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Is Japan a ‘normal’ country simply trying to stick out?

by Hugh Cortazzi

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is often quoted as saying that he wants Japan to become a “normal” country again. It seems that he regards the structure of postwar Japan, including the Japanese Constitution and the Fundamental Law on Education adopted during the Allied Occupation, as not normal.

He asserted in his book “Toward a Beautiful Japan” (Utsukushii Nippon e) that the intention of the Allied Forces had been to bind Japan hand and foot so that it could not rise for the second time as a world power.

Japan is a world power. It has modern armed forces and is one of the leading powers in Asia. It undoubtedly is a great power in the political, economic and cultural spheres.

In order to become more normal, Abe wants Japan to have a more “equal” strategic alliance with the United States. He does not like what he sees as Japan’s junior status in the alliance because the obligations of Japan and the U.S. to one another are not the same under the alliance. But Japan’s dependence on the U.S. nuclear umbrella is much the same as that of other nonnuclear democratic countries. In any Asian conflict involving the U.S., Japan would inevitably be drawn in. A change in the treaty to make it more “equal” would be cosmetic and in practical terms pointless.

Abe would also like Japan to be able to take a more active role in United Nations peacekeeping.

He seems to think that to enable both these steps to be taken it is necessary to amend Article 9 of the Constitution. This would be highly contentious in Japan and would be seen by Japan’s Asian neighbors as provocative. It is, however, possible that after Japan interpreted Article 9 to allow the development of Japanese Self-Defense Forces, some further clarifications and interpretations of Article 9 could be made to allow a more active role in U.N. peacekeeping.

Abe believes that the Japanese Constitution as a whole and the Fundamental Law on Education have prevented Japan from becoming a normal country. The Constitution and the Fundamental Law were intended to ensure that Japan became a fully democratic nation and have been instrumental in developing democratic processes and institutions in Japan. They thus have contributed to making Japan a normal country among the democratic countries of the world.

Proposals by the Liberal Democratic Party for revision of the Constitution, presumably to make it more normal, seem designed to make Japan less normal in the eyes of other democratic states. The LDP’s proposals would water down human rights provisions of the Constitution that have been regarded by many outside Japan as one of the great strengths of the Japanese Constitution. Among the proposals are the provisions obligating respect for the national flag and national anthem and compliance “with public interest and public order.”

The LDP’s proposals are reminiscent of the antidemocratic, prewar system.

Abe appears to think that the Designated Secrets Law is needed to make Japan a normal country, but although other democratic countries have laws to protect security of information, the new Japanese law is different from such as the Official Secret Act in Britain.

Definitions in the Japanese law are vague and the law could be used in a draconian fashion to limit freedom of the press. The provisions of the law have to be seen against the way in which the prewar Japanese government dealt with criticism of its policies and hounded Japanese and foreign journalists.

There are, however, aspects of Japan that do make Japan seem abnormal. In almost every country and culture there are features peculiar to that country. It is natural and right for all peoples to have pride in their culture and homeland. But some Japanese put too much emphasis on their special characteristics and pay too little attention to what they have in common with others. Much has been written about the Japanese Galapagos syndrome and Nihonjinron (about how special the Japanese are).

Japanese who think they are so different from others damage their own long-term interests. Emphasis on the special qualities of being Japanese and the obsession with racial homogeneity is racist in practice if not in intent.

Another aspect of modern Japan that makes Japan less of a normal country is the way in which internationalization seems to have slowed in recent years. In the bubble years there were complaints in the West of the over-presence of Japanese companies and people. Today it is the over-presence of Chinese, which arouses concern.

But what has happened to the internationally minded Japanese who were happy to study and live abroad?

Foreigners who teach or give lectures in Japan are often depressed by the lack of questions from a Japanese audience. This is due in part to limited ability in the English language, a factor that sets Japanese apart from other Asians who have a better command of English. It is also due to the fear of some Japanese that raising a question will make the person stand out in a way that does not conform with Japanese norms.

Abe’s LDP does not seem to believe in encouraging questioning and individualism. Obedience and conformity seem to be the qualities they demand and expect from the Japanese people.

Japan is a “normal” democratic country in constitutional and international terms. Japan’s claims to normality are undermined by attempts to impose conformity and limit freedoms.

Hugh Cortazzi served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.