Behind the current impasse among China, Japan and Taiwan over five tiny specks of land in the East China Sea is an influential right-wing movement in Japan that initiated the crisis in the first place, a crisis it is using it to undermine Japan's post-World War II peace constitution and, possibly, break the half-century taboo on building nuclear weapons.
The dispute over the islands China calls the Diaoyus, Taiwan the Diaoyutais, and Japan the Senkakus, is long-standing, but it boiled over when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, provoked a confrontation with China by trying to buy the uninhabited islands from their owners. When the Japanese government bought three of the islands, ostensibly to keep them out of Ishihara's hands, China accused Japan of "stealing" the disputed archipelago.
Ishihara, who has long pressed for building nuclear weapons, is generally portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon -- the Economist calls him the "old rogue of the Japanese right" -- but he is hardly an anomaly. Toru Hashimoto, leader of the right-wing National Japan Restoration Association and just re-elected mayor of Osaka, is cut from the same cloth.
Hashimoto and Ishihara both deny Japan's record of brutality during World War II -- in particular, the horrendous Nanking Massacre in China and the sexual enslavement of Korean women -- sentiments echoed by some of Japan's leading political figures, many of whom advocate Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.
The recent election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a case in point. The LDP is favored to win upcoming elections, and Abe -- who would become prime minister -- calls for revoking a 1993 apology for the Japanese Imperial Army's use of sexual slavery. He also seeks to remove Article 9 of Japan's constitution that forbids Japan from waging war.
And while Abe has recently been vague about nuclear weapons, before he became prime minister in 2006, he argued that Japan's constitution allowed the country to build nukes so long as they were defensive in nature. Many leading figures in his party openly advocate they do so.
Former foreign minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa raised the issue of nuclear weapons back in 2006, when Aso was a member of Abe's government and Nakagawa was chair of the LDP's Policy Research Council. Abe refused to repudiate Aso's and Nakagawa's remarks on nuclear weapons.
But the LDP is not the only section of Japan's ruling elite that is considering ridding the country of its so-called "nuclear allergy."
Ichiro Ozawa -- once a leader of the now defunct Liberal Party and currently heading the People's Life First Party, the third largest party in the Diet -- says Japan should consider building nukes in order to confront "excessive expansion" by China.
According to Tokyo-based journalist Hiusane Masaki..."what has long been considered a taboo subject after World War II is now being openly discussed, not just by the right-wing but even in the mainstream."
In 1970, Japan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the following year the Diet adopted three "non-nuclear principles" to not build, possess, or host nuclear weapons. Japan currently has enough plutonium to produce about 700 nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Most experts think building a bomb would take about a year.
The Japanese right is also waging war on what it calls "treasonous history." Its current target is the enormously popular anti-war comic-book novel, or "manga," Barefoot Gen, by Hiroshima bomb survivor Kakazawa Keiji. The manga has sold millions of copies, been turned into a film, and is used as an educational resource in Japan's schools. Barefoot Gen is sharply critical of Japan's military and of the elites that fueled its rise to power.
Writing in Japan Focus, Matthew Penny, a professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert on Japanese nationalism, says "those with an interest in chipping away at Japan's anti-war norms...are now pushing for the work to be removed from the classrooms."
According to Penny, the right has created an organization called the "Association of Atomic Bomb Victims for Peace and Security," which apparently doesn't include any real victims. Its spokesmen are two right-wingers, Tamogami Toshiro and Kusaka Kimindo, both of whom deny the Nanking Massacre and "call for nuclear armament of Japan and expanded conventional military capabilities."
All this nuclear talk comes at a time when Japan is at loggerheads with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshimas, and with Russia over the southern Kurlies, although the situation for each island chain is different. Japan currently controls the Senkaku/Diaoyus, while South Korea and Russia occupy the other disputed island groups.