The American historian Brooks Adams (1848-1927) defined history as “just one goddamn thing after another.” Though it is a century old, Adams’ aphorism is a spot-on characterization of the most recent events surrounding Japan.

Last month I was in Sydney as debates about the ban on commercial whaling were flaring at an annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission being held in Ulsan, South Korea. The Australian media was awash with vituperation, with Japanese people being denounced on air as “whale murderers” and, for good measure, “dolphin bashers.” Some talk-show hosts and guests suggested severing all trade and diplomatic relations with Japan — a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face if there ever was one. (Curiously, for reasons that may or may not be racially tinged, opposition to whaling by Norway and Iceland is never quite as pointed.)

Meanwhile, an armed Taiwanese frigate was sailing toward Japanese waters with the defense minister and speaker of parliament on board. A Taiwanese fisherman was quoted in The Japan Times (June 22) as saying, “It’s good to see it’s finally our turn to scare the Japanese. They have always bullied us . . . “

As if that weren’t enough, during the June 20 summit in Seoul, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seemed to be unable to placate his South Korean counterpart on the issue of his visits to Yasukuni Shrine. President Roh Moo Hyun is adamant that Japanese leaders cease paying homage at a place where the souls of Class-A war criminals are in repose. Moreover, his government is determined to enforce the Korean claim to the island known in Japan as Takeshima.

Similarly, the Chinese government continues to denounce Japan for what it takes to be a whitewash in some Japanese school history textbooks of Japan’s 20th-century interventions in Asia before and during World War II; and President Vladimir Putin of Russia makes no bones of his view that Japan can have two Kurile islands back but not four. Broadcasts from North Korea continue to lambast the Japanese with innuendoes on the theme of “what have you done for us lately” — with the “lately” being approximately the last few weeks.

The unfriendly fire is coming thick and fast, while the Great Protector across the Pacific, supposedly Japan’s best — and what looks increasingly like only — friend in the world sits most of this out on the fence.

How did this happen?

Japan’s postwar policy encompassed friendliness with all countries; the rejection of the military option; the creation of an equitable, peaceful and civil society at home; and a commitment to dealing with international crises through diplomatic means and monetary assistance. Japan’s big-picture security needs were to be covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty signed in San Francisco on Sept. 8, 1951.

But this American protection worked only while the two other East Asian powers, China and South Korea, were mired in internal polemics and held back by ideological dogma. Now that those two countries are determined to catch up with and overtake Japan (just as Japan had resolved to overtake the West more than a century ago), the question of who will dominate this region has become the region’s primary issue of the day — arguably, from an historical perspective, the primary issue in the world today. Put simply, the United States can no longer afford to put all its Asian eggs in the Japanese basket.

Japan is most certainly isolated and effectively friendless. It is a situation that mirrors in kind, if not in scale or outcome, that which existed in this part of the world in the 1920s, when Japan began to see itself as being persecuted and restricted by the world’s self-serving Great Powers. Nowadays, however, the Japanese are much more well connected to world resources and information. There will be no repeat of Japanese militaristic adventurism in Asia. Any country that claims such a possibility does it only for its own aggressive designs.

Yasukuni Shrine has been featured in the media as an emotional-response issue, as if most Japanese people were reluctant to give up something that is a sacred part of their tradition. But actually, support for official visits by politicians has been drummed up by certain factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and is maintained by a very small minority of diehard nationalists. It would mean little to the Japanese people if official devotions at the shrine were to cease; and were that to come about, the problem would all but disappear in the media.

The same may be said about the Japanese claim on far-flung island territories. The so-called Northern Territories issue relating to the four islands in the southern Kuriles off northern Hokkaido was kept alive over the decades by anticommunist lobby groups. As for Takeshima, most Japanese do not know where it is and would not, I believe, oppose its reversion to Korea. The problem of the natural resources that lie within the territorial limits of these islands is a deep and vexing one. But this problem will never be solved in an atmosphere of nostalgic fervor whipped up by narrow interest groups and served to the public by a media that gladly surrenders itself to the cliches of nationalism.

How can Japan make friends and influence neighbors?

First, as the saying goes, cultivate the ability “to see yourself as others see you” — rightly or wrongly. The leading newspapers and television stations should hold symposia and talk shows to discuss the issues of territory, historical fact and present policy openly and objectively, from all sides.

Second, the Japanese should stop sulking with a “why don’t they understand us?” attitude; and the government should plan a cultural and diplomatic offensive to demonstrate to the world the positive achievements of this country since the war.

There is an expression in Japanese that is quite telling in this context: isamiashi wo suru. It is originally a term from sumo wrestling, and indicates a situation in which a wrestler uses so much force to push another wrestler out of the ring that he ends up going out first, thanks to his own abundance of energy. I suppose the English expression “to overplay one’s hand” is a pretty close equivalent.

It’s for Japan’s neighbors, thrusting themselves forward with pumped-up ardor, to stop shoving, lest they end up falling over the edge themselves. Japan’s position should be to yield when the actions taken by the opponent are fair and above the belt, and to stand firm when its own proper stance justifies forcefulness.

I think people will be surprised then by how many cheers Japan gets from people around the Pacific rim.

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