Jonathan Clements: Diving alongside a slowly sinking nation


Special To The Japan Times

When the pop singer Justin Bieber was in Japan in the spring of 2014 he asked his driver to make an impromptu stop at a shrine in Tokyo. Naturally, Bieber posted some photos of his shrine visit online, but instead of getting likes, his photos prompted outrage. Bieber, like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before him, had — albeit inadvertently — dropped by the Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of millions of war dead are enshrined, including those of war criminals. Sensing a PR disaster, Bieber quickly apologized with the classic nonapology apology: “To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry.” He finished by declaring: “I love you China and I love you Japan.”

Modern Japan, by Jonathan Clements
John Murray, Nonfiction.

“Japan might learn something from his (Bieber’s) readiness to apologize,” writes Jonathan Clements in “Modern Japan: All That Matters.” Clements uses the Bieber vignette to espouse on a few points about the “heavily politicized shrine,” which frequently threatens Japan’s diplomatic ties with Korea and China.

“Japan’s wartime past continues to matter deeply to those still waiting for an apology for the Burma Railway, the Rape of Nanking or the use of Korean ‘comfort women.’ Few of these issues matter to the Japanese, many of whom are products of a euphemistic education that denies there is anything to apologize for,” Clements writes.

“Modern Japan” spans the period of a single lifetime — about 60 years — beginning with the Occupation, through to the halcyon bubble years and the long economic stagnation of the 1990s and 2000s, the 3/11 disaster, and ending at the present day. Clements lived here in the ’90s, first as a translator in the anime industry and then as an editor. A prolific writer, Clements has written books about anime as well as Japanese history; he currently lives between Finland and China, where he is a visiting professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

Coming in at under 140 pages, “Modern Japan” can be digested in a single sitting: “It’s a crash course you can take on the plane to Tokyo, with enough of an evolving argument so that the more you read, the more it reinforces a sense of what I think visitors need to know to hold their own in conversations and to comprehend what’s going on around them,” Clements says.

A book this concise presents challenges, above all, the question of what information can be sacrificed.

“I spent several days at the beginning just paralyzed with the size of the job of throwing stuff out! I ended up asking myself: ‘If I was stumbling off a plane at Narita, what would I really need to know?’ ”

Because of its limits, Clements adopts a mostly descriptive outlook. Readers won’t find a panacea for the range of disparate problems facing Japan, but they will get a grounding on some of Japan’s seemingly insurmountable problems: a rapidly shrinking and aging population; “Abenomics” and the quest to reverse two decades in which economic growth has averaged at 1 percent; and “Bieber diplomacy” aka geopolitics in East Asia.

“I almost feel sorry for Abe. I look around him and ask, ‘Where is the loyal opposition with viable alternatives? Are there any viable alternatives?’ He’s pinning a lot of hope on the 2020 Olympics, and the opportunity they’ll offer for investment and infrastructure, but he’s inherited a system that is already trying to tax its way out of the problems it had before he came into office. He’s steering the Titanic, and it hit the iceberg 20 years ago,” says Clements.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of World War II; all eyes and ears will be on Abe’s response to the war. While nobody is expecting him to declare his love for China, or Korea, as Bieber did, both countries want greater atonement.

“The scars of World War II run awfully deep. I’ve had a high-ranking Chinese professor, who majored in Japanese, literally choking back tears as he explained how he felt — not only that the Japanese have not sufficiently atoned, but that the younger generation are seemingly unaware what they should even be atoning for,” Clements says.

“I expect that whatever Abe says in August 2015, it’s going to be reported differently depending on where you are. In China, Abe’s popular profile is very much based on foreign policy. The Chinese are understandably jumpy about any decision that is liable to increase the reach and presence of the Japanese military.” The irony here is that the main driver of Japan’s remilitarization is China’s militarization.

Clements bookends his concise history with a series of listicles intended to guide and advise readers on all things Japanese. Some of these undoubtedly stem from his own experiences here.

It’s a challenge to distill modern Japan into a short book; what Clements has included will ground you and get you thinking.

“Japan is still living five years into the future,” he says, “but whereas that was once a breathless boast of oncoming technologies and trends, today it’s a warning of the crises that could also face the developed world as a whole.”

  • Imgunnalearn James

    If i was expected to atone for the sins of people 70 years ago, i’d be confused too. Take my German friend fo example, i don’t expect him to be apollogetic at all. Do the Japanese expect apologies from American youth? “Sorry about all the fire bombing and atomic blast”. No they don’t. South East Asia needs to move on. The sooner the better. War is war, all sides did wrong.

