Client State: Japan in the American Embrace, by Gavan McCormack. New York: Verso Press, 2007, 246 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi are usually portrayed as assertive nationalists, but come off here as dutiful and submissive gophers carrying out the Bush administration’s agenda. Looking behind the patriotic rhetoric, Gavan McCormack, professor emeritus at Australia National University, argues that the closer embrace of the United States at the opening of the 21st century has widened the gulf between Japan and its neighbors. Japan’s “neocons” are isolating Japan and making it more dependent on the U.S. while pretending to be assertive and charting their own destiny.

In trying to become the Great Britain of Asia, Japan is casting off its security constraints and trying to meet U.S. demands, but in doing so is alienating China and both Koreas. Moreover, despite accommodating U.S. demands, it’s views are ignored and counsel unsolicited on matters of importance. In this unequal alliance, Japan is treated like a vassal and used as an ATM.

“Client State’s” central thesis is that Japan is a puppet state, one that emerged during the U.S. Occupation 1945-52. McCormack points out that the three key issues at that time — the role of the emperor, the role of the military and relations with Asian neighbors — remain “vexed and unresolved.”

Like Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson, McCormack challenges the dominant narrative and underlying assumptions, raising serious questions about the nature of the U.S.-Japan relationship that are often buried behind nostrums about “the most important alliance bar none.” He writes, “The Koizumi-Abe ‘revolution’ actually meant the liquidation of some important residual levers of Japanese autonomy, and the acceptance of an even higher level of submission and exploitation within the U.S. global empire.”

McCormack explains that, “Identity is the fundamental unresolved question of Japan’s modern history.” In this context one can better understand the culture war being waged by Abe in imposing patriotic education, airbrushing Japan’s wartime history and promoting constitutional revision. By allowing the emperor to remain institutionalized as the symbol of the state in the Constitution, embracing the wartime conservative elite and postponing any reckoning over Japan’s shared history with Asia due to the Cold War, Washington has powerfully shaped Japan’s identity. These policies keep Japan aloof from the region and impair moves toward regional reconciliation.

Because Japan has been nurtured as a dependent “superstate” with an American-imposed identity, the author believes that “The symbols and rhetoric of nationalism function as empty conceits, while the substance of nation is denied.” He adds that “prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a sign not of a reviving nationalism so much as an attempt to compensate for an abandoned one.”

“Client State” details the general rightward shift in Japan over the past decade and the spread of violence against critics of this trend. McCormack rightly condemns the shameless silence of then Prime Minister Koizumi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe for a full 10 days after the arson attack against Koichi Kato, former Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party, in August 2006 following Kato’s criticism of visits to Yasukuni. This eloquent silence was “tantamount to consent” and hardly encouraging about the state of democracy in Japan.

What can Japan do? With inequality rising, employment ever less secure, and 15 percent of the population living below the poverty line, neither Koizumi’s postal privatization or Abe’s emphasis on constitutional revision and patriotic education seem the right prescriptions for what ails the nation. Nor is spending vast sums of money — an estimated $26 billion over 10 years — to relocate U.S. bases.

Perhaps the most ominous development from McCormack’s perspective is the “2005/06 agreement to the fusion of command and intelligence between Japanese and U.S. forces.” This agreement effectively subordinates Japan to U.S. strategic leadership and commits it to collective defense, one of the remaining security taboos that Washington has been eager to eliminate. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of State, is portrayed as a bullying proconsul repeatedly intervening to shape and drive Japanese security policy.

If Japan loosens its security ties with the U.S., won’t it be a sitting duck in a dangerous neighborhood? On the contrary, McCormack thinks that the alliance is dangerous in the sense that it insulates Japan from the need of making headway on reaching accommodation with its neighbors based on a “return to the understanding of history it briefly reached in the mid-1990s.” Without reconciliation, the chances for regional peace and security are limited. McCormack advocates Japan shifting its priority from serving the U.S. to attending to its domestic problems and helping forge an “Asian commonwealth.”

This wide-ranging and perceptive book also explores the unhappy triangle of Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa, Japan’s hypocrisy in its dealings with North Korea, the implications of Japan’s nuclear-energy program and many more hot topics. We are fortunate to have such a lucid and compelling commentary on our very own Truman Show.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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