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Shinzo Abe isn’t a nationalist in the traditionalist mold

by Hiroaki Sato

What do Seumas Milne, Shinzo Abe, Yukio Mishima, and Okinawa have in common? The United States.

Last month, Seumas Milne wrote a column with the heading, “70 years of foreign troops? We should close the bases” (The Guardian, Jan. 22, 2014).

“There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion,” he reminded readers. “With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-89 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066″ for the string of military bases U.S. forces have held for the better part of a century.

Well, something close applies to Japan. In fact, unless you go back to the prehistoric times where foreign invasion, occupation and such remain in the realm of speculation, Japan never had anything like what it has had since the summer of 1945.

The Guardian columnist went on to point to “the neuroses of the British security elite, for whom the preservation of a lopsided ‘special relationship’ with the U.S. is the acme of their aspirations for the country,” referring to the “anxiety” of British “securocrats” over “risking American displeasure or neglect.”

Ah, American displeasure. How profusely the Japanese security elite sweated when the U.S. announced it was “disappointed” by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine!

But Milne’s observations drew my attention not just because what he said of the U.K. applies to Japan with a greater force, but because I learned that Milne is regarded as a “left-wing” commentator. British politician-journalist Daniel Hannan once counted him among “My top five Leftie columnists.”

That taxonomy brought to mind a wry analysis Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) made a year before he chose to kill himself. At the time, the students’ movement, a large part of which was opposed to the Vietnam War, was reaching its peak. Yet Prime Minister Eisaku Sato kept going out of his way to support the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. He was also visiting Washington to meet President Richard Nixon to cement the U.S.-Japanese security ties yet again.

With all that in mind, The New York Times asked Mishima to contribute an article. By then, he was widely known for showing off a “small nationalistic student group” he created. He happily complied.

“Those who insist on the independence of the Japanese minzoku, oppose American military bases, oppose the [Japan-U.S.] Security Treaty and shout, ‘Return Okinawa at once,’ would be nationalist and right-wing in a standard understanding abroad,” Mishima wrote. “But in Japan, they are left-wing and Communist.”

The word “minzoku” is hard to translate because its meaning kept changing. First, the Japanese chose to translate President Woodrow Wilson’s “self-determination” as minzoku-jiketsu, which was closer to its German Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Völker. The word minzoku was for Völker and it came with a good dose of Gemeinschaft.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, minzokushugi (nationalism) replaced minzoku-jiketsu, and pacifist Japanese intellectuals took it up as a great slogan for former colonies to gain independence.

But the same intellectuals began to frown upon the word minzoku when it was used on its own because it hinted a revival of prewar “Japanism.” It was minzoku in that sense whose movement Mishima openly supported in the last part of his life.

However, the role reversal occurred to the other side as well, Mishima was delighted to tell the Times readers.

“A certain section of the traditional right wing, completely bereft of their stock-in-trade nationalism by the left wing,” Mishima observed, “countered the left-wing demonstration against the port call of the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise by sallying forth with the American flag in the left hand and the Japanese flag in the right.”

In doing so, “they were just like Madama Butterfly’s child on the operatic stage,” Mishima mocked. The Times gave Mishima’s article the heading: “Okinawa and Madame Butterfly’s Offspring.”

Puccini’s masterwork was banned during World War II as an insult to the “leading minzoku” that was Japanese.

Is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “nationalistic” as the foreign media make him out to be? (Japanese media generally call him “conservative.”)

To characterize Abe as such because of his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine — it enshrines those convicted in the nebulous category of “crimes against peace” (Class A) — at this late date strikes me as plain silly.

Here, allow me to say that the Tokyo Trial was a well-meaning sham or, as a friend of mine who strongly disagrees with me on this score would call it, a show trial.

The historical justifications advanced for putting Japan on trial were self-righteous to the core, as Helen Mears pointed out in “Mirror for Americans: Japan” (1948). The West’s postwar condemnation of Japan “in toto” would be “a perfect illustration,” she said, “of respectable people smashing their own glass houses.”

The international laws for justifying the trial, such as they were, were wobbly at best, as Richard Minear argued in “Victor’s Justice: Tokyo War Crimes Trial” (1971).

