On 16 December 2012 with voter turnout at just over 59 per cent, the lowest since the Second World War, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party trounced Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan to win the most seats in the House of Representatives, the Lower House in the National Diet, and so return to their usual dominance as Japan's ruling party - and probably a dominance more conservative than ever under the strongly right-wing Shinzo Abe!
The Democratic Party on the eve of the Election had 230 seats and were left with a mere 57, forcing Mr Noda's resignation as Democratic Party President.
The Liberal Democrats on Election eve had 118 seats and finished with 294 and there was an added bonus of an alliance with the New Komeito Party which won 31 seats. Acting in coalition, these two parties have more than a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives by which they can overrule the House of Councillors, the National Diet's Upper House where the Democratic Party is still the single largest.
Once more the Liberal Democrats have been swept to a near monopoly of power and the new Prime Minister, Mr Abe has before and since the Election promised to robustly defend Japan's interests and sovereignty, which really refers to its current strained relationship with China, vowing to protect Japan's "territory and beautiful seas."
This is Mr Abe's second stint as Prime Minister and in the past he has somewhat controversially stated that there was no evidence that Japan's military had forced Chinese, Korean and other women into prostitution in military brothels during Japan's aggressive wars in Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. Although he later apologised, I have little doubt that China and Korea will have questioned his sincerity.
Widely reported by associated Press after his victory, Mr Abe called for a strengthening of the Japanese-American alliance. With President Obama currently exercising a policy of disengagement, he is hardly likely to welcome Mr Abe's enthusiasm for sabre rattling over a few uninhabited specks in the ocean! Mr Abe went on to add:
"...and also improve relations with China, with a strong determination that (there) is no change in the fact the Senkaku Islands are our territory."
Is that statement an oxymoron? for this territorial dispute over remote, uninhabited islands, some little larger than Glasgow's Buchanan Street Bus Station, has cost both China and Japan several billions in lost trade alone, promises to poison relations much further and continues to rumble on by the day with both sides scrambling their military jets and naval vessels on a regular basis
Here then, we have the world's second and third largest economies, both with armed forces capable of landing a considerable punch and with allies on call (America however unwilling) squaring off against each other over a group of islands, the largest being Uotsuri-jima/Diaoyu Dao which is smaller than Wimbledon Common! Might at least part of the problem be the way that each of these countries present their history to their people?
In 1969 I bought the first two books by Maurice Druon in his "Accursed Kings" series which had just been published in a new Pan Books paperback edition but had first been available in the UK during the mid-1950s, a period in France of Fourth Republic political turmoil. Fascinated, I would go on to buy all six books and on subsequent visits to France would try to visit one or more of the places in the text - by the 1990s with my wife and kids in tow, the reward for their indulgence an evening meal in a nice restaurant.
Reading other histories of France on this period between 1314 and 1342 covered in the text, I realised that although broadly accurate, M. Druon had used some poetic licence and had created a construct of history. The author in the sixth book declared that he could not write any further now that his hero Robert III d'Artois had died. This surprised me because I had always thought the author's hero to be King Philip IV (the Fair) a very powerful monarch who crushed the Knights Templar and broke the temporal power of the Papacy in France for ever. When M. Druon died in 2009 just before his 91st birthday, Julian Jackson wrote an obituary in The Guardian. Of his six-volume novel sequence Mr Jackson wrote:
"...It narrates the travails of the French monarchy in the period leading up to the Hundred Years War. If this monument of middle-brow storytelling had a message, it would be the very Gaullist idea that France needed strong leadership."
It was a construct then with a political message but no harm was done (or intended) because in the West any aspect of history can be studied and discussed from any number of viewpoints. In a country like China, this degree of study is allowed to a trusted few by the state and history, for the populace at large, is a construct of how the Government want to present it and the message that they wish the populace to take in. Japan on the other hand has less of a history construct and more of the airbrush - leaving out all the bad bits that, in effect, would bring shame to the country. There is also a pervading element of portraying Japan as a victim which really annoys its real past victims - like China and Korea.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are currently administered as part of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan's southernmost Prefecture consisting of hundreds of islands and islets in a chain over 600 miles long southwest of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan, and in the East China Sea. Okinawa was the centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom and profited by the extensive trade carried on in practice between China and Japan, but not officially recognised by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Shoganate, also known as the Tokugawa or Edo Bakufu because its power base was Edo, now Tokyo, relegated the Emperor of Japan to the role of titular head of state with largely ceremonial and religious duties in his capital at Kyoto.
The Tokugawa with the help of the great Eastern families, had come to power by defeating the great Western clans under the Toyotomi at the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600. It would be the Tokugawa's greatest victory, their near 89,000 men defeating their enemy's 82,000 men, but also sow the seeds of the Shogunate's ultimate defeat. Toyotomi Hideyori had suffered near 40 per cent of his forces killed at Sekigahara but many of his great lords (daimyo) refused to commit ritual suicide. Not out of fear of death for this was a class who, from birth, followed a code whereby both men and women were trained in the use of the sword and would make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary. The Western lords felt that they had not suffered dishonour in defeat and indeed, the dishonour lay on the side of the victors for Tokugawa Ieyasu had won the great battle through treachery. Pre-arranged bribes of land and such had been made and accepted by a number of Toyotomi's generals so that during the battle these turncoats either did not advance or even attacked their "own" side on an undefended flank.
