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Is time carrying us forward, or backward?

Or both at once? Technology propels us forward, politics thrusts us back. In east Asia World War Two seems as much present-tense as past. Elsewhere, as the Ukraine crisis unfolds, the Cold War, history only yesterday, looks today like tomorrow’s threat.

“I am convinced that from now on the spirit of the civilization and politics of mankind is fascist ideology… . Before the iron laws of historical development, the downfall of the liberalistic, individualistic, capitalist world is unavoidable.”

That was prophetic when written in the early 1930s. Is it prophetic today? The writer was a prominent reformist (sic) Japanese bureaucrat. He is quoted by American historian Janis Mimura in “Planning for Empire” (2011), a study of prewar and wartime Japanese fascism.

Are we going back to that? Are fears that we might be going back to it overblown?

The bureaucrat (Mimura doesn’t name him) was typical of the rising intelligentsia of the time, reformist because he had seen democracy close up — the “Taisho democracy” of the 1920s — and knew it didn’t work. It spawned disorder, corruption, dire poverty side by side with bloated wealth. Reform meant scotching it. The cure for disorder was order. The requisite for order was obedience. The emotion that breeds obedience was patriotism, love of country — “100 million hearts beating as one,” as a popular saying of the day had it.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made no secret of his patriotism and right-wing leanings. They form the core of his political career, which began in 1993. He declared them then, when they were less fashionable, as forthrightly as he does now, when suddenly they seem almost mainstream.

At no point in his career has Abe disavowed democracy. Some of his critics accuse him of betraying it, however — citing, for example, the stringent State Secrets Protection Law he rammed through the Diet late last year, after perfunctory debate and in defiance of strong public opposition. If journalists and whistleblowers risk 10-year prison terms for revealing “state secrets,” broadly and vaguely defined, is democracy served? Is it served by his government’s ongoing attempts to force schools to replace “masochistic education” — education that acknowledges Japan’s World War II atrocities — with “patriotic education” that whitewashes or denies them?

Hand in hand with 1930s anti-democracy was 1930s militarism. Abe is not a militarist in that sense, but his eagerness to rewrite the pacifist Constitution, and to reinterpret it in the meantime to permit collective self-defense, suggest a bellicose streak no Japanese leader has shown since the war. His December visit to the war-glorifying Yasukuni Shrine did nothing to ease the fears of liberals or calm the rising fury of Japan’s neighbors and wartime victims.

Abe’s first brief term as prime minister, 2006-7, was a flop. He came across as gratingly jingoistic, an anachronism, a figure out of the discredited past. The nation winced and turned its back on him.

Why is it embracing him now?

A wave of nationalism swept Japan in the wake of the March 11, 2011 disasters. Earthquake, tsunami, meltdown — the damage and suffering were appalling, but see how bravely the Japanese were coping! Heroism, stoicism, self-sacrifice for the common good, a disciplined orderliness that held fast against surging chaos, won awed admiration worldwide. Japan basked in it. When Ochanomizu Women’s University professor emeritus Masahiko Fujiwara observed at the time to Sapio magazine, “Kindness to those in pain, tears for the weak, are written into Japanese genes,” he was giving new expression to an old notion: that Japanese morality is unique — different from and superior to morality elsewhere in the world. That was one of the waves — another of course was economic frustration — that Abe rode back to power in December 2012.

The term uyoku (in common parlance) means ulta-rightists. Uyoku activities reached ordinary peace-loving citizens mainly in the form of black sound trucks whose loudspeakers emitted ear-splitting martial music and other cacophony. The threatening exterior was belied by the activists’ small numbers, and postwar “Japan Inc.,” too busy with its “economic miracle” to accord them more than passing notice, dismissed them as a bothersome but basically harmless nuisance.

So they were — and maybe still are. On the other hand, the Internet spreads things faster and farther — and more quietly, therefore more insidiously — than sound trucks do, and aggressive netto-uyo (Internet uyoku) screeds against Chinese and Koreans are alarming to those who watch them proliferate and hear in them echoes of a sinister and disastrous past.

To those who don’t hear that echo — and Japan being now in its 69th year of peace, younger people may not — it can come across as rather exciting. “My wife is a netto-uyo,” reads a headline in Shukan Gendai magazine. The report that follows is of a new breed of ultra-nationalist housewives, spending their days trolling netto-uyo sites and surprising their husbands in the evening with newly acquired belligerence toward Chinese, Koreans and those Japanese — if they truly deserve to be called Japanese — who haven’t learned to hate them yet.

The netto-uyo housewives are quoted grumbling about everything from the supposed saturation of Japanese TV with South Korean dramas to the ethnic Korean family that just ruined the neighborhood by moving in next door — not to forget supermarkets that stock kimchi and Japanese who drive Hyundais. Even children, says Shukan Gendai, have caught the bug. “Don’t buy Korean products!” they urge their parents. Do they, too, frequent netto-uyo sites?

Time will show whether this is just a passing phase, or a new future being born. Nazi rants in prewar Germany about Jews secretly controlling the world, to the detriment of decent and innocent people, sounded cracked to more sober observers; then the Nazis’ time came, and we know what they made of it. On a netto uyo bulletin board Shukan Gendai reads, “Japan’s mass media, politics and finance are controlled by Zainichi (Koreans permanently residing in Japan).” A sober observer can dismiss that as raving and move on, or dismiss it as raving and pray history doesn’t repeat itself.

Psychiatrist Rika Kayama tells Shukan Gendai of a conversation she had with one netto-uyo housewife. “I asked her how she would feel if Japan had conscription. ‘For my country’s sake,’ she answered, ‘I would gladly give my husband and my son.'”

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