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Abe’s culture wars boomerang against Japan

by Jeff Kingston

Japan’s culture wars are heating up to the detriment of the nation. The Financial Times is right to warn that the jingoism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and attempts to stifle public debate, are grave threats to Japan’s open society. Most Japanese don’t want to go where Abe is trying to drag them, but he is stomping ahead regardless.

After Abe returned to power in 2012, Japan’s history problem and culture wars suddenly reignited with a vengeance. His ideological crusade to rehabilitate Japan’s regrettable wartime record and impose reactionary values gains little popular support, but like-minded revisionists are overrepresented in the governing elite and are undaunted by public opinion or indeed verifiable historical facts.

Japan’s culture wars rage over reactionary efforts to undermine democratic values and 21st-century norms through the secrecy law, revising school textbooks, hijacking history — and national broadcaster NHK — supporting misogynists, banning anti-nuclear manga and ignoring local voices in Okinawa. Inevitably, these domestic battles have spilled over into the global arena, pitting Japan against its neighbors and liberal democracies around the world.

One would think that revisionists would learn that their artful glorification of what most Japanese and the rest of the world condemn only discredits Japan and what it has achieved since defeat in 1945. Rather than focusing on Japan’s many significant postwar achievements, Team Abe wants to beautify an ignoble era when the militarists ran amok.

Try telling Asians that Japan fought a war to liberate them; throughout Southeast and Northeast Asia Japan’s defeat was welcomed because Japan was reviled as the new colonial overlord. Revisionists claim credit for promoting independence in Asia, but it was an inadvertent consequence of defeat, not the aim of Japan’s military aggression.

Consequently, undignified efforts to legitimize Japan’s Asian rampage convince few people in Japan, and nobody else in the region, while sullying Japan’s international reputation.

The U.S. government rightly criticized Abe’s visit last December to Yasukuni Shrine. It was a diplomatic disaster. As former Ambassador Kazuhiko Togo pointed out, “Through the single act of visiting Yasukuni, Abe has allowed the creation of an international coalition against Japan related to historical recognition among the United States, China, South Korea and Russia.”

Abe may have scored points with his conservative base — but at the cost of alienating those who wish Japan well in Washington.

Abe says he visits the shrine to promote peace and understanding, but something gets lost in translation, since Yasukuni serves as a talismanic symbol for an unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Abe’s fanciful revisionist views are on display at the adjacent Yushukan Museum. There, the Nanking Massacre didn’t happen, there were no “comfort women,” there were no gruesome experiments conducted by the infamous Unit 731 — indeed, there was no Japanese aggression claiming the lives of at least 14 million Chinese and displacing 100 million refugees. Degrading treatment of Koreans during the 1910-45 colonial era? Nope. Japan’s wartime leaders blamed for starting and prolonging a war they knew they could not win, causing the deaths of nearly 3 million Japanese for vainglorious dreams of empire? Incredibly, these dubious leaders are the real martyrs.

People like myself who admire and respect Japan wonder what can be gained by Japan unilaterally rewriting its history and denying volumes of evidence rigorously compiled by researchers in Japan and around the world.

Abe is now enlisting powerful institutions to fight his revisionist battles, stacking the leadership of NHK with reactionary cronies and getting the education ministry to issue new textbook guidelines that recklessly trample on regional sensitivities.

Instead of textbook diplomacy and trying to work with neighbors about their shared past, Team Abe has declared war, imposing new guidelines that force teachers to nurture an indignant patriotism that will make reconciliation even more difficult.

Abe’s signature secrecy legislation is also anathema to most Japanese because it curbs transparency, civil liberties and media freedom, evoking the dark era of Japan in jackboots.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe compared the current situation between Japan and China with Europe on the eve of World War I — pointing out that everyone then thought war unlikely because of strong economic ties between Great Britain and Germany. It was a useful reminder that nobody ought to be complacent about current tensions in Asia.

Abe’s PR team was dismayed that the global reaction was unfairly critical of their boss, but only weeks beforehand he had reinforced his hawkish image by genuflecting at the war shrine.

Opening the Pandora’s box of history was foolish, practically inviting Beijing to fire back that Japan attacked China in 1894 and seized the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets during the hostilities. Hopefully, Abe has learned that history is not Japan’s trump card.

