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News outlets fret over the nation’s docile democracy

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“Nazism.” “Fascism.” “1984.” “Kamikaze.” Strong words, suggestive language. It’s going mainstream.

An Asahi Shimbun editorial on July 29 drew comparisons between the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Nazis. Sapio magazine in its July-August edition began a discussion of “neo-fascism” — part two of which, in the current September-October issue, is titled, “The fascism we’re living today.” The weekly Shukan Kinyobi, in its war-remembrance package dated Aug. 10, finds the kamikaze spirit still alive, though muted and mutant.

The Asahi Shimbun editorial disclaims facile analogies. Abe’s Japan is not Nazi Germany. “But,” it says, “the Moritomo affair shows this country’s bureaucracy displaying a similar attitude” to one that came to seem characteristically Nazi: personal exculpation on the grounds of “just following orders.”

The “Moritomo affair” began with allegations (denied by Abe) of top-level complicity in a heavily discounted sale of government land to stridently nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, with which Abe and his wife had personal connections. A similar scandal, concurrently unfolding, involves alleged government favoritism to the educational enterprise Kake Gakuin, headed by a close friend of Abe’s. Both have burgeoned into a much larger issue — that of bureaucratic destruction of, tampering with and lying about pertinent official documents. As such, the “Morikake” morass merges with an otherwise unrelated one concerning Self-Defense Forces peacekeepers in South Sudan. Documents describing their area of operation as a combat zone mysteriously disappeared, then mysteriously reappeared as investigation intensified. Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution bans the deployment of troops in combat zones. The troops were withdrawn in May 2017.

The Asahi editorial refers to the showing in Japan of the documentary “A German Life” — titled in Japanese “Gebberusu to Watashi” (“Goebbels and I”). Josef Goebbels was Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda. The film’s main character is Brunhilde Pomsel, Goebbels’ secretary. She was 103 at the time of filming, 107 when she died last year. The Asahi Shimbun quotes her as saying in the film, “I loyally did what I was told.”

Philosopher Hannah Arendt gave that attitude its classic expression: “the banality of evil.” Her chief exemplar was Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat tasked with the mass transit of Jews to extermination camps. He worked without passion, without hatred. It was his job. He had his orders.

Japanese bureaucrats today have nothing comparable on their consciences. But concealing or rewriting official documents is not a trivial sin. The Asahi editorial invokes the sinister Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel “1984” — “truth” being what the “Big Brother” dictatorship says it is, documents to be altered accordingly. Officials who are complicit, and the Abe administration that implicitly if not explicitly encouraged their complicity, flout, the editorial says, “the most elementary rules and ethics on which democracy depends.”

Sapio also fears for Japan’s democracy. It presents a dialogue between former Foreign Ministry analyst Masaru Sato and Keio University professor Morihide Katayama. Sato links bureaucratic moral numbness to turmoil arising from something commonplace in other democracies but extraordinary in Japan — regime change. It happened in 2009, and again in 2012. The first brought the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to power. The second booted it out, reinstating the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Bureaucrats felt the vibrations, their fortunes rising and falling with the parties they supported. Katayama supplies the dread word “purge”: “It’s like the Soviet Union after Stalin’s purge, isn’t it?”

“Rather like it, yes,” Sato agrees. Survivors, he explains, tended to be of two types, one characterized by “no sense of duty, no human feelings and no sense of shame”; the other by “no ideals, no opinions, their only goal being career advancement.” It’s hard to see just where one type ends and the other begins. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Sato’s larger point is that when bureaucrats lose their moral compass, the regime they serve may grow more powerful than is consistent with democratic checks and balances. Like the Asahi, however, he stops short of sending Japan over the edge into early 20th-century darkness: “I don’t fear the worst from the Abe administration.” Other matters aside, he says, true fascism requires secret police and suchlike infrastructure, which Japan lacks.

Shukan Kinyobi’s article is also in dialogue form. Satoshi Shirai, a political scientist, and Shoji Kokami, a writer and theatrical director, begin with a critique of the Japan-U.S. relationship — specifically Japan’s subordinate status therein. Why, they wonder, should that have persisted beyond the Cold War? It was shaped in its earlier phase by mutual interest. Japan needed protection, the U.S. a solid capitalist Asian ally. The fall of the Soviet Union changed everything without changing the relationship. It endured, says Kokami, “for its own sake.”

That suggests to him the World War II kamikaze suicide missions, whose military impact was minimal, but nobody stopped them. They also persisted “for their own sake” — or perhaps not quite. “The point,” he says, “was to firm up the national spirit: ‘Young soldiers are sacrificing their lives, so don’t complain.'”

People didn’t, and the war dragged on. Shirai draws a modern-day parallel: people trooping off to work in Osaka on June 18, regardless of the earthquake rattling the city. “My boss didn’t tell me to stay home,” he imagines them thinking. Kokami agrees. The easygoing submissiveness of young people in particular shocks him — “kids of 20, constantly asking, ‘Is it OK to do this?”‘ If young people don’t resist authority, who will? Kokami blames the “don’t-question-the-system education” they get from elementary school on. At best, he fears, it will take the edge off Japan’s global competitiveness.

The Asahi editorial also notes with dismay the mass docility in the face of what it sees as the Abe administration’s challenge to democracy: “There is dissatisfaction, but the economy seems to be doing pretty well, there’s nobody who comes to mind as a suitable replacement, and the Morikake affair has little impact on daily life.”

Shirai, in Shukan Kinyobi, adds yet another ominous word to the dark vocabulary introduced above: “nihilism.” Japan, he fears, is suffering “an attack of deep nihilism.” He tentatively suggests a cause, though not a cure: “I wonder if the core of it is that we have nothing to love.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”