    • Harry Hirsch

      Easy for the perpetrators (and their descendents) and third parties to take your stand. You should blame earlier generations of Japanese for the perceived half hearted attempt at atonement, instead of the decisive gesture the Germans put forth.

      Do it right, do it boldly, go above and beyond, under promise and over deliver. Dazzle those you’re apologizing to. If that was done decades ago, it’s not only the Japanese who’ll be asking ‘what apology?’, but the Chinese and Koreans as well. If the Japanese can learn anything from the Germans, this is it.

    • Harry Hirsch

      All sides did wrong? US dropping the A-bomb, maybe. But what did Japan’s Asian neighbors did that was wrong? Is self defense a crime? Ridiculous.

    • gnirol

      I agree that at some point, history is history. There are people in the US who still resent all Japanese people today for attacking Pearl Harbor and I find that a useless and unproductive approach to take to international relations. However, the German govt of today, which obviously had nothing to do with Hitler, is still paying reparations to victims of Nazism, the fewer and fewer who are still alive. West German govts long ago apologized for their predecessor (while the govt of the former DDR refused, saying they were socialist and hence couldn’t possibly agree to share responsibility for atrocities committed by Fascists). Had the Japanese govt of 50 years ago taken such action, this would not be an issue today. Having said that, once again, how long are people who did not experience whatever they hold the Japanese govt responsible for going to hate all Japanese people for actions they could not have been a part of, since they and in many cases even their parents were not born when they were committed? More distressing to me is the concerted effort by recent Japanese govts to mislead young people about their history. Oh, it’s understandable, but, for example, young people in the US now understand what happened at My Lai or Abu Ghraib in the name of the American people. That sort of honesty (which didn’t always exist in the US either) on the part of textbook writers should be a goal everywhere. Don’t be afraid of history, Mr. Prime Minister. Learn from it.

      • Japanese Bull Fighter

        There are any number of surveys that show Americans know very little about American history, good, bad, or indifferent. You may now about My Lai, but many Americans do not. For example, a survey of the 10 most widely used high school textbooks in the 1990s found that only one covered My Lai and then covered it only with the caption to a single picture. The same survey found that high school teachers by their own estimate spent no more than five minutes on the Vietnam war.

  • johnniewhite

    I remember Johathan from almost 30 years ago at a university in my class already translating Manga into English — a very smart guy. I am so happy to find a much more mature Jonathan! Hello there!! :)

    But as regards Japan and China, you need to consider much more deeply how the policies of the successive Chinese government has been affecting the East Asian politics, and how much Abe’s policies are affected by them. What Abe is doing is not that simplistic; he is playing a strategic battle against Xi’s regime that is looking for opportunities to attack its neighbours.

  • Xavier Bensky

    “Clements uses the Bieber vignette to espouse on…”
    I think “expound” is the correct word here.

  • AZ-Zakwanul Faiz bin Zakaria

    I saw a Japanese museum volunteer guide skipped the Japanese invasion part. Whether she was ashamed or ignoring the fact that happened to my country. Luckily our people didn’t hold any grudge against them due to many Japanese FDI in this country.

    But some Chinese didn’t blame Japanese regarding Nanking massacre, instead their own western people… one guy started cursing, followed by others… Then i quitted the qq group, scary moment.

    I have no idea about Korean, but “bakachon”?

    For me, i was happy to blend in both China and Japan. Except MH370 and recently the IS execution where islamophobia/one Muslim action is the entire Muslim fault. (Even though the chances of me getting executed by IS is high.)

    Can’t wait to get my hand on the book. I hope it’s as enjoyable as “Japanese have a word for it”.

  • Michael Eamon Osborne

    Funny how people say things like “when Germany did this” or “when Japan did that” is a little harsh when you are talking about atrocities of war! This is totally missleading & for any foreigner that has taken the time to truely understand Japan, it’s history & it’s culture & for some, made it their second home, will know otherwise. The Allies were just as guilty in such Atrocities too but oh no, we don’t get to hear about all that!! My apologies go out to all the Innocent people that got caught up in all this hate from our forefathers – they’re the ones who are suffering here!! I have travelled through Europe where war had ravaged cities & I can tell you it’s an errie feeling, even to this day so spare a thought for those that perished in Hiroshima & Nagasaki If you ever get to visit. All in the name of peace. . . . . . ? Lets not get cute people!

