Allow me to introduce a Japanese word to those unfamiliar with it. It is the verb kobiru, which means “to flatter”; “to curry favor with”; “to play up to”; “to toady to.” In more up-to-date parlance, it may be rendered as “to suck up to.”
Perhaps there’s no more fitting word than this to better characterize today’s Japanese stance toward the United States. Indeed, this nation has been turned, willy-nilly, into Kobiru Kokka — the “Suck-up State.”
It’s not that compromise and softly-softly diplomacy are bad things. Postwar Japanese diplomacy has been grounded on an approach that stresses friendship with all nations and the hard slog of give and take. One of the terms favored by Japanese diplomats and politicians is reisei, which means “cool-headedness” and implies a presence of mind that is calm and collected. It is a quality that Japanese society, which eschews confrontation and diligently seeks common interests in interpersonal relationships, is the perfect breeding ground for.
But something that happened just prior to the opening of this month’s G20 conference in Seoul got me thinking about the attitudes of extreme deference that Japanese people often adopt in order to be cool-headed and avoid confrontation. It was the vocal disenchantment with U.S. economic policy on the part of German officials that cast in a sharply contrasting light the reality of Japan’s problematic stance.
“German officials have publicly lectured Washington about the wisdom of its economics policies.” So reported a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition on Nov. 9 that was prompted by both German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble and German Chancellor Angela Merkel having been openly critical of U.S. pronouncements on monetary policy. Schauble even accused the U.S. of “hypocrisy” in its urgings to get Germany to rein in exports, adding that “the American growth model . . . is stuck in a deep crisis.”
Now, it isn’t the Japanese way to confront people head on, especially when they are respected allies and friends. A smile, a bow and a polite piece of advice is the public demeanor of Japanese diplomacy.
But hasn’t the time come for the Japanese to stand up for their own interests, when those interests do not coincide with American ones? Can’t they take a leaf from the German book and assert themselves without fear of some sort of vitriolic retribution? Did they really have to back down on the issue of relocating U.S. bases off Okinawa?
After all, Britain — despite the so-called Anglo-American special relationship — did not commit troops to the U.S. war in Vietnam during the 1960s and ’70s. A country can actually gain the respect of an ally by not “going all the way” with its adventures.
That proposition was addressed by Gavan McCormack, an emeritus professor of the Australian National University, in a speech he made in October in Vancouver, British Columbia, on the subject of Japan-U.S. ties.
McCormack, who refers to Japan as a “client state” of the U.S., said then: “The problems of Japan and East Asia are rooted in the self-abnegation at the heart of the Japanese state. (Former Prime Minister Yukio) Hatoyama had a vision for Japan. Like (U.S. President Barack) Obama a little earlier, he tapped a national mood of desire for change, towards a Japan beyond client state-ism.
“The Hatoyama government’s fall is best seen as a client-state crisis: a failed attempt to move from dependency to equality. It demonstrated the abjectness of Japan’s submission and revealed in bold relief just what, in its mature, 21st-century form, a client state was.”
Where are the roots of this peculiar self-abnegation? Why is it that kobiru is the key verb describing Japanese policy vis-a-vis the U.S.?
The fault lies not with the political system, the bureaucracy or any empowered representative therein. It lies firmly and decisively with the populace.
Okay, so Japanese people are loath to offend. They often remain silent, clam up and even sulk where others might stand up for their position in a face-to-face confrontation. The guiding attitude here is, “I think they will understand me even if I don’t actually express how I feel.”
This may work in a solely Japanese interpersonal context, where body language and super-abbreviated phrases indicate reserve, and where others are keenly attuned to the signals of disappointment and dismay. But in an international context, if you don’t lay it on the line, the line moves further toward you, holding you in and cramping your style. In short, what you are seen as is what you become.
The roots of Japanese diffidence toward the U.S. go back to Aug. 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. Prior to that, since the late Meiji Era (1868-1912) Japanese leaders in fields as diverse as culture, enterprise and politics had asserted their desires, expressing a great pride in the country’s traditions and modes of discourse. This was an era of bold polemics and, for a short time, genuine freedom of speech.
The pride morphed, however, into a gross arrogance, leading to what was no less than a holy war of race-inspired imperialism in Asia and the Pacific. The meek “kobi” nature of Japan’s postwar international stance, particularly in face of American pressure, is an overarching rebound response to that prewar arrogance. It’s as if Japanese people are proving to themselves, with every bow, that they are not the imperious nationality they once trumped themselves up to be.
In October 2009, for instance, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came to Tokyo to tell the new Democratic Party of Japan government under Prime Minister Hatoyama that “it was time to move on” — in other words, time to drop attempts to reopen the Okinawa base issue. Gates added injury to insinuation when he boycotted the welcoming ceremony and formal dinner at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo and headed home.
Yet even when senior American officials belittle Japanese politicians, Japanese people and their media tend to turn on their own rather than support the true national interest. It’s as if no one can destroy the popularity of a Japanese prime minister or Cabinet minister as efficiently as a senior American political figure.
Is this because the Japanese are incapable of standing up to the U.S. without appearing arrogant and nationalistic in the prewar sense? I am fully aware that Japanese negotiators are no patsies when they meet their counterparts in private. But the significant thing here is the public stance. This is all that the nation sees; and the nation is trained to cower in the angry face of American disapproval.
So long as the Japanese people continue to “kobiru” like this, their representatives — even those who would dearly wish to drag Japanese foreign policy out of its postwar dugout and into the light of the 21st century — will have their hands tied.
If high-placed German officials can publicly criticize U.S. policy, why can’t their Japanese counterparts do so? They cannot because they would be roundly derided by most Japanese people, including those in the media. They cannot because they fear being viewed as chauvinists or extremists.
True friendship and genuine alliance, however, imply equality and candor. These are two qualities conspicuously absent from the public Japanese dialogue.
Unless the social mores of the nation change — to include candid dialogue and the free airing of opinion without the stigma of being branded a relic — I fear that Japanese people will never be fully able to express their national, regional and international interests outside the framework of U.S. demands.
If this remains the status quo, we can say that the postwar era is not only very much alive and kicking, but that it will remain the single greatest blight on this nation’s integrity for years to come.
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