When Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said that Japan is a “kami no kuni” (country of the gods), it can be argued he was doing little more than expressing a personal religious belief before a group of like-minded, Shinto-supporting Diet members. U.S. media claims that he was trying revive Japanese nationalism hinge on mistranslations that have him saying Japan was a “divine nation.”

But his more recent claim that Japan is a “kokutai” (a national polity) based on the Emperor in which the Communist Party has no place really is alarming. It is a direct throwback to Japan’s prewar fascism and throws severe doubt on Japan’s claims to be a Western-style democracy.

Kokutai, like fascism, implies a nation bound by a sense of instinctive togetherness. That in itself is reasonable enough. But in the case of Japan it has required respect for the Emperor system and nebulous traditions as focus for the togetherness instincts. It automatically denies the status of those who seem to run counter to those icons.

In the past, this involved cruel prewar suppression of leftwing elements and religious dissenters. Even today, the dislike of the Japan Communist Party remains visceral, even if that party does deny any foreign connection or plan to overthrow the state. It is seen as an alien body that denies the role of the Emperor and would seek to move Japan to different values.

Mori made waves with the word “kokutai.” But the much-used term “kokumin” (national people) is just as alarming. Like the word Volk (people) as used in pre-1945 Germany, it implies a nation united by sentiment in which dissent is unwelcome.

Politicians seek constantly to claim that they speak on behalf of the kokumin. By implication, those who disagree with them are excluded from the kokumin.

A recent report by a semiofficial committee I attended reeked with references to how the kokumin would approve nuclear energy once they had the true situation explained to them. My efforts to explain why this approach was unacceptable in a modern democratic society, where the opinions of dissenters have to be respected even if disagreed with, met genuine incomprehension.

One sees it, too, in the double standards for public security. Prosecutors here seem to have no problem deciding that tapping telephones of communist politicians is not a crime, even when the phone tappers are caught red-handed.

Gangsters and other rightwing miscreants are treated gently, as rather misguided or noisy members of the big kokumin family. They are, after all, fervently anticommunist and they revere the Emperor.

But the leftwingers who cause trouble belong to a very different category. The establishment still burns with hatred and desire for revenge against the Red Army radicals of the 1970s who tried to rebel against the state even if their motives were far nobler than those of the gangsters. Riot police beating up student protesters at the time would denounce their victims as “hi-kokumin”(non-kokumin).

Not just Mori but even centrist politicians and commentators automatically assume the right to impose pariah status on the JCP, even though arguably it is the only political party in Japan to approach Western democratic standards of honesty in financing and principles in policy formulation.

One of Japan’s less attractive sights is conservative politicians steeped in corruption and vote buying trying to claim some moral superiority over the JCP because the latter relies on the alien practice of volunteer supporters and contributions from individuals.

Japan forces us to think much more about the relationship between fascism and democracy. In the West we see the two as radically opposed. But German fascism with its concept of the corporate state and the Japanese concept of a nebulous national consensus are not all that far removed from our own Western democratic concepts of the civil society and the social contract.

We all seek to hold our societies together by an act of national will rather than Draconian laws or inherited ideologies.

Indeed, some of Japan’s efforts to find consensus — constant surveys of public opinion, the shelving of plans, like daylight saving, that run into clear public opposition — are more genuinely democratic than what we find in many Western nations.

Fascism is a postfeudal phenomenon in which the instinctive bonds of the former village and feudal societies are carried through to the nation. Democracy is the next stage, with the concept of an emotional consensus evolving into something more contractual, and it is no accident that democracy had its roots in the societies of Western Europe where contractual feudalism was most developed.

The final stage is what we see in the older civilizations of East and South Asia and the Middle East. Societies lose the instinctive, contractual factor and have little choice but to turn to semidictatorial regimes based on firm religious, legal or political ideologies to hold themselves together.

Western political gurus who see democracy as an ultimate ideal to be imposed on all others fail to realize how inappropriate it is for most, and how tenuous it is even in their own societies.

Japan, like prewar Germany, is still in a transitional stage to full democracy. Its politics are still dominated by a paternalistic elite that still clings to village/feudalistic values, even if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has improved somewhat in recent years.

Meanwhile the educated urban electorate is moving well beyond that transitional stage. One sign is the growing power of “shimin ishiki” — citizen consciousness — with its demands for probity and principles. Many of these people are beginning to give their votes to the JCP, even if they disagree with some of its quirkier policies.

The results of the next election could force Mori to begin to watch his words. He may even have to eat some of them.

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