Japan rightists’ patient wait is over as conveyor belt of death shudders back to life


He’s done it.

As this column predicted he would, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gotten his way. Last month he closed a chapter on “pacifist Japan,” ramming through unpopular new security legislation that will allow Japanese military engagement in offensive maneuvers abroad.

That’s it then. The circle is complete. Japan is primed to march back to its pre-World War II systems of governance.

Now, just to be clear: I don’t think there will be another world war based on this. However, I think in a generation or two (Japan’s militarists are patient — they’ve already waited two generations for this comeback), a rearmed — even quietly nuclear — Japan selling weapons and saber-rattling at neighbors will be quite normalized.

Alarmism? Won’t Japan’s affection for war-renouncing Article 9 forestall this? Or won’t the eventual failure of “Abenomics” lead to the end of his administration, and perhaps a resurgence of the opposition left? I say probably not. We still have a couple more years of Prime Minister Abe himself (he retained the Liberal Democratic Party leadership last month unopposed). But more importantly, he changed the laws.

So this is not a temporary aberration — this is legal interpretation and precedent, and it’s pretty hard to undo that (especially since the opposition left is even negotiating with the far-right these days). Moreover, Japan has never had a leftist government with as much power as this precedent-setting rightist administration does. And it probably never will (and not just because the U.S. government would undermine it, a la the Hosokawa and Hatoyama administrations of the 1990s and 2000s).

But there’s something deeper at work beyond the “Abe aberration.” I believe that social dynamics encouraging a reverse course to remilitarization have always lain latent in Japanese society.

Consider a few of Japan’s martial aspects, both overt and covert: chōnaikai neighborhood associations that mobilize and monitor the neighbors; senior-subordinate relationships that enforce constant and perpetual social hierarchies; an extreme work ethic that glorifies self-sacrifice; political invective that dismisses human “rights” in favor of state-determined “duties”; cultural memes that denigrate individual choice and free will as “selfish”; and even young schoolchildren and teens in uniform marching in formation at their sports festivals.

Have you ever wondered why Japan still lives under the shadow of World War II — unlike Germany, which made a cleaner break and disavowed its prewar systems? Because Japan’s (largely untouched) prewar ruling elites were always looking for a means to return to them, and kept the fundamentals in place.

Now all that’s necessary is to find a way to glorify the corporal sacrifices of human beings again. But that’s in place too.

Ever considered why Yasukuni Shrine exists — beyond the respect for fallen soldiers, I mean? In Japan, it goes beyond historical monuments like America’s Arlington Cemetery (which it is often compared to), because of the element of ancestor worship.

Brace yourself for a little pointy-headed theory about how societies deal with war: War memorials, etc., are a means, in essence, to deny death. The people who die on battlefields must live on, remembered positively, so families don’t feel that their kin died in vain.

If this doesn’t happen, then someone gets blamed for sending them meaninglessly off to war. That would be The State. So if The State doesn’t want revolution, it had better find a means to deflect society’s anger, pain and feelings of injustice for killing loved ones.

Solution: Glorify them in song, monument and, in Japan’s case, shrine. Deify them.

Yasukuni Shrine is designed to offer a venue to worship self-sacrifice and thus further national goals. As academic Akiko Takenaka recently wrote in Japan Focus, “Death was presented in a positive light in order to sustain a level of enthusiasm to support wars.”

Of course, glorification happens in all societies as they seek to make sense of state-sponsored death. But deification goes beyond glorification.

As I mentioned last month, Japan’s ancestor worship silences critical thinking. Finding fault with gods is blasphemy, so don’t vocalize.

Then there’s the forgiveness and forgetfulness of the gods’ misdeeds. Yasukuni’s pantheon includes the creators, sponsors and promoters of Japan’s prewar national goals — goals that put Japan, its colonized and its enemies on a conveyor belt bound for death.

That conveyor belt rumbled through the frontiers of inhumanity: the Nanking Massacre, Bataan Death March, Unit 731, an imperial army financed by opium, institutionalized sexual slavery, the sacrifice of Okinawan civilians — I could go on.

Plus, deification fosters revisionism and doublespeak. Abe’s retelling of history in his speech in August blanketed WWII atrocities under a shroud of martial exigency interwoven with victimhood. He even argued that Japan is now at peace because of the sacrifices of its war dead.

That’s why the postwar victors and victims initially tried to take Japan’s military away and enshrine pacifism in the Constitution: They saw that the martial model that organizes Japanese society was simply too strong.

