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Japan’s future may be stunted by its past

by Michael Hoffman

Is time carrying us forward, or backward?

Or both at once? Technology propels us forward, politics thrusts us back. In east Asia World War Two seems as much present-tense as past. Elsewhere, as the Ukraine crisis unfolds, the Cold War, history only yesterday, looks today like tomorrow’s threat.

“I am convinced that from now on the spirit of the civilization and politics of mankind is fascist ideology… . Before the iron laws of historical development, the downfall of the liberalistic, individualistic, capitalist world is unavoidable.”

That was prophetic when written in the early 1930s. Is it prophetic today? The writer was a prominent reformist (sic) Japanese bureaucrat. He is quoted by American historian Janis Mimura in “Planning for Empire” (2011), a study of prewar and wartime Japanese fascism.

Are we going back to that? Are fears that we might be going back to it overblown?

The bureaucrat (Mimura doesn’t name him) was typical of the rising intelligentsia of the time, reformist because he had seen democracy close up — the “Taisho democracy” of the 1920s — and knew it didn’t work. It spawned disorder, corruption, dire poverty side by side with bloated wealth. Reform meant scotching it. The cure for disorder was order. The requisite for order was obedience. The emotion that breeds obedience was patriotism, love of country — “100 million hearts beating as one,” as a popular saying of the day had it.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made no secret of his patriotism and right-wing leanings. They form the core of his political career, which began in 1993. He declared them then, when they were less fashionable, as forthrightly as he does now, when suddenly they seem almost mainstream.

At no point in his career has Abe disavowed democracy. Some of his critics accuse him of betraying it, however — citing, for example, the stringent State Secrets Protection Law he rammed through the Diet late last year, after perfunctory debate and in defiance of strong public opposition. If journalists and whistleblowers risk 10-year prison terms for revealing “state secrets,” broadly and vaguely defined, is democracy served? Is it served by his government’s ongoing attempts to force schools to replace “masochistic education” — education that acknowledges Japan’s World War II atrocities — with “patriotic education” that whitewashes or denies them?

Hand in hand with 1930s anti-democracy was 1930s militarism. Abe is not a militarist in that sense, but his eagerness to rewrite the pacifist Constitution, and to reinterpret it in the meantime to permit collective self-defense, suggest a bellicose streak no Japanese leader has shown since the war. His December visit to the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine did nothing to ease the fears of liberals or calm the rising fury of Japan’s neighbors and wartime victims.

Abe’s first brief term as prime minister, 2006-7, was a flop. He came across as gratingly jingoistic, an anachronism, a figure out of the discredited past. The nation winced and turned its back on him.

Why is it embracing him now?

A wave of nationalism swept Japan in the wake of the March 11, 2011 disasters. Earthquake, tsunami, meltdown — the damage and suffering were appalling, but see how bravely the Japanese were coping! Heroism, stoicism, self-sacrifice for the common good, a disciplined orderliness that held fast against surging chaos, won awed admiration worldwide. Japan basked in it. When Ochanomizu Women’s University professor emeritus Masahiko Fujiwara observed at the time to Sapio magazine, “Kindness to those in pain, tears for the weak, are written into Japanese genes,” he was giving new expression to an old notion: that Japanese morality is unique — different from and superior to morality elsewhere in the world. That was one of the waves — another of course was economic frustration — that Abe rode back to power in December 2012.

The term uyoku (in common parlance) means ulta-rightists. Uyoku activities reached ordinary peace-loving citizens mainly in the form of black sound trucks whose loudspeakers emitted ear-splitting martial music and other cacophony. The threatening exterior was belied by the activists’ small numbers, and postwar “Japan Inc.,” too busy with its “economic miracle” to accord them more than passing notice, dismissed them as a bothersome but basically harmless nuisance.

So they were — and maybe still are. On the other hand, the Internet spreads things faster and farther — and more quietly, therefore more insidiously — than sound trucks do, and aggressive netto-uyo (Internet uyoku) screeds against Chinese and Koreans are alarming to those who watch them proliferate and hear in them echoes of a sinister and disastrous past.

