Defense technology — the subject of the Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue this month — often triggers controversy. Usually, it’s about modern munitions like drones or nuclear weapons. But in East Asia, it is Japan’s World War II-era Zero fighter plane — and more pointedly, an animated, Oscar-nominated film about an engineer who designed it — that has provoked debate within Japan and anger among some in neighboring nations.

The dust-up over “The Wind Rises” is stirred by an impression that it is a militaristic movie. But in fact the pacifist intent is clear. Hayao Miyazaki, the film’s 72-year-old director, indicated the movie’s motivation is to compare the rising militarism of Japan’s prewar past with the present.

“There’s a lot in common between the historic changes that [engineer] Jiro Hosikoshi lived through, and the present,” Miyazaki told National Public Radio.

Indeed, Japan is engaged in a public re-examination of the postwar experience. Shinzo Abe, in his second stint as prime minister, is a bolder leader this time. But while his policies and politics have energized some in Japan, they’ve caused concern in some neighboring nations.

Economically, Abe’s “Three Arrows” revitalization plan (monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform) has led many to hope that “Abenomics” will finally find Japan emerging from its “lost decade.”

Abe’s foreign policy, however, has been met with some hesitancy at home and even some hostility abroad.

Abe is considering changes to Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution that would allow Japan to move from a purely defensive role to one that could mean Japan joins in military operations with allies. Concurrently, Japan and the United States are discussing updating their existing military relationship.

Abe’s cabinet recently approved a first-ever national security strategy. In it, Japan called out China for its “attempts to change the status quo by coercion.” Exhibit A from Japan’s perspective would be China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over uninhabited islands claimed by both Japan and China. The December decision stunned countries in the region as well as the United States, which is urging diplomacy. On Tuesday, it was reported that the U.S. Navy believes that China is training for a “short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea.”

Japan’s relations with South Korea are also strained, despite that nation’s shared concern over China’s rise. And, as always, North Korea’s predictably unpredictable Kim Jong Un routinely rattles the region with nuclear threats, and now may feel even more cornered after an unsparing U.N. report on North Korea’s human rights abuses.

Abe increased international friction in December by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead — including war criminals — are commemorated. The “diplomatic” response, according to the Economist? China accused Abe of “beautifying aggression,” South Korea expressed “lamentation and rage,” and the United States acknowledged its “disappointment.”

The region’s rising tensions and economic importance led the Obama administration to signal a diplomatic “pivot” toward Asia. While the policy has since been rebranded as a rebalancing, it has been easier to announce than implement, given the spiraling violence in the Mideast. Even if the administration can truly turn eastward, it will be diplomatically tacking at a complex time for the three regional giants, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In South Korea and China, Smith observed “buoyancy,” but from different sources. “South Korea is very cosmopolitan, educated, dynamic and ambitious in terms of their economic and cultural and social role globally. … In very old-fashioned geostrategic terms, China is the rising power in Asia, and it is enjoying that moment despite that within China there are huge, complex challenges for the leadership.”

Japan’s challenges may seem familiar to those who wonder about U.S. decline, Smith said. “You sense in Japan this kind of angst about Japan’s future. ‘Are we done? Was our postwar economic growth and expansion our rise?’ … Abe has tapped into that in a very assertive kind of way.”

How Abe’s assertiveness is interpreted in Japan and in the region will influence geopolitics in 2014 and beyond. After traveling to Tokyo next week on a trip arranged by the Foreign Press Center of Japan, a nonprofit, independent private foundation, I’ll share observations in a future column.

Meanwhile, the latest spark also comes from a film about the plane remembered in “The Wind Rises.” But this time the movie is “The Eternal Zero,” which is viewed by many as more patriotic than pacifist. “It’s the bookend of ‘The Wind Rises,’ ” Smith said.

“The Eternal Zero” shot to the top of Japan’s box office, according to Variety, which added that after Abe recently screened it, he “was reported to be deeply moved.”


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “ Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to