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What path will Japan take?

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Japan’s continuing importance should not need restating, but its future prospects aren’t so clear. Serious questions need to be asked about the direction and policies being pursued by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

An important new book, “Rethinking Japan: The Politics of Contested Nationalism,” by two senior British scholars of Japan discusses the main contentious issues. Their worrying conclusion is that “the new Japan that is emerging … will be more controlled, less democratic, less oriented toward peace, more internationally assertive, more inclined to confront neighboring countries, more unequal, more stressed, more concerned to flaunt national traditions reflecting the ethos of a militaristic past, more inward looking and less internationalist than the world became used to in the postwar years.”

This is a disturbing conclusion. How far is it justified? The authors, after outlining the political history of Japan since the war, discuss in some depth the changes wrought in Japan’s political system by electoral reform and the decline of the factions (habatsu). They draw particular attention to the growing strength of right-wing nationalism in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and stress the importance for Japan of success being achieved by Abenomics.

Their concerns focus on five main issues — constitutional revision, the state secrets law and freedom of speech, historical revisionism, legislating for collective self-defense, and relations with Japan’s neighbors and with the rest of the world. Each issue is discussed in some detail and the arguments are set out logically.

The LDP’s proposals for revision of the postwar Constitution are worrying. Apart from the proposed amendments to Article 9, which could undermine Japan’s commitment to peace, they detract from the commitment to upholding universal human rights by asserting the primacy of the nation’s “unique” cultural heritage.

Abe, who recently effectively received an endorsement for a third term in office, has managed to achieve a two-thirds majority in both Diet chambers for his ruling coalition and its allies. It would thus theoretically be possible to initiate amendments to the Constitution and seek the approval of the electorate in a referendum, although it is not clear how far Abe could rely on his allies in Komeito to support what would be a risky strategy.

One of Abe’s achievements has been stability. Any attempt to change the Constitution would arouse large-scale public protest and could be destabilizing. Abe is a pragmatist and should recognize that his economic policies cannot succeed unless stability is maintained.

The Americans saw the Japanese government as “a leaky sieve.” To meet this criticism the state secrets law was pushed through the Diet without adequate debate. Its provisions, which remind some of the absurd lengths to which the prewar military went to preserve secrecy, do not contain adequate safeguards to prevent action being taken against whistleblowers and investigative journalists.

The law does not seem to have been misused so far, but the way in which NHK has been manipulated to support government policies and the pressures applied to deter critical comments even in prestigious foreign newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung are disturbing. These measures suggest a government that is oversensitive to critical reporting and waiting for the chance to act against its critics.

Freedom of speech can only be preserved if the Japanese media uphold the Guardian newspaper’s assertion that “facts are sacred, comment is free.” Unfortunately, parts of the Japanese media act like pussycats being stroked and fed through the kisha club system. If tested we must hope that they will show their claws and use them to defend their freedom.

Historical revisionism is grist to the advocates of constitutional amendments and of controls on press freedom. In the “post-truth” society promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump, who sees the media as his enemy, the more frequently lies are repeated the more they tend to be believed. As a survivor from war service in Asia, I find it particularly difficult to swallow the lies and distortions of Japanese historical revisionists. But we should not let this side issue get blown out of proportion.

The way in which legislation for collective self-defense was enacted aroused anger among devotees of Japan’s peace Constitution. But Japan was under great pressure, both from its American ally and from the growing military power of China and the militarization of islets in the South China Sea, to beef up it defense forces and commit them to support their ally. If this legislation had not been enacted Japan would have been in even greater difficulties with Trump than it is today.

Japan’s relations with China are complicated by history as well as the way in which bilateral trade and investment have developed. The Japanese government mishandled the Senkaku problem and official visits to Yasukuni Shrine were provocative, but the Chinese government allowed nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment to get out of hand and blame for the present unhappy relationship rests to a significant extent with the Chinese authorities.

Relations with South Korea ought to be much better than they are. The Japanese handling of the “comfort women” problem under pressure from the right-wing revisionists, and Japanese harping on their right to the barren Takeshima rocks in the Sea of Japan, were insensitive.

Japan, South Korea and China all need to concentrate now on countering the growing menace from North Korea. Pragmatism and restraint should guide Japan’s policies in Asia.

Japan is becoming more assertive in relations with the rest of the world. We shall have to get used to the change that has come rather late. But Japan’s newfound assertiveness is hampered by the still inadequate command of English and failure to speak out in public of Japanese in international meetings and by the reluctance of Japanese young people to study abroad.

Japan’s future hangs to a great extent on the success of Abenomics and on the handling of the demographic crisis facing Japan. How can Japan cope with an aging and declining population while maintaining its economic achievements unless it radically alters its immigration policies and its obsession with its cultural “uniqueness”?

The immediate problem for Japan is how to adjust to the unpredictable U.S. president. Abe has tried hard to get along with Trump. This may work to Japan’s advantage, but there are dangers in cooperating too closely with a populist leader with autocratic tendencies.

We must hope that Abe’s pragmatism and the Japanese people’s adherence to democratic principles and human rights will be sufficiently strong to overcome the threats facing Japan today and prove that the fears of the authors of this thought-provoking book are not borne out by events.

A career British diplomat, Hugh Cortazzi was the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984. “Rethinking Japan: The Politics of Contested Nationalism,” by Arthur Stockwin and Kweku Ampiah, Lexington Books, Lanham, Boulder, New York, London, 2017