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Japan Seeks 'Escape From Postwar Regime'


On Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender to Allied forces, putting an end to World War II. With the peace deal, Japan was forced to demilitarize.

Now, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is suggesting it may be time for Japan to shake off its postwar identity. This past week, Abe sent senior officials to a shrine glorifying Japan's soldiers, including some who were prosecuted for war crimes. The government of China protested. South Korea, which also suffered under Japan during the war, is concerned as well.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn was recently on assignment in Japan. He joins us from Beijing, China. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: There were events this past week marking the anniversary of the end of the war. But I understand this year was different. People were angry. Why?

KUHN: Well, they just felt that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not showing any sense of remorse, of reflection on this, as Japanese leaders have in past. He has made it clear that he wants to go to the Yasukuni shrine to honor Japan's war dead, but he can't while he's prime minister - it's too politically sensitive. But he did send an aide, and two cabinet ministers went.

That got Koreans protesting in the streets, and Chinese diplomats summoning the Japanese ambassador to Beijing. But it follows a long period of comments by the Japanese government that feel that they're not properly addressing Japan's wartime history.

MARTIN: Japanese Prime Minister Abe says he wants Japan to escape from the postwar regime. What does he mean by that?

KUHN: Well, basically, he feels that the U.S. occupation of Japan imposed alien values, and he wants Japan to stand tall again, to be proud and confident. And he wants to change the constitution. Now, that constitution is very special; part of it was drafted by American military officers under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And the postwar solution, to prevent World War II from happening again in Asia, was to write in the constitution that Japan may not have a standing army, it may not wage war; and to include a lot of language about democracy and human rights. And Abe now wants to change some of this.

MARTIN: Can he do that?

KUHN: Well, he does have a fairly good approval rating, at the moment. But most opinion polls show people do not want to see Japan's postwar constitution changed. They feel it's the reason Japan has been prosperous. He also does not have the numbers in parliament, but he's trying to change the threshold to make it easier to amend the constitution.

MARTIN: How has the U.S. government reacted to all of this?

KUHN: Japan is the U.S.'s principal ally in Asia, and they tend to be very careful in criticizing them. The U.S. is responsible, of course, for Japan's defense under this postwar arrangement. At the same time, Japan has interpreted its constitution so that it does have a military, now known euphemistically as the self-defense forces; and the U.S. would like to see Japan play a larger role in international peacekeeping.

What it does not want to see is Japan provoking a conflict with China. So the U.S. has quietly made it clear that it wants to avoid exactly that situation.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks so much, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Rachel.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.