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The Self-Defense Forces: living with a lie

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Many commentators have invoked historical analogies for U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its still unfolding aftermath, with some saying, correctly, that no exact historical analogies are possible for anything, the least of all this damnable war.

Still, I was reminded of an action that the U.S. Occupation took after Japan’s defeat and the long shadow it has cast when a dispute recently erupted over the disbanding of the Iraqi Army not long after America’s “liberation” of that hapless country. The dispute was touched off by Robert Draper’s account of the Bush presidency, “Dead Certain,” in which Bush is quoted as saying, “Yeah, I can’t remember. I’m sure I said, ‘this is the policy, what happened?’ “

By “this,” Bush meant keeping the Iraq Army intact. Its dismantlement has since been judged to be one of the biggest blunders in this war — except of course for the war itself.

Paul Bremer, America’s proconsul in Iraq who ordered the fateful act, snarled back. That kind of order could not have been issued solely on his authority, he wrote. It was discussed with Bush and he approved, he asserted. Bremer had been “smoldering” for months over the refusal of Bush and his top aides to take the blame for this and other actions, The New York Times reported: His exit from Iraq is likely to remain one of the most inglorious moments in American history. And he compounded the embarrassment by accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom Bush gave him!

Proconsul Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s abolition of the Japanese military may not have provoked a similar “buck-passing,” although it is known that as soon as the new Constitution incorporating it was proposed, some of his aides became uneasy and began to hint that the people they conquered had the right to reject the provision.

The action, in any event, soon proved to be no more than a conqueror’s expediency. Just three years after the Constitution was accepted and promulgated, MacArthur ordered the creation of a military. The consequences of this about-face have reverberated through the decades since, as I was reminded recently when I read Naoki Inose’s recent book, oddly titled “Kuki to Senso,” literally, “Air and War.”

Inose is an unusual man. A prolific analyst of cultural and governmental history of Japan since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), he served Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as a member of his brain trust, followed by a recent appointment as vice governor of Tokyo. “Kuki to Senso,” by no means his latest publication, is a book-length account of the subject he dealt with in the course he taught as a “special professor” at Tokyo Institute of Technology.

What caught my eyes in this account is Inose’s observation that today’s students have little sense of military ranks. This is because, he explains, Japan’s “postwar military, that is to say, the Self-Defense Forces, has always been a shadowy existence so people have shown no interest in it. Article 9 of the postwar Constitution says, “[Japan] shall possess no fighting power.”

In the official English translation, which I take to be MacArthur’s original version or close to it, that part reads: “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

No, Inose is not advocating Japan’s remilitarization. For his course at Tokyo Tech, he assigned his 1983 book that detailed the deliberations of a mock Cabinet set up in the summer of 1941 — yes, several months before Pearl Harbor — to look into what today would be called “the worst-case scenario.” What if Japan went to war? The conclusion of the Cabinet, which was made up of the best and the brightest, with the average age of 33, was: No way Japan could win. But the diagnosis was rejected, on false suppositions.

There was also the day’s atmosphere — which is what Inose means by the word kuki in the title of his book “Kuki to Senso.” Don’t be swayed by the prevailing wind of the day, he tells his students.

In any case, today’s college students have little sense of military ranks, because the Japanese government, compelled to create what could only be a military under a constitution that proscribes it, deployed “sophistry” — a word the English professor turned social critic Yoshio Nakano used in his 1960 essay.

So, when MacArthur ordered Japan to rearm with the outbreak of the Korean War, in 1950, the government of Japan called their creation the Keisatsu Yobitai (Police Reserve). It then changed its name to the Hoantai (Security Force), in 1952, then to the Jieitai (Self-Defense Forces), in 1954. In each stage, the government made sure to avoid anything suggestive of military or armed services.

The obfuscation of ranks was part of the duplicitous process. By 1960 the idea of “a military without war potential” (senryoku naki guntai) had created such a strain on the members of the SDF that the eminent magazine editor and critic Yoshimi Usui took it upon himself to interview men of all ranks and file a report.

In it, he expressed the concern that the sense of illegitimacy and humiliation created by the semantic distortions might one day trigger an explosion, a revolt. By then, the firepower of the 230,000-man SDF, just six years old, was said to be 30 times as large as Japan’s abolished military as its peak.

Fortunately, Usui’s concern has proved a phantom, so far. Fortunately, too, the “renunciation of war” clause has worked to Japan’s great advantage.

Recently, when a young museum curator friend here asked me about former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first thing that came to mind was this: Abe was too much of a spoiled kid to be prime minister, just as George W. Bush was to be president. But thanks to Japan’s constitutional constraints, Abe had no chance to launch a cowboy war.

The SDF is unconstitutional. Kijuro Shidehara, the lifelong diplomat who was called out of retirement to become prime minister after the war and presided over the making of the new Constitution, averred in his memoirs that the total abolishment of the military was his idea as well. “All militaries want to excel; therein lies the primary cause of war,” he thought.

A man who represented Japan in various disarmament conferences in the 1920s and 1930s, Shidehara knew what he was talking about. He might have found himself to have been too optimistic in his reasoning soon enough, but I wonder if he ever expected his country to be fated to live with a lie, both domestic and international, for nearly 60 years and counting.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.