As I’ve often written, I’m a big proponent of the historical record — if for no other reason, so we can look back at the past and learn from our mistakes.
That has been a major issue for the current Japanese government. As hundreds of historians have publicly stated, the Shinzo Abe administration has been systematically working to deny (or in Abe-speak, “beautify”) Japan’s worst wartime ugliness, on an increasingly obvious quest to reconfigure Japan as a military power. In other words, the right is marching the country back to the Japan that nearly annihilated itself 70 years ago.
But I’m even more disappointed with the historical amnesia of the Americans. Abe’s standing-ovation tour of the United States in April, during which the two allies established the new Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, has basically helped Abe further destabilize the region.
That’s awful news. The U.S., Japan’s strongest ally and chaperone for most of its foreign policy, is, given Japan’s powerless leftist opposition, basically the only one who can stop this.
The U.S. has great sway over Japan due, again, to history. After World War II, America did an outstanding job of enabling Japan to get rich — thanks in part to its provision of advantageous trade and exchange-rate agreements and a subsidized security umbrella.
As the Asian extension of America’s Marshall Plan (a means to keep European countries from warring again by making them economically integrated, interdependent and successful, rather than leaving them to exact wartime reparations and revenge), Japan’s economic success is still seen amongst Washington’s foreign policy wonks as proof of their ability to foster democracy worldwide.
But the U.S., now assuming the post-Cold War mantle of world’s policeman, is undermining that goal by continuing to meddle in Japan’s politics.
We first saw this happen in the “reverse course” of 1947, when it was clear that China was going communist. Back then, Washington feared that labor unions might gather enough strength to force Japan into a similar leftist lurch (as seen in Italy, where the Americans also intervened and set Italian politics back into an unstable, corrupt funk that lasted decades).
So, in the name of “containing communism” at the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. released the Japanese war criminals they hadn’t executed, who then went on to become prominent politicians, businessmen, organized-crime figures — even a prime minister.
It also basically handed back the levers of power to Japan’s prewar governing elites — for example, by reviving the zaibatsu industrial war-machine conglomerates (as keiretsu cartels), overlooking the domination of the education system by historical revisionists and blood-nationalists (the education ministry has since steadily reinstituted prewar traditions of suppressing history and enforcing patriotism), forgiving egregious war misdeeds (through the overgenerous Treaty of San Francisco in 1952), and allowing the re-creation of Japan’s military (as “Self-Defense Forces”) soon after the U.S. Occupation ended.
The blowback, however, is that America has been constantly snake-charmed by those elites. Their professional “gaijin handlers” (see “Japan brings out big guns to sell remilitarization in the U.S.,” Just Be Cause, Nov. 6, 2013) have decades of experience of playing the anticommunism card to suppress their mortal enemies — Japan’s leftists.
Even as Japan embarked on the road to recovery, the U.S. made sure that “our bastards” (to paraphrase at least one American president) remained in power, creating a shadowy electoral slush account for the Liberal Democratic Party called the “M-Fund,” and fostering a one-party state that lasted several decades.
Then came the infamous U.S.-Japan Security Treaty amendments in 1960, forced upon the Japanese electorate without due process, causing enormous public opposition, riots and social damage, both in terms of property and political polarization.
This overt circumvention of Japan’s democratic institutions stunted the political maturation of Japan’s civil society: Japan never had, for example, the healthy subsequent antiwar grass-roots activism that unseated leaders worldwide in the late 1960s and beyond. As prominent American analysts themselves put it, Japan became an economic giant but a political pygmy.
Fast-forward to April 2015 and Abe’s U.S. tour. Despite years of media and academic attention on Abe’s revisionism, the U.S. bestowed upon him honors that no other Japanese PM has enjoyed, essentially legitimizing Abe’s campaigns worldwide.
Contrast this with how non-LDP left-leaning prime ministers have been treated: President Bill Clinton publicly humiliated Morihiro Hosokawa in 1994, and Washington hobbled Yukio Hatoyama five years ago (see “Futenma is undermining Japanese democracy,” JBC, June 2, 2010) on trade, military-base issues and reordered relations with China. Both PMs were so discredited that they were soon swept away by LDP re-elections, with reenergized conservatives on the rebound making reforms that set the stage for Japan’s recidivism today.
Why are the Americans resuscitating these toxic security guidelines? Simple: to contain China. But, to return to my original point, has Washington learned nothing from history? Can’t they see that the Cold War has been over for decades, and replacing the Soviet Union with China is a bad fit?
Granted, one can make a convincing case that China’s attitude towards democratic institutions ill-befits the Pax Americana. But the PRC is not the USSR — if anything, it’s precisely what the Marshall Planners would have wanted to happen to China.
China’s rapid economic growth and heavy integration into the world market, both as its factory and lender of last resort, indicates that it shall not (and should not) be so easily contained. Containment strategies drawn up by George Kennan 68 years ago are clearly obsolete.
Unfortunately, Washington seems eager to start Cold War II, with Japan again acting as America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in Asia. Except this time, it does not have an American at the steering wheel in Tokyo, and the blood-nationalist in charge is a descendant of the ruthless right, bent on settling old personal scores and putting Japanese weapons and military forces overseas.
I don’t think the Americans are fully aware of what they are encouraging. Abe will erode the very democratic institutions (including the pacifist Constitution) the U.S. established to “cure” Japan’s war-like tendencies in the first place.
Abe has already enacted the means to engineer public opinion through media censorship, half-truths and big lies, as well as to intimidate critics and punish whistle-blowers.
Now, freshly emboldened after his trip to Washington (he even recently sent his “liberal” wife to visit war-celebrating Yasukuni Shrine), Abe will soon legally reconstitute the mythological version of Japan — the one that made so many Japanese support total war and carry out continent-wide genocide.
If you think I’m exaggerating, look again at history. Japan has swung back from liberalism before, after the “Taisho Democracy” of the 1920s. The flowering of democratic institutions, moderate tolerance of dissent and unprecedented prosperity did happen, but it only lasted about 15 years before the ruthless right took over.
This time it lasted much longer, but Japanese society has numerous bad habits that foster a reverse-engineering into militarism. Five years ago I thought remilitarization inconceivable after generations of a pacifist narrative, but seeing now how fast Japan has snapped back is cause for great alarm. This will be confirmed beyond doubt once we see the revival of prewar politics by assassination, the natural progression from the current trends of intimidation and death threats.
This will certainly abet Japan’s domestic conversion from a mild police state into a much harsher one. And then what? If the past 15 years are any guide, Japanese society’s latent suspicion of outsiders will manifest itself in the targeting of its non-Japanese residents with even more force.
Why? Because it can. They’re here and subject to our laws. If they don’t like it, they should leave. Because Japan is for the Japanese, as the blood-nationalists would define them.
Look out, non-Japanese residents, you’re going to attract even more attention now — as lab rats for Japan’s nascent foreign policy. Nice work, America, “Arsenal of Democracy.” History shows that once again, you’ve encouraged more arsenal than democracy.
Debito’s own 20-year-old historical archive of life and human rights in Japan is at www.debito.org. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday of the month. Comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org