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Japan’s rollercoaster modern history has kept coming off the rails

by Roger Pulvers

First Of Three Parts

At the end of this month, Roger Pulvers will be leaving Counterpoint. In his last three columns since his inaugural weekly Counterpoint on April 3, 2005, he will consider in turn Japan in the past, present and future.

Let us take the year 1890 to begin with.

In that year Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan. Of course, the arrival of a Greek-Irish journalist was of little or no import; and none could then have known that 1890 would be precisely midway between the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868 and its end, with the death of Emperor Mutsuhito (posthumously, Emperor Meiji) in 1912.

But I have chosen this year because it opened a decade of consolidation of progress. The civil strife and rebellion that characterized the early years of the Meiji Era were consigned to history, and the country was on its way to becoming an industrialized nation.

Hearn’s views of his adopted land — with his claims that the quaint (if oppressive) feudal customs and ancient mysteries constituted “the real Japan” — now appear stultifyingly dated. But in 1890 it was by no means certain that the modernization of the country was a fait accompli. It was only with the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 that the populace was won over to modernization. Provincial independence and feudal mores were, it was then generally felt, little to give up in exchange for the national and international prestige of imperial victory.

This set a pattern for Asia that had been long established in Europe and the United States: The national government could gain local allegiance through successful international aggression. It is, indeed, a pattern that exists in an even more virulent and dangerous form around the world today, through which the loyalty of the working classes, the oppressed and the disadvantaged is bought off by reactionary governments flashing jingoistic slogans before their eyes.

Though Japan’s aspiration for empire turned chauvinism into an unmitigated evil, for a time Japan’s successes made it an attractive role model for non-Europeans who aspired to their own national prestige and modernization. After all, if the non-white, non-Christian Japanese could rival the West’s monopoly on power around the world, the hierarchy of race and rule established in Europe would lose its sham credibility.

Hearn, who died in Tokyo in 1904, did not live to see Japan’s victory in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. By then, the country had transformed itself in a few short decades from a backwater into a powerful nation state. The Chinese, though defeated in 1895, were impressed, sending thousands of their best students to Japan to learn how the Japanese managed to achieve it.

History will, I believe, come to regard this — the way Japan showed non-white, non-Christian countries that it was possible to redress the imbalances of power, wealth and prestige that slavery and colonialism had imposed on them — as the nation’s greatest achievement. And this despite its well-deserved defeat in World War II.

That defeat in 1945 proved another thing: You don’t have to be white and Christian to be an international oppressor. The Japanese had longed to join the exclusive club of empire; and when they did, they acted with a barbarity akin to that demonstrated by the European powers.

After the war, Japan once again set out, with its “peace Constitution,” to achieve the goals of national prestige, this time solely by means of economic development. And although Japan failed to make adequate apologies to the countries it ravaged — China and Korea, in particular — it gave generous aid, both pecuniary and technological, to many of those countries. Indeed, neither China’s nor South Korea’s postwar economic “miracles” would have been possible without Japanese assistance, however loath those countries’ governments are to admit it to their own people.

As in the Meiji Era, post-World War II Japan was again becoming a role model for the developing world. Through diligence and assiduous planning, it had, by the late 1960s — a mere 20-odd years after indiscriminate U.S. bombing had razed nearly every Japanese city — come to boast the world’s second-largest economy.

But something was hanging over the head of every Japanese citizen: in two words, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When U.S. B-29 Superfortresses dropped atomic bombs on those two cities, it set a precedent for the world. War was now not just piecemeal devastation. It meant annihilation. Had the Japanese taken up the antinuclear issue as their primary concern both internally and externally, they would have truly shown the world the power of peaceful development. But they could never properly exploit the issue because, just as the dog is man’s best friend, Japan was the best friend of the country that inflicted the two nuclear holocausts on it.

This highly unequal relationship, in which the Japanese have been required — and, it must be said, have been demonstrably eager — to heel to their American master has not changed significantly for 68 years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite his prideful stances, still walks the walk and barks the bark that defines Japan’s role in the world and prevents it from becoming the independent nation that people of the Meiji Era dreamt of.

In addition, despite their nuclear allergy as the world’s only atom-bombed nation, the Japanese bought into the hoax of “atoms for peace”; and at the prodding of the U.S., developed a nationwide array of nuclear power plants, suspending any belief these were connected to the very forces that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet, by the end of the 1980s, it certainly looked as if the Japanese, the envy of the world, had created the best of all possible models. Then … it all went horribly gourd-shaped.

Just as the military strategists of prewar Japan had mistaken hubris for might and extended their reach far beyond their capability to sustain it, the economic wizards of Japan’s phenomenal growth had been blissfully unaware that the economy was dangerously overleveraged. The asset bubble burst spectacularly at the beginning of the 1990s, and all confidence in Japanese superiority drained away, both at home and abroad.

Then in January 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake, followed by sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system two months later, further severely bruised the nation’s spirit. Hadn’t the people of Japan been fully prepared for natural disaster? Weren’t they impervious to terror attacks from the inside? The answer was twice “no.” There was nothing special about Japan anymore.

Japan’s postwar development had seemed to be superbly on course yet, unawares to almost all, it was adrift. Its citizens, bent on national resurrection, had suppressed their personal opinions and let their leaders man the helm unsupervised — only to end up hopelessly at sea. None of the good old determined application and stoic pluck was working. In 1995, Makoto Oda, novelist and political activist, wondered if Japan was really “a country of human beings or not.”

Few realized that another Meiji Era-style revolution in the society was required. And in the past two decades, the only injections administered to allay this new type of national fatigue syndrome have been the same old pump-priming, pork-barrel boosters. (Today’s buzzword, “Abenomics,” is a new name for the old boosters.)

For the last two so-called lost decades, Japan has no longer been a role model, but rather a hanmen kyōshi — a teacher who instructs by negative example. People around the world started pointing fingers at Japan, for all the wrong reasons. And just as Japan had once startled the world by catching up with and then overtaking the West, China was now coming up swiftly from behind and looking unstoppable.

Then came the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, and the ongoing nuclear disaster that followed. Once again, as at the end of World War II, Japanese people were tossed into an abyss of confusion.

Where is it all heading? Can Japanese people look ahead to lives blessed with pride, joy and hope? Who in Japan will take responsibility for the past? Where is the national leader who will look back at the nuclear attacks from the outside on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and say they were the precursors of the nuclear attack from the inside in 2011? Which leader will admit that the model of export-driven growth that worked so well in the postwar era is entirely untenable in a century marked by climate crisis and biological desolation?

It is these questions that bring us up to the present in this country and provide the topic for next week’s Counterpoint.