Japan rightists’ patient wait is over as conveyor belt of death shudders back to life

by Debito Arudou

He’s done it.

As this column predicted he would, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gotten his way. Last month he closed a chapter on “pacifist Japan,” ramming through unpopular new security legislation that will allow Japanese military engagement in offensive maneuvers abroad.

That’s it then. The circle is complete. Japan is primed to march back to its pre-World War II systems of governance.

Now, just to be clear: I don’t think there will be another world war based on this. However, I think in a generation or two (Japan’s militarists are patient — they’ve already waited two generations for this comeback), a rearmed — even quietly nuclear — Japan selling weapons and saber-rattling at neighbors will be quite normalized.

Alarmism? Won’t Japan’s affection for war-renouncing Article 9 forestall this? Or won’t the eventual failure of “Abenomics” lead to the end of his administration, and perhaps a resurgence of the opposition left? I say probably not. We still have a couple more years of Prime Minister Abe himself (he retained the Liberal Democratic Party leadership last month unopposed). But more importantly, he changed the laws.

So this is not a temporary aberration — this is legal interpretation and precedent, and it’s pretty hard to undo that (especially since the opposition left is even negotiating with the far-right these days). Moreover, Japan has never had a leftist government with as much power as this precedent-setting rightist administration does. And it probably never will (and not just because the U.S. government would undermine it, a la the Hosokawa and Hatoyama administrations of the 1990s and 2000s).

But there’s something deeper at work beyond the “Abe aberration.” I believe that social dynamics encouraging a reverse course to remilitarization have always lain latent in Japanese society.

Consider a few of Japan’s martial aspects, both overt and covert: chōnaikai neighborhood associations that mobilize and monitor the neighbors; senior-subordinate relationships that enforce constant and perpetual social hierarchies; an extreme work ethic that glorifies self-sacrifice; political invective that dismisses human “rights” in favor of state-determined “duties”; cultural memes that denigrate individual choice and free will as “selfish”; and even young schoolchildren and teens in uniform marching in formation at their sports festivals.

Have you ever wondered why Japan still lives under the shadow of World War II — unlike Germany, which made a cleaner break and disavowed its prewar systems? Because Japan’s (largely untouched) prewar ruling elites were always looking for a means to return to them, and kept the fundamentals in place.

Now all that’s necessary is to find a way to glorify the corporal sacrifices of human beings again. But that’s in place too.

Ever considered why Yasukuni Shrine exists — beyond the respect for fallen soldiers, I mean? In Japan, it goes beyond historical monuments like America’s Arlington Cemetery (which it is often compared to), because of the element of ancestor worship.

Brace yourself for a little pointy-headed theory about how societies deal with war: War memorials, etc., are a means, in essence, to deny death. The people who die on battlefields must live on, remembered positively, so families don’t feel that their kin died in vain.

If this doesn’t happen, then someone gets blamed for sending them meaninglessly off to war. That would be The State. So if The State doesn’t want revolution, it had better find a means to deflect society’s anger, pain and feelings of injustice for killing loved ones.

Solution: Glorify them in song, monument and, in Japan’s case, shrine. Deify them.

Yasukuni Shrine is designed to offer a venue to worship self-sacrifice and thus further national goals. As academic Akiko Takenaka recently wrote in Japan Focus, “Death was presented in a positive light in order to sustain a level of enthusiasm to support wars.”

Of course, glorification happens in all societies as they seek to make sense of state-sponsored death. But deification goes beyond glorification.

As I mentioned last month, Japan’s ancestor worship silences critical thinking. Finding fault with gods is blasphemy, so don’t vocalize.

Then there’s the forgiveness and forgetfulness of the gods’ misdeeds. Yasukuni’s pantheon includes the creators, sponsors and promoters of Japan’s prewar national goals — goals that put Japan, its colonized and its enemies on a conveyor belt bound for death.

That conveyor belt rumbled through the frontiers of inhumanity: the Nanking Massacre, Bataan Death March, Unit 731, an imperial army financed by opium, institutionalized sexual slavery, the sacrifice of Okinawan civilians — I could go on.

Plus, deification fosters revisionism and doublespeak. Abe’s retelling of history in his speech in August blanketed WWII atrocities under a shroud of martial exigency interwoven with victimhood. He even argued that Japan is now at peace because of the sacrifices of its war dead.

That’s why the postwar victors and victims initially tried to take Japan’s military away and enshrine pacifism in the Constitution: They saw that the martial model that organizes Japanese society was simply too strong.

Sadly (and notwithstanding a change of heart by the U.S. hegemon), they failed. Nevertheless, they were assured in good faith that Japan’s military would be used only for self-defense. As of last month, not anymore.

Postwar social reconstructionists also tried to quarantine Yasukuni as the epicenter of worship of Japan’s militarism. They failed again. It has resurged with a vengeance as hallowed ground for government leaders, with annual military grandstanding and increasingly bolder belligerence. One of Japan’s most popular leaders (former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara) overtly tried to provoke a war with China — and remained in office!

So listen as the conveyor belt of death clicks back on. Now that Japan can start sending its youth back into harm’s way, how will the public react when people start getting killed?

I say: positively. By design. First, their missions (largely peacekeeping ops in the beginning) will be opaque to the public, thanks to recent legislation designating them as “state secrets.” Then, as the body bags return and the mood threatens to tip toward anger and pacifism, the state-run media will herald the fallen as heroes.

Then the pity for the victims will be converted into national pride. Those people sacrificed themselves for the good of the kuni (country) of Japan. And think of the honored superlative — “the first people deified after two generations”!

The minority denouncing this as a tragedy will be the ever-disorganized leftists in Japan — who will be ignored or painted as unpatriotic and disrespectful. How dare they speak ill of the dead?

The public face of the debate — the next of kin — with then be pressured by their neighbors not to be selfish and draw attention to themselves. It was a matter of duty. So don’t spoil things. Just accept the honor given you stoically.

This sort of dynamic has been found in plenty of other societies with war as an outlet. But will a threshold be reached, as it was, say, in America halfway through the Vietnam War?

I think not, regardless of Japan’s 70 postwar years of peace.

Why? Not just because of those latent martial tendencies buttressing the conveyor belt. Postwar safeguards against remilitarization are also being eroded at the intellectual level.

For example, why do you think the government is trying to do away with liberal-arts education at Japan’s universities? Because these subjects foster critical thinkers. They teach “leftist” ideas such as questioning authority, and seeing The State and corporatism in terms of potential abuses of power. The administration doesn’t like skilled arguers or independently minded people, since Japan’s rightists cannot stomach their ideas being subjected to critique or public debate. They’ll even denounce peaceful demonstrators as “terrorists.”

But even if the people on the street make compelling arguments, in the end I think it’s too late. As I said, Abe’s done it. With this new security legislation, he reactivates the divine aspects of Japan as a nation-state.

The next step is to put soldiers on the conveyor belt and feed them to the sacrificial altar of Yasukuni. It’s a mobilization of death: The more die, the more gods are created, and the more enforced reverence accrues to the war effort. Remember, it happened before — unstoppably — for two prewar generations. It can happen again.

So I say: Get ready, everyone. Japan, as you’ve gotten to know it over your lives, is over. Barring a peace-inducing black-swan event, here comes the ruthless, duplicitous and scary elite-run Japan of your great-grandparents. Over time, it will revive the pain and suffering it inflicted on people both within and without.

Debito’s forthcoming book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” has just gone to press. Akiko Takenaka’s Japan Focus article on the mythology behind Yasukuni Shrine is at japanfocus.org/-Akiko-TAKENAKA/4377/article.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp