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Kim Jong-un is the least of Asia’s problems

23 April 2013

This may look like just a photo of rather boring-looking suits being led by a placid Eastern monk through some Asian temple, but it’s created a furore in South Korea and China.

The picture shows Japanese lawmakers visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which deifies people who have died for the Empire of Japan, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals (among them the ex-prime minster who was directly responsible for Pearl Harbour). The shrine owns a museum that may politely be called ‘revisionist’, displaying Imperial Army memorabilia ranging from military badges to suicide torpedoes. It’s not uncommon to see men, and sometimes toddlers, dressed in World War 2 uniform marching outside.

This morning, a record 168 Japanese lawmakers of all political stripes visited the shrine, after two members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet visited on Sunday, and Abe himself sent a ritual offering. Needless to say, this has infuriated Japan’s wartime foes South Korea and China. Seoul cancelled a proposed visit by its foreign minister to Tokyo, while China has riled about Japan’s ‘negative behaviour’. Beijing has also sent eight government ships near the East China Sea islands that both nations claim.

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It all shows that while North Korea’s verbal pyrotechnics and nuclear threats may be the most riveting flashpoint in Asia, it is not the deepest or even the most dangerous. Indeed, Kim Jong-un’s sabre-rattling — today he rejected US conditions for talks  — may be diverting attention from the militarisation that’s going on all over the entire region. From Japan to Malaysia to the Philippines, Eastern nations are buying arms at a spectacular rate. Latest figures show that for the first time, Asia’s military spending is now greater than Europe’s.

Abe heads an ultra-nationalist government, but Japan’s new patriotism was not born in a vacuum. It is a reaction to China’s surging influence, and to Beijing’s bellicose rhetoric and navy manoeuvres over the disputed islands.

The rise of China has forced its smaller neighbours to realign their loyalties and look for protectors, while making sure they’ve got enough war kit to defend themselves — just in case. After four decades of near-miraculous financial progress, Asian nations can afford more than the odd fighter jet. And their newfound wealth has fostered a hyper-competitive environment that often spills over from the economic to the political to the military.

This is all the more so because Asia has not tried to resolve its past conflicts the way Europe has. The wounds, as can be seen from the whole Yasukuni row, are still festering and contributing to today’s jostling for power.

You can read more about the Asian arms race in my recent cover story for the Spectator here.

UPDATE: China is building its second aircraft carrier.

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Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering


  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Doesn’t Krazy Kim remind you of Mr. Creosote in that Monty Python epic, “The
    Meaning of Life”?

  • HookesLaw

    If you go to Helsinki you will see a massive statue to Carl Gustaf Mannerheim who led the Finns in a war against Russia (and technically us as well), as an ally of Hitler. You will find memorials to Finns who fought in the SS.

    The Japanese finance minister has said he would like tol see the war criminals ‘delisted’ from the shrine.
    Your article should be one that rails against pathetic posturing which does the world no good.

  • tele_machus

    The point of this post was that we should redirect our concerns from NK to Japan
    Talk to any remaining soldier or just citzen cruelly treated by the imperial war regime and you will know the truth
    A leopard does not change its spots
    We should take great care

    • gladiolys

      Sorry mate, but that argument is rubbish. By asserting that, do you believe the Germans are still Nazis building concentration camps and the British use gunboats to back up diplomacy?

      • telemachus

        this is not the real telemachus posting above but someone who switches between adulation of Thatcher and Balls. His posts are only designed to detract from mine.

        The real telemachus


        • HookesLaw

          Who cares what he or you think – your little games are a waste of space.

      • HookesLaw

        or the French burn Huguenots?

      • ArchiePonsonby

        The Japanese are most definitely NOT Germans! Whilst the latter have made various very public attempts to come to terms with their part in WWII the Japanese have done nothing of the sort, refusing to make the facts known even to its own people. You will find barely a reference to the war in school textbooks and to the wrong-doing not at all. Japanese leaders and officials are to be seen regularly at the Yasukuni Shrine mentioned in the article, unlike our pathetic attempts to obliterate our own history and great leaders from the past.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Clearly you’ve read Japanese school text books.

    • HookesLaw

      Crass but not for the reason you say. Japan is an ally, like it was in WW1.