Sadly (and notwithstanding a change of heart by the U.S. hegemon), they failed. Nevertheless, they were assured in good faith that Japan’s military would be used only for self-defense. As of last month, not anymore.

Postwar social reconstructionists also tried to quarantine Yasukuni as the epicenter of worship of Japan’s militarism. They failed again. It has resurged with a vengeance as hallowed ground for government leaders, with annual military grandstanding and increasingly bolder belligerence. One of Japan’s most popular leaders (former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara) overtly tried to provoke a war with China — and remained in office!

So listen as the conveyor belt of death clicks back on. Now that Japan can start sending its youth back into harm’s way, how will the public react when people start getting killed?

I say: positively. By design. First, their missions (largely peacekeeping ops in the beginning) will be opaque to the public, thanks to recent legislation designating them as “state secrets.” Then, as the body bags return and the mood threatens to tip toward anger and pacifism, the state-run media will herald the fallen as heroes.

Then the pity for the victims will be converted into national pride. Those people sacrificed themselves for the good of the kuni (country) of Japan. And think of the honored superlative — “the first people deified after two generations”!

The minority denouncing this as a tragedy will be the ever-disorganized leftists in Japan — who will be ignored or painted as unpatriotic and disrespectful. How dare they speak ill of the dead?

The public face of the debate — the next of kin — with then be pressured by their neighbors not to be selfish and draw attention to themselves. It was a matter of duty. So don’t spoil things. Just accept the honor given you stoically.

This sort of dynamic has been found in plenty of other societies with war as an outlet. But will a threshold be reached, as it was, say, in America halfway through the Vietnam War?

I think not, regardless of Japan’s 70 postwar years of peace.

Why? Not just because of those latent martial tendencies buttressing the conveyor belt. Postwar safeguards against remilitarization are also being eroded at the intellectual level.

For example, why do you think the government is trying to do away with liberal-arts education at Japan’s universities? Because these subjects foster critical thinkers. They teach “leftist” ideas such as questioning authority, and seeing The State and corporatism in terms of potential abuses of power. The administration doesn’t like skilled arguers or independently minded people, since Japan’s rightists cannot stomach their ideas being subjected to critique or public debate. They’ll even denounce peaceful demonstrators as “terrorists.”

But even if the people on the street make compelling arguments, in the end I think it’s too late. As I said, Abe’s done it. With this new security legislation, he reactivates the divine aspects of Japan as a nation-state.

The next step is to put soldiers on the conveyor belt and feed them to the sacrificial altar of Yasukuni. It’s a mobilization of death: The more die, the more gods are created, and the more enforced reverence accrues to the war effort. Remember, it happened before — unstoppably — for two prewar generations. It can happen again.

So I say: Get ready, everyone. Japan, as you’ve gotten to know it over your lives, is over. Barring a peace-inducing black-swan event, here comes the ruthless, duplicitous and scary elite-run Japan of your great-grandparents. Over time, it will revive the pain and suffering it inflicted on people both within and without.

Debito’s forthcoming book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” has just gone to press. Akiko Takenaka’s Japan Focus article on the mythology behind Yasukuni Shrine is at japanfocus.org/-Akiko-TAKENAKA/4377/article.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Bec

    Debito Arudou. You can live in Japan, have a Japanese name, write books about Japanese people, but you’re still an outsider, Westerner writing from a Westerners perspective about Japanese people! JapanTimes I was expecting better then this!

  • tisho

    Let me offer another perspective, looking at the situation in terms of economics. First of all, the situation we are in now is completely different from what is was back then. One must remember that today China is the largest economy in the world, while still growing rapidly. It has bee estimated that within the next 30 years, China’s economy is going to become the size of America and Europe.. combined. We are talking about an extremely powerful economy, and in the 21th century, economy is all that matters. Military is not needed anymore. The United States can literally, or perhaps COULD literally bankrupt the entire South America with one phone call, no need for the military to step in. Within the next 30 yeas, China is going to be able to do the same. So from an economic point of view, Japan is not going to be able to do anything against China, even if it militarizes, it doesn’t matter, China can shut down Japan’s economy with one phone call, not today though.. not yet, which is why Abe is in such a rush to contain China today, while Japan still has some leverage.