The global finger-pointing spilled over into the op-ed pages in London, Berlin and Washington, with ambassadors name-calling and invoking “Harry Potter” villains. China and South Korea joined forces at the United Nations in condemning Japan’s treatment of the so-called comfort women, and celebrated the opening of a museum in Harbin, Manchuria (present-day Northeast China) honoring Ahn Jung-geun, the Korean patriot who, in 1909, assassinated Ito Hirobumi, a prominent Japanese statesman.

The battle spread to southwestern France, where the Angoulême International Comics Festival displayed 20 Korean manga and anime about the comfort-women system, but barred Japan’s belated request to present a rejoinder.

Japan is losing this war of words and gestures because Abe has picked the wrong fights.

Ironically, after a year of China militarizing conflicts in the South and East China Seas, Abe managed to come out looking like the warmonger. And, as he tries to wriggle off the hook of history, he is letting China off the hook, diverting attention from what China is doing now by shifting the limelight to Japan’s inglorious wartime past.

The recent NHK scandal also makes Abe look incompetent and eager to stifle public debate on issues most Japanese disagree with him on. He packed the board with cronies from the loony fringe who rationalize the comfort-women system, deny the Nanking massacre, deify the Emperor and slag career women. NHK also curbed anti-nuclear commentary on its programs in line with Abe’s unpopular advocacy of reactor restarts.

Abe may have written a book titled “Towards a Beautiful Japan,” but his radical agenda is looking ugly and out of sync with mainstream values.

In these dark days, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is also curbing free expression, forcing sculptor Katsuhisa Nakagaki to remove a sign on his work that read: “Let us protect Article 9 of the Constitution, admit the stupidity of visiting Yasukuni Shrine, stop the rightward tilt of the current administration and seek political leaders who are more intellectual and thoughtful.”

In Abe’s era of orchestrated patriotism, even artists are not allowed to be subversive or edgy.

On Jan. 25, the new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii held a press conference where he blew off the comfort-women issue and showed he is unfit for the job because he is clueless about press freedom and journalistic ethics. In a Pyongyang moment, Momii insisted that NHK’s job is to serve as the government’s mouthpiece. One wonders why viewers’ license fees are squandered on paying Momii and his fellow clowns on the board more than ¥22 million a year each to destroy NHK’s credibility while spattering Japan’s reputation.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • gokyo

    Lest we also not forget the antics of folks like Toshio Tamogami hawking for a Japan that has its own nuclear arsenal along with other offensive toys like aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines. A guy that said if he had a nuclear weapon in 1945 he would have used it against America. Keep in mind that this guy got over 600,000 votes in the recent election. Abe wants to improve the history being taught in schools so that he can create a new generation of revisionist constituency. Of course the last history class that many Japanese students are exposed to is taught in Junior High School, history in High Schools is an elective. I think we can anticipate more problems with Abe’s plans from the world opinion arena as I am sure that he has more “up his sleeve.”

    • Sarah Morrigan

      The writer of this article assumes that the loony opinions of Abe Shinzo is in fringe minority and do not represent “most” of Japanese. That might be wrong. The resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia is fueled by the perceived nuclear threats from a certain socialist theme-park up in the northwest, and now the increasing Chinese naval capacity is only adding to the anxiety. Those who are older than 30 know the “glorious” era of Japan — circa the 1980s — in which Japan was the super economic power that was about to eclipse even the United States. Now Japan is behind China, the hallmark Japanese institution of “lifetime employment” is history, and the middle-class is rapidly eroding in a nation that once boasted of being the 100-million-strong middle class. Homelessness was relatively unknown but now a prospect many working-class people face. The younger generation thus resonates with the social media driven “net uyo” movement — much in a way how the internet fuelled the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, but in a uniquely Japanese perversion of it — and even the racist/anti-immigrant groups such as the Zaitokukai. Indeed, Gen. Tamogami only lost because he had no backing of the establishment. But that would change if the establishment feels that it could cash in on the populist sentiments, just as the Tea Party became the major force in the U.S. Republican Party. All this is simply exacerbated by the chronic weakness of the Japanese education system in teaching liberal arts (which enables students to think critically and examine sources of information) and its overemphasis on standarized exams.

  • iwishitweretrue

    The problem is that Japan has a history of allowing Right Wing tyrants to take over and push Japan where it does not want to go. The tyrants usually operate through lies, stealth, force and secrecy, all of which we see being used by Abe, and his WW2 revisionists. Unfortunately for Abe, because of WW2 and what Japan did to the USA and to Asia, the outside world has an active interest in seeing that Japan remains a peaceful and responsible member of the world community.