One of the commanders of the Western Army was the powerful daimyo Shimazu Yoshihiro of Satsuma Province whose power base was a long way from Tokyo in Kagoshima and although encircled, he and his retainers punched their way out in a fighting retreat. Recognised by friends and enemies alike (including those in China and Korea in the Seven-Year War) as an honourable man and allowed to keep his fief by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shimazu would never forgive or forget the betrayals at Sekigahara and would be pivotal in the fall of the Shoganate and the Restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868.
The Shimazu daimyo were unusual in that they conducted trade with China against Tokugawa proscriptions for the samurai class to take part in such activities not seen fit for the aristocracy. Some of this trade was carried on directly but probably the biggest portion was done using the Ryukyu Kingdom as intermediaries. It made the Shimazu very rich and Satsuma Province one of the country's wealthiest. In 1609 Shimazu Tadatsune led a military expedition against the Ryukyu Kingdom taking effective control of at least a third of the small country and exacting a tributary payment. But there was never any formal annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom by either Satsuma or Japan during the Bakufu and China was recognised by all parties as what in Europe would be called the "feudal superior", Ryukyu continuing to pay primary tribute to both the Ming and Qing Emperors until the Kingdom was finally annexed after the Meiji Restoration.
The Diaoyu Islands up to 1868 then are Chinese and had never been part of Satsuma or taken over by the Shimazu clan; never part of Japan even though the Shimazu handed over at times part of the tributary payment that they received from the Ryukyu Kingdom to the Bakufu; and the islands were never part of the Ryukyu Kingdom whose relationship with the Chinese was at all times very cordial.
Given the recent pronouncements of Japan's Government they appear to ignore their own history to construct a version that suits their claims. Yet there was a formal acceptance of the status quo outlined above at the time of the Meiji Restoration from none other than that Emperor's representatives! In 1870, Japan's Meiji Government made an approach to China to propose the conclusion of a friendship/commercial Treaty and this was duly signed on 24 July 1871 and fully ratified in Tianjin (Tientsin) on 13 September the same year by Marquis Date Munenari on behalf of Japan and Plenipotentiary Li Hongzhang for China. The Treaty was based on an agreement between equals, to the pleasant surprise of the Chinese so used to the gun-boat diplomacy of the Western nations. The first three provisions give an indication of the mutual goodwill that appears to have aided the proceedings:
1. Non-aggression toward each other's territorial possessions.
2. Mutual offer of good offices in case of conflict with a third power.
3. Mutual consular jurisdiction.
This Treaty held good until the First Sino-Japanese War. This War between Japan and China lasted between July 1894 and February 1895. For China it was an utter fiasco made worse by the fact that the country could only muster its regional forces to take on Japan's full (and more modern) strength. The resulting Peace Settlement took place in the Japanese city of Shimonoseki and the initial very harsh terms were lightened by the fact that a Japanese extreme nationalist seriously wounded Plenipotentiary Li Hongzhang causing Japan's Emperor much embarrassment.
Since the Treaty of 1871, Japan had changed its outlook and policy, not just towards China but to other neighbours who appeared weaker than they. Not simply ultra-nationalistic, Japan's attitude had elements of what would be termed "Social Darwinism" and end only with its defeat in World War II.
The Treaty of Shimonoseki is the Treaty of preference for Mr Abe and his colleagues when arguing the rights and wrongs of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute as by the time of its promulgation in 1895 the Ryukyu Kingdom no longer exists so as to distract matters because Ryukyu became Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 - although only given the right to vote and send their representatives to the National Diet in 1912. Never part of Ryukyu/Okinanawa, the disputed islands, still uninhabited, do come "under the control" of Japan at this time, a fact accepted by all sides including Taiwan, in this dispute. The question is probably whether such "control" imparts legal entitlement?
Yet as no mention of Okinawa, never mind the Senkaku Islands, is made in the terms of the Treaty and I fail to see how the Treaty aids the current Japanese Government's argument and may even weaken it. The Treaty was signed on 17 April 1895 and the main provisions included the right of Japanese nationals to open industrial and manufacturing enterprises in China; a large indemnity to be paid; the opening of named ports; and the recognition of Korean independence - not for long as Korea would soon be absorbed into the Japanese Empire. The most important provisions were to do with the loss of Chinese territory which would henceforth ever be part of Japan. Three areas are specifically noted: the cession to Japan of Taiwan, the Pescadores and the Liaodong Peninsula. This latter was retroceded for a payment after political pressure from Russia, France and Germany, the Triple Intervention.
But if Mr Abe is suggesting that somehow the Senkaku Islands were at the time of the Treaty part of Taiwan - really at present the Republic of China/Taiwan's argument that they are part of Yilan County - Mr Abe loses again because under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration (terms of surrender given to Japan at the end of World War II) released on 26 July 1945 by the United States, Britain and China, the third term reads:
"Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine" and Japan was to be reduced to her pre-1894 territory and stripped of Korea and Taiwan.
The economic consequences of this dispute are ongoing and can only be to the detriment of both countries as, since their Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1978 each has become a major customer and partner of the other - but of course neither side is worrying about the economics. Japan's case is not strong but Mr Abe has a formidable political majority to take a hard-line approach which the opposition would likely take on at its peril. The result possibly of history represented by an airbrush, construct - and a blind eye!