I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter from Asia comes from Tokyo.
When Japan changes Prime Ministers, it usually is no big deal. After all, with rare exception, the same party has been in control since the 1950s. But not this time. The new man at the helm is evoking a rare sense of foreboding both in Japan and across the Asian region.
Shinzo Abe is a series of contradictions…the first prime minister born AFTER World War Two, and yet one of the most nationalistic prime ministers in decades. His grandfather served as prime minister after the war, a time when American occupiers imposed a pacifist constitution.
Yet Abe is openly talking about renouncing the pacifist part of this document. "I am going to put this firmly on the table for discussion," he said. No wonder he woke up on his first day as prime minister to see an editorial cartoon depicting him as a hawk.
And many do not want change. Japanese lawyers sang at this concert to protest Abe and celebrate a country that renounced force and they want it to stay that way.
"The constitution was our promise and determination to repent what we had done and renounce war," says Takao Takahashi. "I still believe that."
Japan's military is one of Asia's most sophisticated with its American made jets and state of the art American Aegis class missile-equipped destroyers. But under the current constitution, all this can only be used in self-defense. Even when Japan sent troops to Iraq, it was on a humanitarian mission.
What has changed is – in part – a North Korea that now claims to have nuclear weapons and has tested missiles that can easily hit downtown Tokyo. And there's China using its growing wealth to buy better and more modern weapons.
But memories run long in Asia, of the last time Japan used force in the 1930s and 40. Its military was known for massacres and rapes in the Asian countries it conquered.
It took the atomic bomb to bring Japan's military to its knees and this became the root of Japan's pacifism – the only country to be attacked with the bomb.
Philosopher George Santayana said those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Which is exactly what some in Japan and many in Asia do NOT want.
by Barry Petersen