Japan today is a kerai state.

Since the end of World War II, now more than 60 years ago, the country has played “Follow the Leader” so assiduously, and with such diligence, that the prospect of it rethinking its historical and cultural position and adopting an independent stance appears to be all but untenable.

A kerai is a person whose services are retained by a lord or master. In addition to meaning “retainer,” though, it can also mean “follower.”

The lord or master in this case is the United States. And though many people may think that Japan’s participation in the American invasion of Iraq is the first time it has cooperated with the U.S. in a foreign war, the story actually goes back more than half a century.

Japan is the country that may have gained the most from the Korean War — and without having to send troops into action. Through a system of procurements from the U.S. government, Japanese companies received more than $3.5 billion during the three years of the war from 1950-53. This more than anything was what put old zaibatsu (industrial and financial conglomerates) like Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo back into business. By the time the war ended, Japan was producing goods at prewar levels.

The lesson learned by Japan was that there’s a fortune to be made out of war — especially if you let someone else deal and you play your cards right. “Boys, be followers!” was taken up as not only the motto but also as the working philosophy of the Japanese.

Misery on a colossal scale

Japan had waged war itself for 15 years in Asia and the Pacific, and the result was misery on a colossal scale. No more. From now on, let the other guy run up the hill through muck and bullets; we’ll sew the seams on his uniform and polish his gun for him, thank you very much.

The war in Vietnam gave Japan its second windfall as kerai to the U.S. American troops stationed in Japan played a major role in the belligerency, and much equipment was either ordered from Japanese companies or repaired here by them. Masses of American troops passed through Japan for R&R. Again, the Japanese economy benefited immensely from the kerai role. The Japanese were having their cake, baked in the U.S., and eating it too.

While this symbiotic relationship did prove beneficial to Japan’s economy in postwar decades, the situation has now radically changed. Being a loyal retainer to a master (Bush’s America) that has clearly overextended its power carries no advantage whatsoever. When the master falls, you are brought down with him.

Japan was able to carry off its role as America’s kerai in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s due to the weakness of Asian countries at the time. Vietnam, the Koreas and China had experienced decades of horrendous civil war. They were countries divided within themselves. Opposing the American superpower that emerged in Asia in 1945 took all their strength.

But now South Korea and China in particular have joined the First World Club. South Korea’s economy is the world’s 11th largest; and China is running close to Britain as number four. Both South Korea and China see eye to eye in perceiving Japan as the adversary of the future. A Japan that postures itself as a facilitator of American policy in Asia is a Japan that can neither counter the political and cultural power of these two countries, nor stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

Last year, a good friend who is a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Ministry complained to me, saying, “What are we supposed to do? If we do identify more with China, then we will lose our ‘in’ with America.”

Wary of American intentions

This struck me as a very clear statement of a loyal retainer. Only such a dutiful retainer would not consider the possibility of standing on his own and creating a position for himself. This makes it easy, in the long run, to avoid responsibility for any mishap by saying, “We were neither the initiators nor the instigators.”

However, the South Korean and Chinese governments are pouring enormous amounts of money and effort into propagating their cultures and languages overseas — the Koreans through the Korea Culture & Contents Agency, and the Chinese with their newly formed Confucius Institutes around the world. They are happy to have Americans as their eager consumers, and are even willing to accept the U.S. as a cultural and technological trendsetter — but they are ever wary of American intentions. Western missionaries once opened the door to Western guns and Western domination; now America’s quasi-religious fervor for democracy is no more than a front for American control of resources.

My friend in the Foreign Ministry was wrong. Japan will not lose its “in” with America if it adopts a more independent stand; if it begins to see itself as a country that can mediate between Western and Eastern interests. Such a stand would only enhance Japan’s historical place as a country that has deep roots in both Asia and the West.

There is nothing standing in the way of Japan becoming a nation with an independent foreign policy based on the knowledge that the people here have a foot in two worlds — East and West — both of which exist and flourish brilliantly in the one country. If there is a confrontation between China and the U.S. years from now, who would be better placed to use the good offices of mediation than Japan?

The major thing preventing Japan from creating a rapprochement with China is the failure on the part of the Japanese to see themselves — to trust themselves — as masters of their own fate.

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