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Abe is a hawk, the public merely conservative

by Michael Hoffman

Commenting acidly on November’s U.S. presidential election, American columnist George Will said all it showed was “whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney has the smaller gigantic number of Americans not wanting him to be president.” Substitute the names of Prime Minister-elect Shinzo Abe and outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and the remark applies equally well to Japan. An Asahi Shimbun telephone poll conducted immediately after last week’s election asked respondents whether they thought Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party owed its impressive victory to its policy platform or to voters’ despair over the floundering government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The latter, said 81 percent — as against all of 7 percent who consider LDP policies the decisive factor.

The adjective most frequently attached to Abe is “hawkish.” He wants to rewrite the antiwar Constitution, toughen Japan’s stance towards China and the two Koreas, and recast the Self-Defense Forces as an expanded and more frankly military “National Defense Force.”

Does the LDP’s triumphant return to power a mere three years after it was triumphantly thrown out mean Japan is now a “hawkish” country? If so it’s a sea change. World War II was a sharp lesson to two postwar generations. Militarists of the 1930s had grossly overreached themselves and destroyed the nation. Their disgrace was absolute. History proffered a rare second chance, and Japan seized it. One generation’s heroism was the next generation’s brutality. Fighting, empire-building and dying for the Emperor were out; pacifism, technology and business were in. “Japan Inc.,” “economic animals” — that’s how postwar Japan looked to the outside world. Secure beneath the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” Japan held its defense spending down to around 1 percent of gross national product, a fraction of what its trading partners and rivals were spending. It became the world’s number two economy. It seemed unfair. There was much grumbling about Japan’s “free ride.”

That its economy now ranks number three barely hints at the true extent of the national decline over the past 20 years. Japan’s economy is so stagnant that significant numbers of young people — a third, say some surveys — feel they cannot afford to marry and have children. A health ministry study released earlier this month finds roughly 30 percent of the population spurning fresh meat, fruit and vegetables as “too expensive,” opting for cheaper, less nourishing prepared foods instead. Forty percent of Japanese in the 20-to-49 age bracket are to some degree malnourished, the study says.

Nations in decline or in trouble frequently turn rightward. Japan itself did when the infant “Taisho democracy” of the late 1920s failed to cope with the Great Depression. International developments too favor the hawks. China’s shadow looms ever larger; South Korea’s economy is what Japan’s was but no longer is; North Korea mocks the world with “missile” launches.

To return to our question: Is Japan as “hawkish” as the government it has just elected?

One thing seems certain: it is increasingly conservative. That is natural in an aging society — older people generally prefer the status quo they know to changes that will jolt them. But young people too seem to have grown queasy. The world is changing too fast and they are clipping their own wings. Youthful rebellion? Perhaps there are simply no longer enough youths to constitute the necessary critical mass. In November the Asahi Shimbun reported a 30-year series of surveys of senior high school students by a Doshisha University research team led by professor Fumiaki Oshima. Among its findings: In 2011, 57 percent were enthusiastic about their studies — up from 34 percent in 1981; 79 percent in 2011 found their classes fulfilling, up 1.7-fold in 30 years; 73 percent were never late for class in 2011, up 12 percent from 1997; 59 percent said in 2011 they respect authority, up from 42 percent in 1997.

“Rebels aren’t heroes anymore,” is one of the study’s conclusions. (Another is that since school and society no longer have any terribly strict rules there’s nothing to rebel against.)

A similar drift has been observed at the university level. Surveys over 20 years by a group called the National University Life Cooperative show, for example, that “study and research” are now the top student priority. Maybe that shouldn’t seem remarkable, “study and research” being what universities are theoretically for — but in 1991 the top priority was “making friends and having a wide circle of relationships.” So there.

This month the government’s Cabinet Office published a survey that came to this surprising conclusion: For the first time since 1992 more than half of society — 51.6 percent — feels husbands should work while wives manage the home. That’s across the age spectrum but respondents in their 20s were swimming with the current, 50.0 percent of them claiming that arrangement as their ideal, up sharply from 30.7 percent in 2009. One generation’s stultifying tradition is the next generation’s unattainable ideal — unattainable because a single income is rarely enough any more to support a household. The time when it was acquires in retrospect a satisfying glow.

The weekly Aera, meanwhile, earlier this month chronicled what it sees as a rightward shift among women. One of its interviewees is a 44-year-old mother who traveled to the United States each time she gave birth — to give her children the option of American citizenship when they come of age. That’s how cloudy Japan’s prospects seem to her. “Japanese schools,” she says, “are stymied — the nation is still mired in its defeat in World War II.” The national lack of confidence, she says, is “appalling.”

Prime Minister-elect Abe thinks so too. It’s a widespread feeling. The question Abe’s accession poses is whether a “hawkish” government is the proper remedy.