their tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s primary war memorial commemorating its 2.5 million war dead, among them 14 convicted Class A war criminals. While Shinzo Abe himself has stayed away from the controversial Tokyo war shrine to avoid a head-on crash with South Korea and China, the Japanese Prime Minister also broke the tradition with his predecessors by not expressing any regret toward Asia for the wartime suffering inflicted by Japan.

The Japan-China and Japan-South Korea rows over wartime history are coupled with ongoing territorial disputes among three East Asian countries – Japan’s sovereignty dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima Islands and its clash over the Senkaku Islands with China. In addition, South Korean court’s recent ruling to order Japan to pay compensation to South Korean “comfort women,” stated the Japan Times, “obviously violated the Japanese-South Korean agreement on property claims and economic cooperation that was reached in 1965, which stated that the issue was resolved completely and finally.”

But what really infuriated Japan’s two East Asian neighbors, China in particular, is Prime Minister Abe’s hawkish policies. As Elaine Kurtenbach of Associated Press reports, “Abe’s support for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution and raising the profile of its military are compounding the unease at a time of rising tensions over a cluster of islands in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Hackles were also raised by the unveiling of Japan’s biggest warship since the end of the war. The Izumo, a flat-top destroyer, shares the same name as a warship in the Imperial Navy that was sunk in an American attack in 1945.”

The launching of Izumo – a 20,000-ton warship capable of carrying up to 14 helicopters with a maximum of five taking off and landing at once – is the latest demonstration of the Abe administration’s determination to expand Japan’s military capabilities.

“Japan’s pacifist constitution, which was largely drafted by the U.S. after the war, renounces the use of force for purposes other than self-defense,” writes Claire Groden of the Times, “that means the country has no offensive arsenal of long-range missiles, aircraft carriers or similar weapons of aggression. The Izumo, which can be used to launch helicopters, still doesn’t cross the line, the Japanese government says. But Chinese officials say they aren’t fooled.”

“The helicopter carrier could be easily retrofitted for fighter jet capability,” Zhang Junshe of the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute told the state-run China Daily, “it is an aircraft carrier, and Japan just called it a helicopter destroyer to downplay its aggressive nature.”

Viewing from Japan, however, China and South Korea are “taking advantage of the rising anti-Japan sentiment in their countries… We believe that South Korean and Chinese authorities’ stances are unreasonable. This is an extremely deplorable situation,” according to Asahi Shimbun, one of the most widely circulated newspapers published in Japan.

Historical irritations and contemporary mistrust are running through the East Asia region. The bitter memories of World War II and assertive nationalism have resurfaced in all three major East Asian countries. The haunted present in East Asia will further antagonize the governments and the citizens of South Korea and China against Japan and isolate Japan from its two neighbors.

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.