BETWEEN THE CONSTITUTION AND KIMIGAYO (Migite ni Kimigayo, Hidarite ni Kenpo) by Yoshibumi Wakamiya, Asahi Shimbun-sha Shuppankyoku, 2007, 156+184 pp., 1,890 yen (cloth)

For anyone living in Japan and fascinated by Japanese politics, it is a good thing to step back occasionally from the surprises and the deja vu repetitions of today’s headlines and reflect on how Japan got to where it is today. No better way of doing so than to read this collection of newspaper columns by the chairman of the editorial board of the Asahi Shimbun.

They are collected here in both the Japanese original and in the accomplished translations that appeared as “Japan Notebook” in the International Herald Tribune/Asahi Shimbun English paper. (No translation, though, for “fukokei,” the punning Japanese title of these columns. “The Thinking Man’s weather vane”?)

Written monthly, they extend over the last four years, but the history they evoke stretches much further back. Wakamiya started as a political reporter nearly 40 years ago, and his shrewd reflections on the events of the day are interlaced with illuminating reminiscence of some of the formative incidents and the ironies that have shaped the Liberal Democratic Party and its stance toward the outside world. And he can do that in a way possible only for someone who has been on casual-chat terms with some of the leading personalities of Japanese politics.

Over the years he has met and interviewed and joked (or tried joking) with two generations of Fukuda politicians, two generations of Konos and two generations of Abes. He can give a sense of how the actors of the present are guided, constrained, inspired by where they have come from, and how the Tanaka-Fukuda rivalry and the “who is hawk and who dove” ambiguities of China-Japan relations in the 1970s were reflected last year in the aborted contest between Fukuda’s and Abe’s sons in what seemed to be shaping up as the first LDP leadership contest to turn on foreign policy since 1972.

The calm reflectiveness of these essays is impressive. Here is a leading member of an editorial community generally critical of most of the things the LDP stands for — as these essays make clear enough. Yet, that does not prevent him from empathizing with LDP politicians, understanding how the world looks from where they stand. He makes his remonstrances without stridency, indeed often with restrained gentleness.

Is this a mature ability to handle conflict with civility? Or a flabby lack of principled plain speaking? Students of Japanese politics for the last 50 years have seen the lines espoused by the Asahi and the Yomiuri as roughly defining, respectively, the left and the right limits of practical politics. And as the LDP has moved to the nationalist right with the passing of the generation who actually experienced the war in blood and gore (a passing whose significance Wakamiya records in one memorable essay), so have those limits.

If the Asahi’s rightward shuffle has been more steady and gradual, it is the Yomiuri that has been the maverick as Wakamiya records apropos the Yomiuri editor Tsuneo Watanabe’s outright condemnation of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, forcefully expressed in a dialogue between Watanabe and Wakamiya in the monthly magazine Ronza.

Still, certain things are absolutely off-limits for the Asahi — for example, constitutional revision and the nuclear option. Many of the essays concern the U.S.-Japan relationship, expressing an intense unhappiness at the way it has developed under the Bush regime, but also a basic acceptance of its central importance for Japan.

In a dialogue with Emanuel Todd, which occupies one essay, Wakamiya refuses even to entertain the suggestion that getting a nuclear bomb is Japan’s only way of breaking free from America and having its own independent foreign policy. The Asahi leaves the nuclear option discussion in Japan securely imprisoned in the “North Korean menace” framework, just as, presumably in deference to another section of its readership, it is only mildly and indirectly critical of the way Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lets the abductee tail wag the North-Korea-policy dog.

The “rightward drift” relates, though, to another of Wakamiya’s preoccupations, namely with freedom of speech — a preoccupation not surprising in someone who has had rightwingers in their black-van sound-trucks telling him to commit hara-kiri because he proposed an adult settlement of the stupid Japan-Korea quarrel over Takeshima/Dokdo sovereignty.

He wonders ruefully whether self-censorship would stop any Japanese from doing the sort of hatchet job on Koizumi that filmmaker Michael Moore did on U.S. President George W. Bush in “Fahrenheit 911.” He notes that the Sankei Shimbun and Seiron and Shokun magazines, which used to exercise a certain restraint in their nationalism, have become more stridently red-neck. And he is clearly, and rightly, worried.

But that does not prevent him from jokingly speculating whether Abe and all his talk about basing strategic policy on principled commitment to “freedom and democracy” makes him a genuine “neocon.” Wakamiya is a cheerful soul who retains his sense of humor, part of what makes this book a pleasure to read.

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