Tensions between Japan and its East Asian neighbors have reached a boiling point, with demonstrations against rising Japanese militarism erupting in China, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere within the past few weeks.

A poll published in the April 19 Financial Times showed that 37 percent of South Koreans believe that Japan is their greatest security threat, compared to 29 percent who called North Korea their biggest threat. Protests against Japan’s new, more militaristic policies have become common in both North and South Korea. In Vietnam, protesters rallied outside the Japanese Embassy in Hanoi on April 17.

But China has recently taken center stage as demonstrations have spread across its main population centers, from Shanghai to Beijing, and have involved tens of thousands of people. Some of the protests turned fierce, causing damage to Japanese businesses and diplomatic property.

The Japanese government has accused China’s leadership of pushing the demonstrations to turn violent, a charge Beijing denies. Demonstrations also took place in Hong Kong, an autonomous region where neither the central government nor the Communist Party of China wields much influence.

The anger has been sparked by a series of actions by the Japanese government that are widely seen as marking a revival of aggressive militarism.

Japan’s right-wing Prime Minister Juinichi Koizumi has repeatedly visited the Yakasuni Shrine, the burial site of top Japanese war criminals responsible for atrocities in China and Korea in the 1930s and ’40s. Rightist Japanese lawmakers say they also plan to visit the shrine. The Japanese government has reinstated wartime Emperor Hirohito’s birthday as a national holiday. Also, a Tokyo court has again ruled against efforts to compensate Chinese victims of war crimes committed by Japan’s military.

Intense anger is focused on a new middle school textbook approved by Japan’s national department of education, which whitewashes, and even justifies, Japan’s brutal invasion of China and Korea. The changes include eliminating all references to the thousands of Chinese and Korean women kidnapped by the Japanese imperial army and forced to serve as sex slaves, or “comfort women.”

The head of the Japanese Communist Party’s secretariat, Ichida Tadayoshi, assailed the government’s moves, saying, “Far from expressing remorse for the war of aggression, the current prime minister visits the Yakasuni Shrine [with] some exhibitions actually glorifying the war.” He continued, “To resolve the differences between Japan and China, it is necessary to put an end to the arrogant and belligerent attitude of the Koizumi cabinet.”

The argument is not simply of historical justice — Japan’s neighbors fear it is reviving its warlike past.

Japan is currently seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but China, worried by Japan’s recent acts, appears likely to block any such move.

The most pressing concern is the Japanese government’s plans to rewrite the constitution to either revise or abolish Article 9, which says Japan may only have a self-defense force, and not a military with offensive capabilities. Already, in contradiction to Article 9, Japan has sent its military to Iraq.

Shii Kazuo, Japanese Communist Party executive committee chair, said those pushing to revise the constitution want to turn Japan into a nation that “fights wars abroad.” He tied the effort to pressure from the United States, which is looking to keep a military foothold in Asia. “The move to revise Article 9 is closely connected with the rise of the glorification of Japan’s war of aggression,” Kazuo said. “Defending Article 9 is inseparable from efforts to defend human rights as well as democracy.”