    Also, i think the change in the constitution was all about allowing Japan to sell weapons, because Abe is in difficult situation to make the economy grow again. He does everything America do. He prints money out of thin air in order to stimulate the consumption, but he is only increasing the debt and not creating any real economic growth, all the jobs created in Japan in the past years are all part time jobs, no full time employment. Real growth comes only from production, not consumption. Abe wants to change the constitution in order to have another source of revenue – weapon sells, but also in order to help America ”contain” China.

    The life time employment is not coming back, i can tell you this for certainty. In a highly globalized economy, where competition is extremely intense, free trade deals are essential, Japan can no longer close its economy if it wants to grow, Abe needs the economy to grow in order to stay in power, if the economy is not growing, people will be not happy with him. In order to keep the economy growing, you need to open your economy to free trade with other countries, which instantly create too much competition in the domestic market of Japan to force any person stay in one company for a life style, you need productivity, and life time employment is not productive for a company.

    Also, the removal of liberal art from public universities was i think a good idea, and again this decision was made from a completely economic point of view. Liberal art is completely useless, there is no market demand for this, if there was market demand for this subject, there would be more demand, and therefore the private universities would supply it, but there isn’t any demand, so it was just a waste of money. If a demand is created, the private schools will supply it. Also, liberal arts has existed in Japan’s public universities for decades, and i don’t think it has made any difference in the culture at all. I think the internet and free trade has made more positive change.

    Lastly, i don’t know what is going to happen in the years to come, but my prediction would be that, Abe will continue to print more money and inflate the entire economy, then, then US stock market completely crushes because the US are doing exactly the same mistake, the US dollar will lose all it’s value, the Japanese economy will fall in a very deep recession, many companies will leave the country for a more business friendly countries such as China, Abe will out of office, and then.. i HOPE a new economically literate government will come, and let the free market sort its problems without interfering.. if not, then the economic crisis in Japan will continue, more and more Japanese will leave the country, and the standards of living will go down very fast. The right wingers will increase, because whenever there is an economic problem, people looking for somebody to scapegoat, it will probably be all the foreigners, China, Korea, America.. who knows, but regardless, they’re not going to be able to do anything militarily.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Very unconvincing. The Japanese will not return to the fanatical militarism of the Meiji and Showa Restoration era. The Emperor no longer serves as a symbol, and there is no chaos of rural poverty (from whence the disaffected radical officers came) and no assassinations of zaibatsu heads nor government ministers. Scandal and corruption still exist, of course, but there are other recourses. Plus old age ravages Japan.

    That’s domestic. On the foreign and regional stage, there are no weak states in Korea and China, with puppets imploring Japanese help to stop Western imperialism. Western imperialism itself is a shadow of what it once was and no longer gives Japan a pretext to be the champion of Asia.

    This is bad analysis. Nicely done, but wrong.

  • tonepolice

    I think the hyperbolic rhetoric needs to be stepped up. “Japan rightists’ patient wait is over as conveyor belt of death shudders back to life” – I can’t remember the last time I read something so over the top that didn’t come from a U.S. Republican presidential candidate.

  • Rebane

    The Japanese are not a culturally homogeneous nation. Free yourself from the decades-old “racial profiling” that the “Westerners” started.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    Thanks, JT. I needed some humour this morning, and you delivered!

  • Ostap Bender

    Arudo will use any topic as a way to criticize Japan.

  • Ostap Bender

    Arudo will use any topic as a way to criticize Japan.

  • Paul Martin

    I would be easier to reinstate China’s emperor than getting today’s educated, mellow and pampered young Japanese to fight wars !

  • GBR48

    Media overreaction to the hyped ‘war bills’ may be linked to Japan’s national panic attack at the last increase in the sales tax.

    The sales tax was way too low for a developed nation and increased by a pitiful amount, a few percent. It is still too low to make much economic difference and nobody outside Japan can understand why there was so much fuss when it went up by so little.

    The same goes for the ‘collective self defence’ issue, which simply puts Japan on a similar footing to many other nations, most of whom don’t start wars and have no plans to. They just don’t trust their neighbours.

    I guess it’s a case of where you are coming from. Maybe a couple of percentage points is a scary hike in the sales tax when it was so artificially low to begin with. Maybe fighting alongside your allies is a big jump from ‘pacifism’, although the whole point of being allies is that you support each other. The ‘allies’ thing works both ways.