To those who don’t hear that echo — and Japan being now in its 69th year of peace, younger people may not — it can come across as rather exciting. “My wife is a netto-uyo,” reads a headline in Shukan Gendai magazine. The report that follows is of a new breed of ultra-nationalist housewives, spending their days trolling netto-uyo sites and surprising their husbands in the evening with newly acquired belligerence toward Chinese, Koreans and those Japanese — if they truly deserve to be called Japanese — who haven’t learned to hate them yet.

The netto-uyo housewives are quoted grumbling about everything from the supposed saturation of Japanese TV with South Korean dramas to the ethnic Korean family that just ruined the neighborhood by moving in next door — not to forget supermarkets that stock kimchi and Japanese who drive Hyundais. Even children, says Shukan Gendai, have caught the bug. “Don’t buy Korean products!” they urge their parents. Do they, too, frequent netto-uyo sites?

Time will show whether this is just a passing phase, or a new future being born. Nazi rants in prewar Germany about Jews secretly controlling the world, to the detriment of decent and innocent people, sounded cracked to more sober observers; then the Nazis’ time came, and we know what they made of it. On a netto uyo bulletin board Shukan Gendai reads, “Japan’s mass media, politics and finance are controlled by Zainichi (Koreans permanently residing in Japan).” A sober observer can dismiss that as raving and move on, or dismiss it as raving and pray history doesn’t repeat itself.

Psychiatrist Rika Kayama tells Shukan Gendai of a conversation she had with one netto-uyo housewife. “I asked her how she would feel if Japan had conscription. ‘For my country’s sake,’ she answered, ‘I would gladly give my husband and my son.’”

  • Alejandro S. Arashi

    Japan’s military is so much better than South Korea’s exactly because Japan’s is an all-volunteer, professional force while South Korea’s is based on conscription.

    • TokyoMommy

      Alejandro, how can that be so? Do you mean the conditions are better for the soldiers? South Korea has been preparing and has been prepared for war for the past 60 years, they are also backed up by the USA. More than 80% of Korean men over the age of 24 are trained and prepared for combat as compared to how many in Japan? 3%? If even that? South Korea also has a much larger arseonal of weapons and are not hindered by an anti-weapons treaty with it’s neighbors. I cannot imagine Japan getting very far in a conflict in it’s current military state. How on earth would the USA be able to fight against it’s own allies?

  • don

    Is it wrong only when there’s military force involved, or killing? Or does it begin before that?

    Or is it wrong when someone thinks and acts upon such thoughts (“Nazi-Germany-style” militaristic thoughts) in whatever way they can?

    It has to begin somewhere. And Germany wasn’t swept up by Hitler overnight, nor did Antisemitism develop overnight.

    • phu

      “It has to begin somewhere.” Yes, with 20/20 hindsight, it’s very easy to look back and make reasonable guesses at where things start.

      Without making too many assumptions, either you don’t have a point, or your point seems to be that we should be policing people who express thoughts we believe, if acted upon, would end in “military force, or killing.” Which begs the question of whether those things actually would lead to the results you expect, and in the meantime infringes powerfully on people’s freedom of expression.

      The way you phrase it, of course, you’re actually talking about thought crime. Which is an alarming but not-unprecedented idea… I hope you’re just not being clear about what you’re trying to communicate. This is a very dangerous road to go down, and the fewer people we have blindly suggesting or supporting it, the less the world has to worry about it. We already have things like the state secrets law (and its equivalents in other nations) to worry about; regular citizens advocating making those measures even worse is something the world definitely does not need.

      • don

        No, no. You read much too far into my comments — sorry about that. I was trying not to write volumes. That’s what happens when I cut down on my characteristic wordiness.

        It is, however, reasonable and correct to “look back” because that is what historians and sociologists do in order to make judgments about contemporary issues.

