Ideological laundry unfurled

by Gregory Clark

Japan’s neo-nationalistic rightwing is its own worst enemy. It sees itself as the defender of Japan’s global reputation. But by its own actions it besmirches that reputation.

A good example was the recent Yoshihisa Komori affair — when severe criticisms by that well-known, rightwing correspondent for the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun forced Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to suspend publication of a magazine carrying an article slightly critical of Tokyo’s fixation on visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Heavily reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, the global image of Japan sliding into rightwing doctrinairism strengthened another notch.

Komori has come back demanding his right to free speech and rebuttal — a right notoriously denied to the victims of Japan’s rightwing attacks who, if they say anything, risk having their houses burned down or their offices firebombed. Now he has decided to move against a much smaller and even more vulnerable target — this humble correspondent.

I sometimes contribute to the NBR (National Bureau of Research) web forum set up to encourage free and frank exchanges of opinion between Japan watchers around the world. It is a completely private forum, with watchers free to say things they would not say before a public audience.

But for Komori, it is happy-hunting ground for flushing out more enemies of Japan. Two of my smaller and more frankly expressed NBR contributions, one criticizing the way Tokyo has handled the North Korea abduction issue and another aimed at flaws in Japan’s Northern Territory claims against Moscow were singled out.

Inserted into his blog pages with the usual rightwing rhetoric and exaggeration, as if I had set out publicly to condemn Japan and its policies, the anti-Clark fury has been running hot here for weeks. I am accused of defending Japan’s enemies, among other things. And as is also usual in these rightwing affairs, long, sinister and anonymous messages of protest are being sent to my employers and benefactors demanding to know why I continue to be employed or receive benefactions.

In fact, my criticism of Tokyo’s abduction policy has nothing to do with defending North Korea, a regime whose treatment of dissenters and policies of enforced poverty I have previously condemned in this paper as barbaric.

Even so, I am amazed by the lack of Japanese interest today in the excellent material coming out of the United States and elsewhere showing how U.S. hawks have hijacked policy on North Korea, leaving Pyongyang with the justifications and perhaps even the need for its nuclear and rocket development activities.

Japan is supposed to be the main potential victim of these activities. Yet it prefers to absolve the U.S. of all responsibility and convince itself that it is under deep threat, justifying even heavier spending on defense, “crisis management” alerts and so on.

Where Tokyo’s policy currently goes wrong is in the attempt to persuade the world that a hard line is needed to free any abductees remaining in North Korea. To anyone who knows how dictatorial regimes operate, the hard line coming out of Tokyo could easily encourage Pyongyang to make sure that any surviving abductees cease to survive. This, I am sure, helps to explain the very high death rate among former abductees in the past.

Compare this with the extraordinary success of the softer line and careful negotiating under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who in 2002 gained not just the return of five surviving abductees but an apology to boot. The choice of policies should be obvious, unless Tokyo sees some merit in leaving surviving abductees to their fate in a bid to freeze relations with Pyongyang into constant hostility. In which case it deserves every kind of harshest condemnation.

Part of Tokyo’s dangerous hard line is the claim that a DNA test on a charred bone proves the falsity of Pyongyang’s claims that one abductee, Megumi Yokota, has not survived. Yet it is common scientific knowledge that accurate DNA tests on charred remains are virtually impossible.

Does the Foreign Ministry and the rightwing (the two are increasingly the same) realize the damage done to Japan’s reputation by all this? The seeming charred bone deception has been written up in Western scientific journals and even in Time, but the Foreign Ministry does not even attempt a rebuttal (it says weakly it has no more bone left for retesting). When I hinted at these facts in the NBR web forum, the Komoris of Japan’s introverted rightwing world leaped into a fury of hatred and indignation.

Similarly with the Northern Territories dispute. Tokyo and the vocal rightwing may convince themselves that Japan’s claims are rock solid. But in its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allies, Tokyo not only renounced all right, claim and title to “the Kurile Islands,” but also admitted in the Diet on October 19, 1951, that the term “Kurile Islands” as used in the treaty included most of the territory it now claims. Only in 1955 did it begin to say the opposite, with no explanation for the volte-face.

In Cold War days, U.S. hawks may have seen the benefit in encouraging Tokyo to believe its claims were correct. But even they are silent today.

One initial British response to Tokyo’s 1955 about-turn says it all — “curious and naive.” Is this the global image that Komori and the rightwing here want to create for Japan today?

The irony in all this is that if Japan’s rightwingers could stop fulminating, and start thinking, they would discover a neat answer to many of their gripes. Under common international practice, Japan today would be quite entitled to begin to challenge some of the 1951 San Francisco Treaty obligations imposed on it during its period of weakness and occupation more than half a century ago. This would greatly increase the legality of its territorial claims.

And challenging the “war criminal” Article 11 of the treaty would also do much to end the rightwing trauma over Yasukuni and war guilt — a point noted by some on the more intelligent right such as former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma. Provided the right admitted that there were war atrocities (something it still tries to deny), while noting also the times when Japan’s wartime authorities behaved well — for example by building schools and infrastructure in occupied or colonized territories — they would do much to improve Asian respect and understanding for Japan.

But don’t expect any of this to register with the Komori right, which prefers blind, counterproductive hatred of anyone who seems to challenge their dogmas. Komori even managed to get his newspaper (Sankei Shimbun) to denounce me — a very large irony since in the past that paper and its offshoot magazine Seiron used to enthusiastically to carry my views on Japan.

My view both then and now is that Japan with its sense of order, honesty and group cooperation is a rare example of a sophisticated society that has been able to progress while retaining collectivist values. In many ways it was a model for us more individualistic Westerners.

Its main weakness was that these same collectivist values made for weak foreign policies. Sadly that prediction is being proven right.

They also make for a particularly snide and sinister form of criticism against dissenters. I once lived and worked (as a diplomat) in the former Soviet Union, another collectivist regime. There, too, policy dissenters were automatically attacked as enemies of the nation. There too they were condemned to be nonpersons (in Japan they call it mura hachibu, which means to be excluded from the society). It is time someone stood up to this ideological blackmail.