Way back in the heady 1960s, Japan was one big Cathedral of Optimism, and I found myself among a people who believed their country was finally on that road laid out before them in the post-feudal Meiji Era (1868-1912) to “catch up with and overtake” the West. And indeed, by the end of the decade Japan’s annual gross domestic product was second only to that of the United States, and many believed — just as they do with China now — that it would someday be No. 1.
By the 1980s, boom years were upon us, and the Cathedral of Optimism was bulging at the buttresses. The economy was soaring ever upward, deftly evading obstacles … until, that is, the soaring turned to ballooning and the economy dropped to the ground in the early 1990s and the asset-price bubble burst.
Ever since then, the deflated economy has remained grounded, as its very fabric rots for want of comprehensive repair.
By 2000, the cathedral was emptied of Japanese optimists, and most of the foreign ones were climbing out of its windows, too. I found myself, inveterate optimist that I am, pretty much alone in that gaping space.
Now, at the beginning of 2013, the cathedral is filling up with Japanese optimists once again. Yet, I am not at home with these new worshippers … and here are the reasons why.
Shinzo Abe, as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that won December’s general election by a landslide, formally took the reins of state as prime minister on Dec. 26.
When he was still in opposition, however, he published a personal manifesto in the December issue of the popular monthly magazine Bungei Shunju. Titled “Toward a New Nation,” its subtitle was: “I want to retrieve Japan from its postwar history.”
In that piece, Abe explained how he believes Japan has been lost to a false commitment to international peace. He said he wants to remake the nation’s armed services into a “regular” army; to restart most nuclear reactors; and to pour massive funds into the regions as “investments in the future.”
The optimists filling the cathedral nowadays are those who will benefit financially from such investments, and who harbor faith in an aggressively armed-and-ready nation.
Setting aside for the moment the fact that having nuclear reactors operating around the country, and pouring hundreds of billions of yen into local economies, is more like reliving the past than retrieving it, what is likely to be the result of Abe’s avowed policies?
First, in terms of foreign policy, he is bound to take a revanchist stand on two territorial issues facing the nation, even as he seeks to pursue “mutually strategic benefits” with China and Korea.
The Senkaku Islands, called the Diaoyu Islands by China, will be staunchly policed against Chinese incursions into what the Japanese government considers its national territory.
China’s President Xi Jinping, however, has committed himself to bolstering his country’s presence in nearby seas, and new militancy on the part of the Japanese government will only trigger more anti-Japanese demonstrations in China — unrest the Chinese leadership encourages in order to deflect disaffection away from itself and onto the convenient target that Japan has become.
In contrast, a softer stance will be adopted toward South Korea in the dispute for Takeshima, an island between the two countries that’s known as Dokdo in Korea. Nonetheless, Koreans link that territorial dispute to Japan’s calculated denial of responsibility for war crimes against Korean women forced into sex slavery during World War II.
Since Abe has consistently refuted claims, and evidence, that the Japanese military or other government agencies were ever involved in such practices, this is bound to aggravate public opinion in Korea. In consequence, the government in Seoul will no doubt stick to its hard line on the issue of Takeshima’s sovereignty.
On top of all this, Abe stated on the national broadcaster NHK on Dec. 17 that he was “exceedingly bitter” about being restrained, during his previous stint as prime minister in 2006-07, from visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.
Visits by prime ministers and other prominent politicians to this shrine, seen as a citadel of worship for unrepentant nationalists, angers Asians who view themselves and their countries as former victims of that nationalism. If Abe does visit the shrine, expect explosions of anger in South Korea and China.
But the biggest foreign-policy issue facing the LDP-led government is, paradoxically, an internal one. Abe has, on numerous occasions, emphasized the importance he places on Japan’s relationship with the United States — to such an extent that he would sacrifice the interests of the people of Okinawa in order to not exacerbate it.
Okinawans, however, overwhelmingly oppose the use of their land by the U.S. military. So, as Abe cozies up to the Pentagon, an augmented militancy is most likely to reveal itself in Okinawa in the form of mass protests. A few hundred demonstrators who sit down at the gates of a U.S. base can effectively close it. If this happens, the prime minister will be obliged to forcibly remove his own people in order to protect his holy alliance with the United States.
Could this be what Abe means by creating a new and proud Japan?
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, there will be significant moves to urge local governments around the country to accept pump-priming investments in infrastructure, whether necessary or not. Abe specifically referred to this variety of spending in his Bungei Shunju article as a form of economic stimulus. Even so, productivity pay-offs linked to exports or domestic demand are likely, as in the 1990s under pump-priming LDP rule, to be minimal.
The result will be huge increases in Japan’s already astronomical national debt — without an accompanying increase in GDP to cancel out the damage.
Abe has focused his attention, both in his campaign and in his statements over the past two years, primarily on national defense, monetary easing and singular iconic issues such as North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens some decades ago.
But what will be done to “retrieve” the Japanese educational system from its dreadful decline over the past two decades? This should be the first priority of any government. Instead, without full-blown and fully supported reform backed by investment in curricula and teachers, we can expect to see a further deterioration in the quality of secondary and tertiary education.
Japan is swiftly becoming a class-ridden society in which children from less well-off households will have little chance of acquiring the education they need to start a successful career and better their lives.
Certainly, judging from all appearances and pronouncements, the new government seems more out of touch with young people than any other since the humiliation of defeat in the war that Abe is so intent on burying. All he seems to want to do is to instill in children his own (prewar-based) version of moral self-righteousness instead of an appreciation of (contemporary) diversity and tolerance.
Young people, though, are not this prime minister’s constituency — just as the people of Okinawa are not — so why worry about their genuine needs and demands?
I, for one, am leaving that new Cathedral of Optimism. It’s getting too crowded with people whose shouts deafen the nation with chauvinistic sloganeering.
This new year is already coming to resemble the 1930s, when Japan gave up on peace as it opted for belligerency, and liberty at home was extinguished.
Is this the old Japan that you desire to go back to, Mr. Prime Minister?