Japan needs to emerge from behind America’s apron: Wolferen


Japan may be the world’s No. 2 economic power, but where diplomacy is concerned, Karel G. van Wolferen likens it to a boy who has to ask his parents (i.e. the United States) if he can go outside to play.

Wolferen is a professor at the University of Amsterdam but is best known for his book “The Enigma of Japanese Power.”

“Achieving genuine independence from the U.S. should be the No. 1 goal for Japan” this year, he said.

Recently, he sat down with Shinji Miyadai, an assistant professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and a leading commentator on Japanese youth culture, for a wide-ranging debate hosted by Kyodo News.

How do you see the U.S. war against Iraq?

Wolferen: It’s a break with a tradition of a gradually improving global order, meaning international law, international customs relating to war and conflict. And with the invasion of Iraq, the (George W.) Bush administration has killed the West as a significant political concept, because no longer is there a shared sense of purpose regarding political civilization among the countries that during the Cold War were referred to as the West.

Concerning Iraq, the war broke with America’s own tradition of political principles, and in fact it violated the American Constitution because the American Constitution says that international treaties are legal within the United States and the United States has in fact violated the Charter of the United Nations.

If you want to look at it as a war, instead of an unwarranted invasion, then the people who are now fighting American troops should be considered prisoners of war under the Geneva rules because the Iraqi authorities have never surrendered. So, they cannot be called terrorists. The fact that other countries, including my own, including Japan, have not screamed about this on the international stage is extremely sad, because it means a reversal of what I’d like to call international political civilization.

Miyadai: Since just before the end of the Cold War, Japan, the United States and other countries came to be dominated by neoliberalism. This tendency spread from the late 1970s, particularly in the U.S. and Britain. But I thought this was a very foolish way of thinking. It is characterized by two aspects: coming down hard on crime on the one hand, and seeking to alleviate the anxieties of people through social policies on the other. But there has to be a balance.

Instead, what we saw was a tilt toward heavy punishment, and this attitude was projected toward other countries, and became the basis of popular support for neoconservatism.

Unfortunately, the globalization of U.S. values and political systems has not protected the rights of minorities. Nationalism and militarism have gained momentum as a result of anxieties among the common people. Even in Japan, nationalism has flared up in the wake of the stalled talks with North Korea. But who can the U.S. system make happy? These problems have become increasingly clear in the period since the Sept. 11 (2001) terrorists attacks and the U.S. war on Iraq.

Wolferen: I think that the negative aspects of globalization are connected in some way with what happened with the ‘preventive-war theory’ of the Bush administration — in some ways the globalization of American political control or an attempt to do that.

It completely disregards the interests, the possible wishes, and the situation of the common people in the world.

And what it does in the long run is to establish a kind of global feudal system where rules and law no longer determine what is permitted, only force.

But the development of such a global feudal order can only lead to great chaos, and the thinking people in the world should make an effort to find formulas by which the governments of the world can help preserve international political civilization.

Miyadai: In the face of the U.S. war against Iraq, European countries adopted the following approach: “If the U.S. wants us to take part in rebuilding Iraq, then it should follow a multilateral approach; if it chooses to go it alone, then it should foot the bill itself.”

At the conference (in Madrid) on rebuilding Iraq, Japan pledged $5 billion over five years, while European countries are to provide only $1.5 billion between them, less than one-third of Japan’s contribution. The gap between the two is enormous.

The Japanese government is exceptional in its stance toward the U.S. Even Britain and Spain, which backed the U.S. in the war against Iraq, are increasingly opposed to U.S. unilateralism.

In the days ahead, Japan’s national interests will be greatly threatened. If Japan pleads its case at an international forum, nobody is going to pay it much attention. In offering the huge sum of money that it did, it didn’t say or do anything.

This “reconstruction” fund does not go through the U.N. Development Plan (UNDP). Japan cannot check where the money is used. In effect, Japan is handing cash to the U.S. military.

Japan is going to be looked down on internationally. Ironically, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials had hoped to walk down the corridors of the U.N. with a spring in their step by aligning themselves with the U.S. Instead, Japan will be remembered as a country that has taken an outlandish action.

Wolferen: I agree that the current attitude of the Japanese government will in the long run cause people to look down on Japan.

Of course, we have long known that Japan is a kind of protectorate of the U.S., but now this is being demonstrated very effectively. Actually, there is no reason at all why Japan should be sending troops.

The financial authorities of Japan have just spent the largest amount ever in buying U.S. Treasury bonds, which is already paying for the occupation of Iraq to a large extent.

Of course, the solution to this is one that has been the main subject of many of the books I have written for a Japanese audience, namely the formation of a genuine government that can be truly independent of the U.S and, without being hostile toward the U.S., first develop its own diplomacy toward China and the other countries in the region, and then Europe and the rest of the world. Japan’s diplomacy at the moment is not at all independent.

What are your views on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and efforts to revise the Japanese Constitution?

Miyadai: Japanese people have a tendency to forget. They do not remember the history behind the Japan-U.S. security treaty. When the treaty was first signed in 1951, then Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, along with most Japanese people, saw it as providing a foothold for the nation’s anti-American nationalist movement.

All of Japan’s different political camps, including the Japanese Communist Party, which did not agree with the Constitution, established a joint strategy to prevent the U.S. from doing as it liked.

In 1960, however, when the bilateral security treaty was revised, the Japanese governing class, dubbed “Nippon teikokushugisha” (or “Nittei,” meaning “Japanese Imperialists”), tried to join hands with their U.S. counterparts via the treaty, causing then Prime Minister Shinsuke Kishi to railroad the bill through the Diet in outrageous fashion, revising the treaty despite strong opposition from the public.