  • Oliver Mackie

    Read the following comments, written by one of the utmost experts on Japan-China relations, on issues which you will recognize to be causes of friction between the two countries recently:

    “the question of…whether or not Japanese should feel guilty…[was] about to be reawakened…….The controversy conditioned and accompanied a sharp turn in Japanese political leadership……a change….to the verbally activist government…….It also signaled that recriminations about the past will continue to be manipulated by all the nations of the area. Much more was to come before the end of the summer was over, including charges the The Ministry of Education had deleted from the texts the number of casualties in the Japanese “Rape of Nanking”, that it had ordered the Korean independence struggle of 1919 to be characterized as a “riot,” and that it had in general sought to “prettify atrocities”….Japanese Foreign Ministry officials declared the whole incident to have been the worst since normalization and to have set back friendly Sino-Japanese relations by at least ten years….The Chinese press lambasted a “handful of rightists” in Japan, who were allegedly trying to revive militarism, and the Chinese government twice rejected official Japanese explanations….In his speech to the Party Congress [the Chinese Premier] dwelt on the dangers of revived Japanese militarism….the Premier advised [the visiting LDP General Secretary] “to limit its military capability to its defensive needs.” Needless to say, the facts that China maintains the world’s largest standing army [and] has developed and deployed thermonuclear weapons…were not mentioned…in the Chinese press….The screening of textbooks by the Japanese government has a long and checkered history….The real background to this controversy is the decades-long dispute between the….Japan teachers’ Union and the Liberal Democratic Party’s conservative education-policy specialists over the political content of educational materials…..Although the Japanese press published its first revelations [about textbook revisions] on June 26, no newspaper or government official in China took up the issue politically until July 20. That was the day on which the LDP’s Special Council for International Economic Policy…arrived in Taipei….The Sino-American negotiations over American arms sales to Taiwan were then at their most delicate stage…and this evidence that Japan was improving its economic ties with Taiwan clearly ran counter to Beijing’s strategy. Furthermore [the Chinese Premier] was fighting off internal attacks from party and military rivals who were trying to embarrass him over his U.S. policy and the Taiwan issue….He could not appear soft on anything having to do with Taiwan, and also needed a diversionary issue. It thus seems doubtful that the Chinese government was truly interested in Japanese textbooks, but there an be no doubt that it found in the textbook controversy a convenient lever to try to bring the Japanese government to heel…”

    The author naturally also feels compelled to comment on the Senkaku islands:

    “China’s final ploy was a carrot-and-stick maneuver offering remarkable economic gains if Japan agreed….or endless territorial hassles over places like the Senkaku islands if Japan refused.”

    I’m not going to ask you whether you agree with the analysis or not, merely point out that these words were written over 20 years ago, about events 30-35 years ago. Surprised to hear this has been going on so long? That’s because you don’t know enough about the issue to make informed commentary. If something is baffling you (I just don’t get why Abe seems to be taking the course he has, why the government doesn’t do what seems so clearly right to me) then you need to re-examine the issue, looking specifically for information that contradicts what you think, and then give it a REAL close look.

  • Oliver Mackie

    A short-cut for those out there trying sincerely to understand the dynamics of contemporary Japanese politics:

    The moment anyone uses the word “worship” to describe what occurs when someone visits Yasukuni to pray to one or more of the spirits enshrined there, you can know full well that said person is extremely ignorant about the topic and their comments are not worthy of serious consideration. Caveat emptor.

  • Christine

    Wounds created by human to human – very difficult to heal. I can write a book about my life as a Chinese descendent practically born and raised in Japan toward tail of baby boom… I do not take it against anyone of bitter experience but to move on. The point is, it still hurts to think about it… Everyone takes it differently. To me, I view it as not ethnicity, but… human – some are nice, some could be evil… Also being an Asian American living in US mainland… yes, did feel frictions then, today is so much better.

    Lastly, “time is the best healer”… how long? that remains ???

  • David Christopher

    If China really wanted to stick it to Japan, and find out what was really going on upstairs in Japan. Hey, why not simply boycott all Japanese products, sever all diplomatic ties, and freeze all Japanese assets in China…until Abe and Emperor Akihito teach the Japanese people, and international community, the version of history that suits them, and they want everyone to acknowledge and believe as true? Instead, they want to wait, for Japan to do so, at the time of THEIR choosing?