Tamp down the old ways

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Sixty years ago on Nov. 12, 1948, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMT) handed down its verdict branding Japan an aggressor nation and leading to the execution of six military leaders and one politician for instigating the war. As if to substantiate the validity of this verdict, Japan transformed itself into a demilitarized nation with a “peace constitution” denouncing military actions.

Triggered by the Korean War, however, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, ordered the government of Japan to start rearming. This marked the beginning of the process of building up moderate armed forces in the name of the Self-Defense Forces, which strove to discard the ferocious image of the former Imperial armed forces. Yet, a series of incidents recently have given rise to suspicions that the SDF may be reverting to old ways of thinking prevalent in the pre-World War II military.

For one thing, a noncommissioned officer who had sought to resign from the special forces training for the Maritime Self-Defense Force was placed in a martial-art fighting exercise with 15 of his colleagues and died 16 days later as a result of the beatings.

For another, Gen. Toshio Tamogami, chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Force, was relieved of his post for his contribution to an outside essay contest. In the essay, he took issue with the IMT’s condemnation of Japan’s aggression in Asia, and expressed doubt about the constitutional provision prohibiting the exercise of the right to collective defense.

The first incident resembles the beating death of a 17-year-old sumo wrestler who had tried to escape from the Tokitsukaze stable. He was given rough treatment from three senior sumo wrestlers under the pretext of training with the approval of the stable master.

It is said that during and before World War II, new faces in the army were often beaten up by senior soldiers using their hands and clubs. The SDF officially stopped training of this type, as physical punishment causes human rights problems, but it has resurfaced in modern times in a different form.

The essay written by Tamogami made big headlines almost every day for two weeks after it was initially reported Nov. 1, primarily because his words and deeds were based on his political conviction. One newscaster said the general’s article represented a “coup d’etat of words.”

In the past, a number of Cabinet ministers have been forced to resign after verbal lapses led to serious repercussions. In most cases, though, they at least apologized by saying their words had been misunderstood.

In stark contrast, Tamogami, although complying with a call from the Upper House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense to testify, repeated his opinions unabashedly, saying there was nothing whatsoever wrong in what he wrote, that the whole issue would have become clearer if he had given a dishonorable dismissal and his case examined by the Defense Ministry, and that SDF personnel, too, should enjoy freedom of speech.

One thing I cannot understand is why nobody within the Defense Ministry questioned Tamogami after he wrote a similar article in the May 2007 issue of the ASDF’s in-house publication Hoyu. And, in 2004, when he was the head of the JSDF Joint Staff College, he is said to have expressed similar views on Japan’s history in the same magazine. I cannot help feeling that these incidents are indicative of a growing sentiment within the SDF and the Defense Ministry that is critical of the IMT’s historical perception.

Besides Tamogami, 97 ASDF members submitted essays to the same contest, accounting for more than 40 percent of the contestants. Moreover, the information on this essay contest was faxed to all garrisons throughout the country by the ASDF’s director of education. These facts seem to point to organizational efforts on the part of the ASDF.

In response to a question at the Upper House committee, Tamogami emphatically denied that he had instructed his subordinates to submit essays to the contest, saying, “Had I done so, the number of essays would have exceeded 1,000.” Would it be outrageous then to conclude from these words that he had more than 1,000 subordinates who endorse Japan’s notion of the “Great East Asia War”? If not only uniformed SDF officials but also nonuniformed SDF officials share this attitude, it means the SDF has not been functioning under civilian control.

In the background of the former ASDF chief of staff’s writing is the growing number of lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party who support a call, made by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to “get rid of the postwar regime.”

Fifty-one percent of LDP Diet members belong to a group working closely with the conservative organization Japan Conference, which advocates revision of the war-renouncing constitution. Prime Minister Taro Aso, along with Abe, is a prominent member of this group. The right-leaning tendency of the LDP is also indicated by groups seeking to rewrite history textbooks and encouraging lawmakers to visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Meanwhile, doves within the party are losing their influence, especially as its leader, House Speaker Yohei Kono, has decided not to seek re-election.

Gainsaying the IMT is linked to criticism of the United States, the champion of that trial. Tamogami wrote in his essay that Japan was trapped by Franklin D. Roosevelt into attacking Pearl Harbor, that the U.S. maintains sizable military bases within the Tokyo metropolitan area and would not return them to Japan even if asked to do so, and that the U.S. defense of Japan will lead to further Americanization of Japan and the destruction of its traditional culture. This is significant proof that nationalism is rising within the SDF and the Defense Ministry.

Tamogami’s outright denial of Japan’s military aggression against Asian countries and of the Japanese government’s official position on the matter has something in common with the thinking of prewar military figures who made abortive coup attempts on May 15, 1932, and Feb. 26, 1936.

If no action is taken, Japan could start moving back to the age of military dictatorship.

It is incumbent upon the Defense Ministry to re-educate all the SDF personnel on how the military of a democratic nation should behave. This includes not intervening in politics.

Kiroku Hanai is a journalist and former editorial writer for the Tokyo Shimbun.