Until the 1950s the Constitution had functioned as a tool to turn down a spate of U.S. requests. But after 1960, it became an excuse for the Japanese government to acquiesce to U.S. wishes. Subsequent “protect-the-Constitution” movements have also played into government hands, allowing it to do as the U.S. administration says.

Most Japanese people have forgotten this history.

Let’s take one ironic situation as a typical example. Japan provides logistic support to U.S. Navy ships based at Yokosuka. Two months after (the) Sept. 11 (attacks), Japan dispatched AEGIS-equipped destroyers to the Indian Ocean as part of collective defense operations.

Japanese ships were supplying fuel and materials to U.S. naval vessels that had been involved in the fighting with Iraq. This apparently violated the Constitution, which prohibits Japan from exercising the right of “collective defense.”

The Japanese government gave an odd explanation, which I took to be a joke, concerning whether or not Japan’s logistic support for U.S. ships based at Yokosuka violated the Constitution’s ban on the right to “collective defense.”

“The government is not notified of the destinations of the Yokosuka-based U.S. warships when they leave port,” the government said.

So what about providing fuel and supplies to ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles? In Diet discussion, the defense chief said, “The missiles are remote-controlled. There is a possibility that they may be knocked off course after they are launched. There’s no guarantee that they reach their targets.”

If these arguments are correct, then the war-renouncing Constitution in effect allows Japanese troops to do anything, including participation in “collective defense operations.” So if we want to speak for ourselves, we have to revise the Constitution, in particular the war-renouncing Article 9.

For a start, we have to define what the right of “collective self-defense” is. If you set preconditions for exercising this right, you can clearly refuse any kind of unreasonable U.S. request by saying, “Exercising that right anticipates ‘multilateral agreements’ or an accord at the U.N. General Assembly or Security Council for such operations. We cannot send our troops.”

Japan can say to the U.S.,”If you want us to dispatch troops, please make efforts to get an agreement under a multilateral framework.”

At least, we need due process before participating in “collective self-defense.”

Regrettably, it is not possible to keep the peace by adhering to Article 9, under which Japan is now sending troops everywhere and exercising the right of collective defense independently of the Constitution’s provisions and in violation of its spirit.

Wolferen: There’s a very simple solution. I think that Japan should have a Constitution that is taken seriously by Japanese officials, Japanese politicians and Japanese people themselves. It should not be a “sacred cow” or anything like that.

It should be the chief law of the country, and it should be compiled by Japanese, not by foreigners like it was during the American Occupation, and it should then be followed; it should not be violated every day in the way the Constitution of Japan now is.

(Concerning talk of revising Italy’s Constitution), it’s a matter of formulation. You can preserve the antiwar sentiments of the Constitution very simply by saying that the right that every state has to wage war — it’s a defining characteristic of a state — will not be exercised by the Japanese people because of their wisdom gained through their experience, unless, of course, she is being attacked, or something like that.

You can formulate it in such a way that you preserve the antiwar sentiment. Obviously, though, you must throw out the line about “armed forces will never be maintained,” because Japan has the third or fourth most expensive forces in the world.

Miyadai: For the past one or two years, the consensus of opinion in Japan (over revising the Constitution) has changed, led by the media. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi does not hesitate to remark on the need for constitutional revision.

But the point is not whether or not the Constitution should be revised but how to contribute to world peace. There are two groups demanding revision.

One group is demanding respect for Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” as the national flag and anthem, revision of the basic education law and even the restoration of conscription, while the other seeks constitutional revision as an attempt to check autocratic U.S. requests by attaching more weight to the U.N.

The U.N. does not always do what is right. But we have the opportunity to discuss whether we should dispatch our troops or not. The current situation does not permit Japan to lay bare its opinions, making us feel humiliated. All things, including peacekeeping operations, which I see as exercising the right to wage war, should be decided on within a multilateral framework.

Wolferen: To take the last part about the United Nations, I also think in the same way, it’s the only thing we have, although there are many things wrong with it.

It often doesn’t function in the way it’s supposed to, there’s a great deal of corruption, and its human rights agencies are being led and staffed by countries that have the worst human rights records.

There are many other bad things you can say about it. However, it’s the only world forum that exists. There is no other place where every country in the world can present its ideas, complaints, wishes, suggestions and so on.

Setting up an alternative organization for such a purpose would seem ridiculous, and because the world order as we have known it in the second half of the 20th century is now being destroyed by the Bush government, we will become more dependent on the U.N. to reconstruct a similar stable world order.

And I am a very strong advocate of diplomacy by European countries, Japan and other Asian countries toward giving the U.N. General Assembly more significance because the Security Council is really a relic from World War II and it is clearly not satisfactory.

There are many ways in which the General Assembly could be promoted, with the standing commission that will be in session throughout the year instead of for only three months.

And there are other ways of making the U.N. politically more significant. In this regard, it is not in Japan’s national interest to support the current American government in trying to destroy the political function of the U.N. — because that is the aim of the Bush administration.

It’s one example of an area in which the Japanese government should set itself apart from the aims of the U.S.

I think also that already we are seeing developments that show a greater assertiveness on the part of countries that until recently would have been taking a back seat, or taking a more timid position, in world affairs.

One of the most interesting developments was the action by Brazil, China and India at the WTO (World Trade Organization) meeting in Cancun (Mexico), when they said: “OK, we’re walking out because you rich countries don’t have our best interests in mind, so why should we listen to you anymore?”

I was very glad when that happened because it showed assertiveness in parts of the world that should partner Europe and Japan in an effort to achieve a more equitable world order that will do away with the negative and poverty-creating effects of globalization, and that will attempt to establish some global regulatory order to guide a stable and equitable international economy. All of these things are very urgent. We don’t have time to lose.