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LONDON — When I read the brief report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun about Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s remarks at the meeting of the Shinto Association of Diet Members, I was surprised not to see any reports of reactions to his reported statement. I wondered whether he had been correctly quoted and whether I should ask the Japanese Embassy in London to confirm that the report was accurate. If it was, there should surely be a furor in Japan.

As Japan Times readers know, the prime minister’s comments were widely criticized by other Japanese politicians and in the press. The Chinese reacted with predictable sharpness. Other governments were more circumspect. The governments of the Group of Eight countries no doubt recognize that they may have to deal with Mori if he survives the forthcoming election and do not wish to be seen as taking sides in an internal controversy.

The general reaction in the foreign press was inevitably critical. Many who have not followed closely developments in modern Japan concluded that the remarks confirmed their prejudice that Japan had not changed and that the old myths were being revived in support of Japanese nationalism. While understandable, such a response is not in my view justified, even if there were valid reasons for condemning Mori’s comments as ill-advised and inept.

Unfortunately, there have been far too many cases over the years of Japanese politicians making statements that suggest there is a large number of unreconstructed nationalists in Japan who are ignorant of the real facts of the nation’s history. It would be in Japan’s national interest for these politicians to learn to hold their tongues and exercise common sense and better judgment.

Mori is reported to have apologized for his remarks, but his apology only seems to have amounted to saying that he was sorry if his remarks had caused misunderstandings. He did not withdraw his remarks. This suggests either that he sees political advantage in maintaining them or/and he really believes in what he said.

It is worth analyzing what Mori actually said. He declared that he wanted the people to recognize that Japan was the land of the gods (“kami no kuni”) with the Emperor at its center (“Tenno wo chushin ni shite iru”). The comments about the Emperor’s position differ from the definition in Japan’s current Constitution.

Article 1 reads: “The Emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom reside sovereign power.” The difference might be regarded as semantic to anyone ignorant of the Meiji Constitution and Japan’s prewar history, but history does matter in a case of this kind.

“The land of the gods” is a fair translation of “kami no kuni,” although in the absence of the definite article in Japanese it might simply be translated as “land of gods.” There is, of course, a problem in translating the Japanese word “kami” by the English word “god.” This is not simply because of the difference between a Western tradition of monotheism and an Oriental tradition of polytheism. It arises also from the way in which in Japan the term “kami” is used to include objects as well as “spirits.” Nonetheless the term “kami no kuni” immediately recalls the myths about the origin of Japan in the ancient chronicle, the “Kojiki.” It also makes anyone familiar with prewar history think of state Shinto, with its overtones of Emperor worship.

Mori’s comments were certainly politically unwise bearing in mind the importance to his party of maintaining the alliance with New Komeito, which derives its support from followers of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist organization. Moreover, the prime minister’s remarks can be construed as running counter to Article 20 of the Constitution, in particular the last sentence of this article, which reads “The state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.”

Mori was presumably speaking as prime minister on this occasion. If not he should have clearly stated that his remarks were made solely in a personal capacity.

This was not the first time that Mori had made remarks that suggest that his ideas and attitudes are out of tune with modern Japan. He is reported to have said on May 8 that the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890 contained good points. I should be interested to know which points he thinks valuable to modern Japanese. Japan Times readers with access to Kodansha’s Encyclopedia of Japan will note the following summary (Vol. 3, page 279):

“The 315-word rescript begins with the statement that Japan’s unique national polity (‘kokutai’) is based on the historical relation between its benevolent rulers and their loyal subjects and that the fundamental principles of education in Japan are based upon this polity. The rescript then lists some 14 virtues, the most important of which are loyalty (‘chu’) and filial piety (‘ko’). Finally, it exhorts all subjects to cultivate these virtues for the greater glory of the Imperial house.”

Confucian virtues no doubt can be relevant and valuable in a modern society. Personally, I would put the emphasis on the Confucian virtue of “benevolence.” Loyalty can be a virtue if it means loyalty to principles rather than blind loyalty or obedience to a leader whether he or she is right or wrong. Today, most people would prefer to attach importance to family affection rather than to filial piety.

Mori presumably takes a more old fashioned view than I do. If so, he is increasingly out of line with enlightened thinking in Japan and the world, and there must be justifiable doubts his suitability to lead Japan in the 21st century.

Mori is also reported to have said on April 24 in the Budget Committee of the Lower House that, “There were various factors behind the war. People must judge from history whether Japan carried out a war of aggression.”

Of course, there were many different factors that led up to the war, and nothing is ever entirely black or entirely white, but my study of the history of the development of Japan’s interests in China and in Asia before the war leads me to conclude that Japan launched wars of aggression in China, Southeast Asia and against the United States. Mori should, in my view, set some time aside to undertake an objective study of modern Japanese history.

The Japanese general election in June is a parliamentary election rather than a presidential one. So the results will not necessarily tell us whether the Japanese electorate approves or disapproves of Mori and his apparent beliefs, but only whether they prefer the present coalition to the sadly divided opposition.

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