Then there was the trial format. It was of the kind deemed unacceptable in the U.S. (except in the South until the 1950s), as Elizabeth Vining observed in “Windows for the Crown Prince” (1952). The countries that tried Japan served simultaneously as prosecutor, jury and judge.

Was the purpose of the Tokyo Trial to lay down the principles of international justice for the world to come?

Well then, how about the great many political and military leaders of the world — especially of more powerful nations — who have committed all classes of “war crimes” enumerated in the Tokyo Trial, and still gone scot-free?

The U.S. refuses to join the International Criminal Court set up to deal with “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

Is Shinzo Abe “nationalistic” in the “traditional” mold? No way. Abe is in no position to demand that the U.S. vacate its military bases in Japan, including the biggest one, in Okinawa, for all the fervent wish of the island’s residents. Well then, is he a “leftie”?

Japan is a country where its conservative leaders can’t survive without showing “glimpses of nationalism” even as they advocate “international cooperation,” Mishima judged in 1969. The situation hasn’t changed a bit.

Hiroaki Sato is a writer and translator in New York. “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima” is his book with Naoki Inose.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ Andrew Sheldon

    Such articles miss the point. Abe will be whom ever you want him to be. He is a puppet for the collective feelings of the collective mandate. Give him a few years, watch him escalate the public disdain for ineffectual govt, and then you will eventually see the public sanction a ‘man of action’, a ‘can do man’, who crosses a few more lines, but gets things done. This is the trend unless the standard of political discourse is changed. The idea that we need a government as some central authority for decision-making needs to be challenged. No – that does not mean anarchy.

    • phu

      A “puppet for the collective feelings of the collective mandate?” Have you been watching at all? Abe and his cabinet explicitly IGNORE public mandates. If you’re going to turn everything into a pitch for your odd political ideas, at least use actual facts instead of outright falsehoods like this.

      • Hans Rutzigen

        Abe does seem to be enjoying support from the Yomiuri, the largest selling newspaper in Japan.

      • phu

        I’m not sure I understand this. Are you implying that because a -company- supports the administration that it’s somehow an indicator of -public- support? A company that could very realistically have its access to politicians cut off by Japan’s press club culture if it criticizes the wrong person?

      • Hans Rutzigen

        Yes, Newspapers and their circulation numbers are a very good indication of public support or lack there of. The Asahi Newspaper has raked the Abe administration over the coals recently with out being booted from the press club. Unfortunately though, the Asahi Newspaper doesn’t sell as well as the Yomiuri. I notice that you have yet to qualify what you mean by public mandate.

  • Tando

    What is Mr. Sato trying to construe here. Have we ever heard that Mr. Abe was against American bases. Maybe we should remind him that Mr. Abes Party the LDP was created with substantial american funds to counter communist movements in the age of the Cold War. Maybe it was because of this legacy that the LPD gave the US free reign over Okinawa. Japanese Nationalism is mainly directed against China with implicit support from the US with the dispute over the Senkaku Isles a prime example.

    As for the war trials, I agree that there was a good dose of victors justice and that other nations get away with worse things. But things like bayoneting prisoners of war or cruel medical experiments including vivisection ect. happened, and pointing at others is in not a responsible way to deal with the past. Abes nationalism is about whitewashing the ugly parts of japanese history. But there is a saying, “Those who dont want to learn from the past may have to live through it again”.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Abe’ss motivation for whitewashing the past is at least partly due to the fact that his grandfather (Kishi Nobusuke) was implicated as a war criminal, having been near the top of the hierarchy in Manchukoku, for example. Moreover, Kishi was one of the main beneficiaries of the American (CIA) funded creation of the LDP.

      There are three papers on Kishi at the following link, one by renowned scholar Chalmers Johnson. http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp11.html

  • Steve Jackman

    This article is a perfect illustration of the differences in writing style, composition and use of logic, between the Japanese and most Westerners.

    I am not saying one is better than the other, since that is for readers to decide for themselves. However, it helps explain why Westerners and Japanese often fail to make a connection, since they end up talking at each other, not to one another.

    This article demonstrates profound cultural differences between ways of communication and expressions between Japanese and non-Japanese. The Japanese author of this article is clearly intelligent, knowledgable, and has a very good grasp of the English language. However, the composition, logic and structure is distinctly Japanese, so many non-Japanese will likely have a difficult time following it.