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Will Japan repeat past errors?

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Is Japan in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past? History does not repeat itself and circumstances today are very different from those of 80 years ago, but ultra-nationalism has been latent in some circles in Japan for centuries and poses a potential threat to peace and to Japan’s long-term interests.

The United States today is Japan’s ally not its enemy. There are anti-American elements in Japan and understandable resentment against Japanese bases in Okinawa, but hostilities between Japan and the U.S. are unimaginable in the foreseeable future.

The Korean Peninsula has been seen for centuries as “a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.” The North Korean regime, which poses a threat to world peace, has South Korea, the U.S. and Japan as its first targets.

Relations with South Korea are bedeviled by the history of Japanese colonial rule and complicated by the presence in Japan of a significant Korean minority, which has suffered from the racial prejudices of some Japanese. The dispute over the Takeshima islets provides material for ultra-nationalist rhetoric in both countries. If there was good will on both sides the dispute should be solvable. Unfortunately jealousies including commercial and economic issues get in the way.

China 80 years ago was poor and riven by strife. Its GDP has now overtaken that of Japan and it has formidable armed forces as well as ultra-nationalist elements. A repetition of Japan’s aggression against China in the 1930s is impossible. But extremists in both countries are a threat to the development of closer relations between the countries.

Extremists use the dispute over the barren Senkaku Islands to arouse patriotic feelings. Japanese attempts to deny that there is a dispute are belied by what former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982. He then said that it had been agreed with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that the dispute should be shelved and settled later. The provocative intervention by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and mishandling by the Democratic Party of Japan government at the time made matters worse. There is a danger that a miscalculation or provocative action by either China or Japan could spark conflict.

There is no conceivable Japanese interest in aggressive action against Southeast Asian countries today. The British, French and Dutch have all withdrawn and the main Japanese interests in the area are trade and investment.

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are well trained and equipped, but have generally kept out of politics. Civilian control has been maintained, although there have been signs of a wish to dilute this and one or two senior officers are reported to have expressed ultra-nationalist opinions. A military coup d’état fortunately seems most unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The pre-war zaibatsu conglomerates, which were dragooned into supporting the military in prewar days, no longer exist. The primary interests of the various economic and commercial groups are in remaining profitable in the face of foreign competition. While they will try to limit the penetration of the Japanese market by foreign rivals they have nothing to gain and much to lose from extremism and ultra-nationalism.

There is a populist appeal in “standing up” to China, Russia and South Korea but if conflict looked likely Japanese people would not knuckle under in the way their forefathers did in the 1930s. While there have been attempts to indoctrinate the young to become more patriotic and nationalist, they have not been brainwashed in the way their great grandparents were.

The Emperor has studiously kept out of politics and would not be manipulated by extremists in the way Japan’s military leaders misused reverence for the Showa Emperor.

The idea of a repetition of the events of the 1930s is thus totally unrealistic. But there is a real risk that the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party will pursue policies leading to a more autocratic and nationalist regime, which could threaten Japan’s long term national interests.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the coterie that surrounds him have taken the first steps toward “counter-reformation.” Abe has been ultra-sensitive to criticism and, while there is no official censorship, pressure on the media to support his policies has grown. NHK, which should be independent, has become a government mouthpiece. The kisha club (press club) system, which is used to feed government information to the media, has been used to promote self-censorship by the implied threat of being excluded from access. A vendetta against the Asahi Shimbun seems to have been at least partly successful.

The official secrets act enacted in late 2013 without adequate parliamentary scrutiny contains provisions that could be misused to limit freedom of speech. Anyone familiar with the spy mania of prewar Japan must be concerned about the dangers from this piece of legislation. My requests for an analysis of the law have so far evoked no official response.

Abe wishes to amend the Constitution. The focus has so far been on Article 9 and defense issues, but right-wing circles have mooted dilution of the human rights clauses and enhancing the status of the Emperor. Nihon Kaigi, a right wing group with many associates in the LDP, is reported to be an increasingly influential force.