    But I’m not sure you can call Japan a pacifist country without having your tongue in your cheek. Japan has had an armed forces for decades, it just happens to be on-loan from the United States. An armed forces by proxy, that maintains a regional balance of power, keeping the international spats at a relatively pathetic level, with politicians bitching about past atrocities and annoying each other with token gestures, shrine visits and the like.

    Time to stop pretending that Japan has been without a military defence – hypocritically urging everyone else to get rid of their weapons whilst peeping out from behind a large number of well-armed American soldiers.

    There are a lot of bad people in the world, and weapons do not uninvent themselves. The price we pay for the flaws of humanity is the need to maintain a balance of power.

    Sometimes humanity is amazing. But sometimes, as a species, we suck. So we need to be able to defend ourselves, and rely on our allies.

    And if the Japanese people really don’t trust the political right not to go postal with their shiny new military toys, maybe they shouldn’t keep voting them into power.

  • GJM

    More paranoid ramblings by Debito… Japan Times – you’re better than this… Please reconsider giving Debito this column which (at least to some) legitimizes his delusions.

  • http://www.weeklyfascination.com/ T Greenwood

    I wonder if the author has actually visited Japan.
    As a previous commenter pointed out, conditions are completely different than the early 1900’s.

  • Ronald W. Nixon

    This is a real danger, when you consider the path the US has gone down since Obama seized power. Japan is a US ally and now the US is making deals with Iran, who backs Hamas and ISIS. If Obama leaves office and becomes an honorary Ayatollah Obama – a scenario which he still has not denied – will Japan be obligated to follow his mission to re-establish the caliphate? Will we see Toyota building the new Ayatollah Corolla to help Iranistan and Los Hamas in their effort to knock down the Trump Wall and bring El Bola to America? These seem like logical consequences to the events predicted in this article.

  • tisho

    Why are there so many braindead japanophiles in here? I thought reddit was supposed to be your lair.

  • AJ

    Some good points but I don’t see it happening this way. I do think Abe is trying to turn back the clock in many ways, but it’s still inconceivable for the Japanese public to support these hyperbolic policies, even implicitly.

    Also, I hope the liberal arts teach more than questioning authority and seeing the State or corporatism in terms of potential abuses of power. Otherwise the government might have a point in scrapping them.

  • thedudeabidez

    I agree with many of the charges leveled at the Abe administration in this article, but it does rather ignore the reality that certain facts on the ground have changed. China is unified and strong, not internally split and weak as it was in the 1930s. Same for Korea, and most of Japan’s other neighbors. Japan’s businesses are economically intertwined with these countries, and have moved much of their production overseas, a major obstacle to behaving aggressively in the region. The LDP is nothing if not the party of Keidanren.

    The emperor worship system has completely faded for all practical terms, and the current imperial family, if anything, is arguably against the idea of a re-militarized Japan. With a declining population, Japan is going to be hard-pressed enough to find a workforce let alone wasting its youth in overseas military adventures. And that’s assuming the youth would go along with any such mission; if anything, the most vigorous opposition to the constitutional changes has come from the younger generation.

    Rather than prophesying doom, it would be more useful at this point in time to start focusing on ways in which an organized opposition to the LDP can once and for all knock them out of power. The lack of any such opposition is what is allowing the Abe administration to proceed with a host of policies that poll after poll show the vast majority of the Japanese public are opposed to.

  • Michaelinlondon1234

    The sadistic USA military did this. Trying to build their new world order….

  • Carrasco German

    Great and sadly true article. Japanese society glorifies the death in combat and evades to criticize government decisions. You can ask for the reason of lots of unfair situations to average people and very probably the answer will be, “I have never asked myself why”. Anything that could boost the economy would be just fine, no matter the suffering it may cause in their children or other people’s children.

  • Carrasco German

    Great and sadly true article. Japanese society glorifies the death in combat and evades to criticize government decisions. You can ask for the reason of lots of unfair situations to average people and very probably the answer will be, “I have never asked myself why”. Anything that could boost the economy would be just fine, no matter the suffering it may cause in their children or other people’s children.

  • Ilya Grushevskiy

    60% against this law in public polling and higher since the propaganda by Abe started getting pushed. You are too pessimistic friend, and live in the past! The judiciary is famously intertwined with the rulers of Japan, but I think this maay be a step too far even for them!
    In the end, the constitution cannot be changed without a referendum and any “play” to fix the rules is too easy to see in advance, so I say hope for a bit of good fortune – Taoist Farmer not Black Swan! This could all be good for a re-trenching of the ideal :D