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Revisionists marching Japan back to a dangerous place

by Debito Arudou

No doubt you’ve seen the news about the Takeshima and Senkaku disputes: Japan is sparring with China, South Korea and Taiwan over some specks in the ocean.

Why is this happening? Theories include pre-election political posturing and securing borders to exploit resources. But it’s gotten to the point where even respected academics (such as Stanford’s Harumi Befu and Harvard’s Ted Bestor) are worriedly writing, “current developments are counterproductive to the lasting peace in East Asia and are dangerously degenerating into belligerent diplomacy.”

My take on these scraps is pretty simple: They are merely a way to distract the Japanese public from a larger malaise, the symptoms of which include Japan’s loss of clout as Asia’s leading economy, perpetual economic funk, ineffectual political leadership and an irradiated food chain.

But the larger question remains: How could these far-flung rocks get so much domestic political traction? Bully-pulpiteer Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara managed to raise $18 million from the general public for buying bits of the Senkakus. This in turn forced Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to nationalize them with $26 million of public funds, entangling the government in this imbroglio (and no doubt giving Ishihara a chuckle over all the mischief he’d caused).

After all, Japan has a lot to lose in these disputes. Known as the “fragile superpower,” Japan depends on the outside world both for raw materials and export markets. (China is, remember, Japan’s largest trading partner.)

Japan also has a reputation for being diplomatic towards everyone for business purposes (with its foreign policy sardonically known as happō bijin gaikō, “like a woman who appears beautiful viewed from any angle”). Why now so out of character?

Some might argue that Japan is “growing up” and “acting like a normal country.” Ishihara himself co-wrote the book “The Japan That Can Say No,” which among other things called for Japan to be more “assertive” on the world stage.

But that was in 1989. Now much older and more powerful (as head of a megacity), Ishihara has clearly revised “assertive” to mean “belligerent.” This isn’t Japan just saying “no.” It’s Japan saying, “Gimme. Or else.”

And this is not limited to Ishihara anymore, meaning the fundamental character of Japan’s leadership has shifted. The heads of Japan’s three main cities (Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya) have all expressed “revisionist” views of history, doubting the legitimacy of Asian claims of Japan as aggressor and plunderer during World War II. Revisionists seem determined to fan passions against outsiders for demagogic purposes.

For example, in what historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki (Japan Focus, Sept. 3) calls “foreign policy by tweet,” Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto capriciously stirred up historical matters largely settled a decade ago. Through glib texts to the general public, he stated in essence that the “comfort women” wartime sexual slavery issue had not been resolved by Japan’s official acknowledgment of the historical evidence in 1993 (something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also asserted but later retracted).

The subtext is that Hashimoto’s ilk wants a government-authored history that paints Japan in a “hopeful” light. Indicatively (and ironically, considering his family background), he is pulling funding from Japan’s only human rights museum in Osaka next year, on the grounds that displays are “limited to discrimination and human rights” towards Japan’s minorities. In his view, they fail to inspire Japan’s children with a future full of “hopes and dreams” (Mainichi Shimbun, July 25).

How did this cabal gain such political leverage? I think we can understand their appeal through the lens of rekindling national “hopes and dreams.”

First, as Japan’s “lost decade” of economic woe stretched into two, a public hungry for hope and inspiration became receptive to the message of reliving past glories — not only in terms of wealth and international prestige, but also in terms of military might (as can be seen in the popularity of jingoistic manga like “Gomanism”). At last, there was something to be proud of amidst the interminable bad news.

Second, Gov. Ishihara, in cahoots with Japan’s police forces, banged the alarmist drum of foreign crime and terrorism so loudly and successfully that other political hopefuls could chime in and get (re-)elected. The ensuing suspicion of “outsiders in our midst” helped stem the tide of Japan’s internationalization and diversification, as Japan’s foreign-resident population, after an unbroken 48-year rise, began falling.

Third, hopes for liberalization were dashed when, for the first time in Japan’s postwar political history, a viable opposition party took over from the perpetually-ruling, corrupt Liberal Democratic Party. A mere three years later, people seem disappointed that the Democratic Party of Japan couldn’t undo a half-century of embedded LDP cronyism.

This all plays into the hands of zealots who wish to “restore” Japan (To what? A bubble economy? A regional military power?) without a clear template — except past precedent. The small print is that those past systems won’t work without the exercise of military power, or favorable overseas terms of trade designed for a reconstructing economy (neither of which are viable for present-day Japan).

No matter, say the Revisionists, let’s march backward: Last month, not only did the LDP reelect staunch historical revisionist Shinzo Abe as its party leader, but Hashimoto also launched his ominously named Japan Restoration Party, which has few policy aims except the proactive defense of Japanese sovereignty and territories.

It’s laughable how far removed all this is from what the Japanese public really wants. I believe most Japanese are not looking for trouble with any neighbor — in Japan or abroad. They just want to lead a quiet, prosperous life.

But now that even the Japanese media have started adopting the jingoistic tone of “restoring” Japan, the current discourse of belligerency is normalized and irresistible. Only true patriots dare say anything in public, while the silent majority hunkers down and waits for the fracas to pass (hopefully without any shots fired).

In a few months, this may all amount to a storm in a teacup. But I don’t think so. Political movements such as these (even if promoted by a very loud minority) do real social damage, setting precedents that legitimize the next wave of nationalism and antiliberalism.

As I’ve discussed on these pages before (e.g., Zeit Gist, July 8, 2008), extreme positions have eventually justified quiet but radical and illiberal reforms. For example, officially sponsored fears about foreign crime and terrorism have created a surveillance society that affects everyone. Since the DPJ took office, alarmist (and successful) invective against, say, granting local suffrage to foreign permanent residents also emboldened conservatives to defeat other liberalizing proposals, such as granting separate surnames to married couples and more civil rights for children. Several attempts at getting a universal law against discrimination have been defeated because of allegations that foreigners would abuse Japanese with it.

Thus foreigners are the perpetual wolf at the door, and have been used very effectively to mobilize the nation against both putative internal and external threats.

Now with boats clashing prows and loosing water cannon at each other because of ocean specks, soon there will be very normal-sounding calls for revisions of our “Peace Constitution.” Revisionists will argue (Ishihara already has) that like any “normal” country, Japan needs an actual “military,” able to defend its sovereignty from the wolves.

Therein lies the cognitive dissonance of any historical revisionist: Somehow “hope” is generated by forgetting a regrettable history.

This must not happen, because the proponents of this view simply do not wish to learn from history. And you all know what George Santayana said about “those who cannot remember the past (being) condemned to repeat it.”

I will conclude with the thoughts of M.G. Sheftall, professor of modern Japanese cultural history at Shizuoka University:

“Postwar Japan wanted to be welcomed back into the community of responsible countries and membership in the United Nations. So as a condition, the government acknowledged a ‘we were wrong’ narrative of the war experience. I think bearing guilt for a few more generations for the 20 million Asians killed under Japanese imperialism is necessary before the words ‘army’ or ‘navy’ inevitably return to the official Japanese lexicon. It’s just the decent thing to do.

“As a historian, it’s discomfiting having anything smacking of wartime ideology making a comeback while men who committed atrocities for the Imperial Japanese military still live. While they deserve some sympathy for what they endured under an ideology they were unable to resist or reject, I don’t they deserve the satisfaction of leaving this mortal coil feeling that Japan’s war has been historically vindicated. There’s justice in that, I think.”

By then, history will have taught Japan’s governing elites the folly and waste of clashing over petty nationalistic goals. If there is any hope.

Debito Arudou’s latest writing is the Hokkaido section of the Fodor’s Japan travel guide. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp