What has become of Japan?

by Hisahiko Okazaki

Recently, I had a most bizarre experience. I was walking down a street when a total stranger approached me and asked, “What will become of Japan?” And this happened not once but three times. Under a normal circumstance, those three people would have simply passed by wondering in which newspaper or TV show they had seen my face. But obviously they felt it impossible to repress the anxiety that they felt.

Interestingly, all three encounters happened last spring, well before blatant security threats cropped up in the fall when a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard cutters near the Senkaku Islands, and North Korea shelled a South Korean island.

Still, even last spring people had good reason for concern. At that time, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was straying in his handling of the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa Island. Immediately after he told U.S. President Barack Obama “Trust me,” Hatoyama made remarks that betrayed Obama’s trust. He later tried to explain the intentions behind his remarks, but Obama refused to meet him. When Hatoyama told the press that he had at last been able to communicate his message to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had sat next to him during a meal, Clinton took the trouble of inviting the Japanese ambassador to the State Department to tell him that she had not acknowledged Hatoyama’s comments.

People grow uneasy when they perceive that their government is not functioning well. But whatever complaints the Japanese may express about their government every once in a while, no other people trust their governments as much as the Japanese do.

South Korean philosopher-statesman You Jin Oh once told me, “The Japanese people looked down on the Koreans for their lack of patriotism during Japan’s colonial rule. The Koreans are actually patriotic people, but they have few memories in history of having receive benefits from their often tyrannical government. The Japanese, in contrast, show patriotism by uniting with the government in times of emergency. In short, the expression of patriotism is different between the Koreans and the Japanese. To be different has nothing to do with the concept of good or bad.”

In Europe, China or Korea, families own precious metals and jewels that they can use for funds in times of emergency. In contrast, in Japan practically nobody hoards gold or jewels for that purpose. The Japanese trust the state and society so completely that they are content to keep their savings deposited in a bank or post office.

While the Japanese people are always freely bashing away at bureaucrats, they — occasional political turmoil notwithstanding — have never doubted that the government — in particular the bureaucracy — would always protect their interests. But witnessing the Democratic Party of Japan show so little respect for the bureaucracy, the people have lost confidence in the reliability of administrative institutions.

Also, while people have indulged in criticism of the government for being too subservient to the U.S., most Japanese did not doubt that the U.S. would protect Japan in a crisis. This trust and conviction, however, collapsed during the Hatoyama administration.

While I was telling others about my encounters with the three strangers, I recalled that this was not the first time the Japanese people had become wary of their government’s handling of state affairs.

One year that has long remained in my memory is 1945. The Japanese people had been excited by the country’s military victories in the early battles of the Pacific War and the conquest of Southeast Asia. But after the U.S. began carrying out air raids on Japan’s mainland, city streets became filled with victims and food grew increasingly scarce. And every one in those days was saying, “What will become of Japan?”

Although the government tried to conceal the true conditions of the war, the gap between the official announcements and the reality became increasingly obvious. Ultimately, the Japanese people lost confidence in their government.

Going back further in history, there was the Feb. 26 Incident of 1936, a military coup d’etat that ultimately failed. I was only 6, but clearly remember the incident — in particular the deep concern that grownups felt over the uncertain future.

Around the time Japan was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, the press interviewed older people to describe the most shocking events of their lifetimes. Even though they had experienced such major incidents as the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Great Depression of 1929 and Japan’s defeat in World War II, many chose the Feb. 26 Incident. Throughout the war until its miserable end, no matter how painful the experience was to them, the people were united with the government. But the people interviewed said the Feb. 26 Incident, which was the only coup d’etat in Japan’s modern history, made them feel that they no longer had a government they could rely on.

Fortunately, the atmosphere in Japan today has greatly changed since the days of the Hatoyama administration and popular confidence in the government is again growing. This is partly due to recent provocations by China and North Korea. The Kan government has openly emphasized that the alliance with the U.S. is the axis of Japan’s foreign policy, and the U.S. has responded positively to this new stance. Today no objection is heard when the Ministry of Defense proposes improving the defense of the southwest islands of Japan or when Self-Defense Forces units are dispatched as observers of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. In addition, there is little bureaucracy bashing.

I believe this change is a manifestation of the wisdom of the Japanese people, to which the Kan government has responded. Prime Minister Naoto Kan acted boldly and dauntlessly when he appointed former Liberal Democratic Party economic planner Yosano Kaoru as minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. I hope that the prime minister will depart from all past complications and announce that Japan will exercise of the right to collective self-defense as well as revise the three-point principles to ban arms exports in the forthcoming meeting with Obama. Such actions would solidify the alliance between Japan and the U.S. and further alleviate the Japanese people’s deep sense of insecurity.

While the inadequacy of Japan’s defense budget will continue to pose an obstacle to the strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance, the above two measures would, without any financial outlay, fundamentally solidify the alliance with the U.S. and alleviate the Japanese people’s deep worries.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former Japanese Ambassador to Thailand. This is an English translation of his article that appeared in Sankei Shimbun’s Seiron column Feb. 10.