        I actually didn’t imply thought crime in any manner, nor do I think people should be policed on such notions (as is happening in the US… by the NSA, anyhow — as much as it can be). I would agree with you on every point. But rather than answering to you, I was attempting to emphasize the easy “bandwagoning” that seems to be evident in Japan, and how that is a slippery slope… as history has shown us for both Germany and Japan, which perhaps the author (in a not-so-eloquent manner) tried to get at. That is not to say it is a slippery slope in the sense that the result is a military dictatorship, for the very reasons that you mentioned.

        Within my comment I wanted to express that these things lead to racism/racial superiority complexes, which are rampant in Asia and Japan still today. (Look at Korea vs Japan, Japan vs China, Korea vs China racism.) These are things that must be guarded against, not thought crime. When the Japanese government and media are right-wing and overly nationalist, we will see the majority (read: lots and lots and LOTS of old people) follow suit blindly, because doing so is pretty much how they’ve always gotten by from their times of near-starvation in the late 40′s – early 50′s through the economic miracle that brought them to a life of comfort and security today. When the media begins to tango with nationalism and racial superiority, especially in a Japanese context, not only do I see that as worrisome but immoral. It needs to be nipped in the bud, but when there is so much to be gained politically by swaying the Japanese people (read: the same old people I mentioned earlier, who have most of the money in the country), it is an opportunity that any politician would seize.

  • Reisz R.

    The current netto-uyo phenomenon isn’t entirely attributed to the natural disaster, it is from 7 decades of shaming, blaming and living with the loss of identity after Japan’s defeat in WW2.

    Some also feels resentment towards China and Korea for repeatedly dredging up Japan’s past to “blackmail” the country despite the efforts Japan took to reconcile and move forward.

    IMO, nationalism among the citizens will undoubtedly increase as China and Korea continues and intensifies its public lynching of Japan and this comes at a time where Japan is seeking to rediscover its identity.

    • phu

      While your attribution of netto-uyo may or may not be accurate, it’s misleading to portray the relationship between Japan and China/South Korea as so one-sided.

      If the Japanese government had been making good-faith efforts to “reconcile and move forward,” things would almost certainly be markedly different. The reality is that Abe and his subordinates have been just as repugnant in their behavior as the other parties in those relationships.

      I agree that nationalism in all three countries will continue to increase as their governments all mutually harass one another. I just don’t agree with your insistence on seeing Japan solely as the victim.

  • Steve Jackman

    The biggest risk is that either Japan or China makes a miscalculation, around the Senkakus for example, or that there is an accidental confrontation between the two countries. The U.S. would then be drawn into the conflict, since it is obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s aid.

    • Tantalus

      My understanding is that the treaty obligates the US to come to defense of Japanese territory. While the Senkaku/Daiyous aren’t un-ambiguously Japanese territory. (i.e. they are claimed by China). The U.S. has however made statements that they take no position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus but that they would consider them to be under the treaty obligations because they are administrated by Japan.
      It’s a complicated position, and it seems possible that the US could get out of some of it’s treaty obligations simply by changing it’s stance on the legitimacy of Japan’s claim to the Senkakus, or through other technicalities.
      I believe the US would very carefully consider to what extent it would get involved in military conflict if there were a miscalculation around the Senkakus.

  • chang-hs

    Quote: “I don’t think even Abe is irresponsible or impractical enough to aim for that end.”
    Well, I really hope so, too. But that is exactly the author of this article is concerned about. The recent heavy trend in Japan toward nationalism is obvious to anybody who can see. And I share the concern of the author, and wonder where this trend it carrying us to.
    I really wish, together with the author, that this was a transient phenomenon. But if it is not, what will happen, then? The author is correctly pointing out the fear, which I think many people carry, that we might be on the path to disaster, the path that we took in the past.

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    “I don’t think even Abe is irresponsible or impractical enough to aim for that end.”

    I was thinking this as well until his visit to Yasukuni last year. A thing to keep in mind is that this is a man who was stigmatized for his grandfather’s conservative views and is still probably haunted by them today. His actions now are probably far more motivated by personal issues than he’d like to admit.