  • Colonel Mustard

    The museum commemorates the Imperial Japanese Navy as well as the Army and many of the exhibits are in fact navy related.

    Whether the 2,466,532 men, women and children who ‘died for their Emperor’ and have been enshrined at Yasakuni since 1867 are ‘deified’ or merely commemorated is arguable as the word ‘kami’ (spirit) in respect of Shintoism is somewhat ambiguous. When we commemorate our war dead at the Cenotaph do we acknowledge that some of our former military actions are now considered imperialist, oppressive and criminal in some parts of the world?

    Prior to the current protest this issue was also exacerbated by Prime Minister Noda’s statement in 2011 that he didn’t believe that the Class A Japanese war criminals were actually war criminals under Japanese law.

    • tele_machus

      I am concerned at the 2nd sentence in #2
      Beguiled by revanchist Washington we have forgotten historical threats to our Great Nation-that is Great Britain
      Thatchers second crowning glory was her opposition to German Unification(her first ws Jack Jones). Look how much freer Europe would be if she had held sway
      Now we see tacit support for the resurgence of Japanese militarism. After all it is a democracy and strongly supports the US. It is on side with the rhetoric against puny NK’s insignificant nuclear threat and will use the Chinese Navy as an excuse to rekindle its “glorious military past”
      We forget all the time the lessons of history and Clarissa is correct to draw attention to the threat of China
      If I lived in Australia I would be very worried

      • Colonel Mustard

        It is not a resurgence of Japanese militarism at all, except in the eyes of the semi-hysterical. It is a growing openness about the military events of the past. It is the re-finding of family ancestors who lost their lives in the war and their rescue from obscurity and self-imposed secrecy and shame. The children dressing up are commemorating their great grandfathers military service and sacrifice in the same way that the trend for family research and finding lost ancestors has grown here. Recent movies have glorified the sacrifice and human pathos of war rather than the militarism but inevitably that aspect has also occurred as an integral part of the process.

        All that is just a facet in the context of continuing territorial disputes and historical animosities.

        North Korea’s nuclear threat would not be “insignificant” to the Japanese, in range of its missiles and who alone in the world have already experienced nuclear attack against their cities. For someone who professes to be so caring you are staggeringly lacking in sensitivity and understanding.

        • telemachus

          this is clearly not the real telemachus posting above as he is now adopting a pro-Thatcherite persona after his ridiculous pro-Balls one was exposed as empty trolling. there are aspects of North Korea which are not being properly reported as is expected of the capitalist press. There is the social unity, the sense of national family, and of all facing the opposition of hostile right-wing states together. there is much we can learn from such real socialism on the ground. if it were not subject to such crushing sanctions the way of life would be dangerously attractive to many more in the West.

          This is the real telemachus


        • HookesLaw


      • HookesLaw

        Australia actually sold HMS Melbourne to China.

        Chinas current carrier is a refurbished Russian one which was laid down back in 1985. Its reported it will not be operational until 2016.

        China will find building aircraft carriers a long and expensive business, not to mention developing the planes to fly off them.

  • Their lips are moving so….

    Japan has never come to terms with its behaviour in the 30’s and 40’s. It has never apologised and has never acknowledged its crimes against the Chinese, in particular, but to all of the other people it cruelly abused during that time. It prints lies in its history books. Why would it suddenly change its spots now?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Which Asian countries didn’t do what you’re describing there?

      It’ll be a somewhat short list.

      • gladiolys


    • Colonel Mustard

      I wouldn’t generalise if I were you without studying in more depth the historical literature with which Japan is coming to terms with its military history. You might start with the conflict between the writings of Nakajima Michi and Hayashi Hirofumi which will demonstrate to you that far from never acknowledging Japanese military crimes those crimes and the response to them are being re-visited in detail and hotly debated within Japan itself.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      This simply untrue.

  • starfish

    So, eventually if you push around a democratic state you eventually get a government that won’t be pushed around
    And this is Japan’s fault?
    China needs to be careful how it chooses its enemies…and friends for that matter

  • Daniel Maris

    We should support those countries that are clearly committed to democracy, such as North Korea and the Philippines .

    • HookesLaw

      North Korea has a perfect democracy – they get 101% turn out at every election. And its in their name so that proves it.

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