Abe’s historical revisionism, which is being backed by many members of his party, is a major cause for concern. The main focus has been on the Nanjing massacre and “comfort women” issues, but other crimes by members of the Japanese Imperial forces during the war have not yet been erased from memory in Southeast Asian countries. Nor have the nearly 13,000 allied POWs and tens of thousands of local slave laborers who died building the Burma-Siam railway been forgotten, even if Japanese school textbooks do not mention these facts.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, any attempt by Abe to dilute the Murayama and Kono statements or to deny historical facts will be damaging to Japan’s reputation in the world and to Japan’s national interests.

A repetition of events in the 1930s is inconceivable but there is much about politics in Tokyo to cause alarm among those of us who admire Japanese culture and have many Japanese friends.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • paul martin

    Japan’s military are defense oriented. China and North Korea are too powerful today unlike the 30’s so there is an extreme balance as long as the US is committed to defend Japan and it’s allies under the SEATO,etc it is unlikely anyone will try to attack Japan and therefore Japan has NO reason to even consider aggression !

  • Urnot godhito

    How is japan going to protect and defend their overseas industries, properties and investments? With all the international civil unrest going on, these could be.siezed and even be used against them. Could they use these things for justification to invade again?

  • Ahojanen

    Rather ironically past errors may be repeated not by Japan, but by PRC who justifies its maritime expansionism by addressing regional peace and prosperity (of CPC, by CPC , and for CPC). Their aim is nothing but to build another Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

  • It was to be hoped that the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII on Sept 2nd would have resulted in a worldwide attempt to remember why the rebuilding of Japan was such a success, not only from an economic point of view but from leading to wide peace in East Asia. No one looked back to America’s trials in Vietnam or to Cambodia’s tragedy under the Khmer Rouge to find models. Instead, they looked at democratic Japan at peace in the decade
    of the 1960s when Japanese incomes trebled.

    In The Puritan Gift and elsewhere, my brother, Will and I argue
    that the great wealth producing American corporations of the 20th
    century were one of the major creations of human society. The end of the
    Atlantic and Pacific wars gave MacArthur’s Civil Communications Section (CCS) a very able and experienced team, almost all from one of the greatest, AT&T. It was, however, not their superintelligence but their contacts, experience and confidence that gave those seconded executives their great influence when the initial exuberance (“a Japan Spring?”) that followed the signing of the Peace on the Missouri wore off. Homer Sarasohn, the Head of CCS Industrial Division at the time, loved to tell how their proposal to set up some not very impressive “Electrical Communications Equipment Manufacturers”, where CCS had replaced the top management (“horrible men”), to be competitive in world markets was opposed by many in Tokyo GHQ. MacArthur pointed the stem of his corn-cob at him and said simply, “Go! Do it!” The companies quickly became the world stunning Japanese Consumer Electronics industry!

    The Arab Springs inspired all of us but when the initial exuberance
    wore off there was no equivalent of CCS on the ground to provide the necessary know-how and confidence. I am not in touch with individual nations as I used to be (I am 89) but hopefully, the Middle East will get through its current troubles when they see nations like India, Sri Lanka and Morocco do what we know they can do, hopefully advised by the new Japan.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Japan will not repeat past errors. But Japan can commit new errors.

    The odds of Japan committing new errors are enhanced by someone like Abe Shinzo who is a complex combination of intense loyalty to his grandfather, strong sense of mission, an overarching rejection of criticism, and a proclivity to adjust reality to fit his prejudices.

  • Literary Guy

    Hugh Cortazzi seems to miss the point that Japan’s embrace of militarist aggression has since WWII been at the behest of the US empire, not in opposition to it. Abe is happy to plunge Japan fully into an endless war on terrorism, Robin to America’s Batman, the junior partner in a Neo-con fantasy of military aggression and domination sold as the clash of civilizations. Cortazzi, writing from the vestiges of an empire replaced by the US, is laughably blind to role of western imperialism in the Asian-Pacific war, as if Japan had simply gone stark mad in the 1930s, knocked of its horse by a sudden fit of Emperor worship. Japan’s official secrets act follows in the wake of similar legislation in the US and England. We don’t need to stare back at Japanese history to fear a society of constant surveillance. All Japanese need do is look across the Pacific.

    A million Iraqis died as a result of the US invasion. If Abe has his way, next time, Japanese soldiers will be thrown into the thick of it along with the British.

  • tisho

    In terms of the economy, yes, they are already doing the exact same mistake they did during the so called bubble era. In terms of militarism, no because the circumstances and the world we are living now is different.