Commentary / Japan

Antidote for Abe’s nationalism

by Kevin Rafferty

Shinzo Abe is gearing up for a crushing victory in the Upper House elections this month, which will put him in a good position to fulfill his dreams of changing Japan’s U.S.-imposed “colonial constitution” and restoring the country’s “greatness.” Abe should think carefully before he takes bold or radical strides along these lines.

I hope that some well-wisher who cares about the future of Japan and of Asia will buy the Japanese prime minister a copy of professor Rana Mitter’s new book about the turbulent years in China from 1937 to 1945.*

Let Abe read it and understand the dreadful damage that Imperial Japan did to China before he tries to cash in on a majority in both houses of the Diet.

Abe’s promise that “Japan is back” is misplaced, mindless and stupid in the modern world where we are all dependent on one another.

In these days air pollution in China quickly blows to Japan; forest fires in Sumatra spread a noxious pall over Singapore and Malaysia; and one country’s tinkering with its currency affects all its trading partners, us all. It is especially dangerous when Abe in effect tries to wave red flags in front of a resurging China.

It would do no harm either for a well-wisher to supply copies to China’s leaders so that they too can understand the forces that shaped modern China and the roles of Japan, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), the Communists, and indeed the Americans and other Western Allies in creating the modern world.

For Mitter, professor of the history and politics of modern China and about to become director of Oxford’s new China Center, World War II began not in 1939 but in 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge incident when Japan thrust aside its pretenses and went to war with China.

According to this account, modern China was not the creation of Britain and the Opium Wars of the 19th century, however humiliating those events still are in Chinese folklore memories, but was created on the bloody anvil of the battle against Japan’s marauding forces.

Mitter is no polemicist. Indeed there are times when he is almost dispassionate in the face of terrible atrocities. He devotes only one chapter to the fall of Nanjing, though he provides copious references to Iris Chang and to other books that have documented the terrible things that happened. In an interview with China Daily Mitter said. “In the crucible of total war soldiers behave very badly. … Nanjing needs to be seen on its own terms.”

This is not the place to do a fully fledged book review. Mitter generally handles the swirling cast of characters superbly, introducing key players, including Wang Jingwei, who have long been forgotten in the way that Western historians have dominated the debate on the war and thus underplayed Asia’s and China’s tragic role.

Mitter sets a gloomy stage: “If we wish to understand the role of China in today’s global society, we would do well to remind ourselves of the tragic, titanic struggle which that country waged in the 1930s and 1940s not just for its own national dignity and survival, but for the victory of all the Allies, west and east, against some of the darkest forces that history has ever produced.” Digest that, Mr. Abe, before you spit in the face of history.

Someone might reflect on how — even today — the fate of hundreds of millions of people hangs on a few fatally flawed individuals and how they interact and clash with one another. Mitter points out that it was Chiang — or “Cash my check” as the arrogant Americans referred to him — who stood and fought for China and refused to give in to the Japanese, and sacrificed millions of Chinese lives in the process. At the same time, he was tying down half a million Japanese troops who stamped their presence on China and caused a lasting resentment, still today milked by politicians.

Chiang stood for China as one of the five victorious war powers and secured for China a place as one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The price was up to 20 million Chinese dead, 100 million refugees in their own country, and the swift downfall of the corrupt Kuomintang when the Communist forces were freed of the bother of the intruding Japanese Army.

Mitter is perhaps too kind to the Communists in suggesting sweet harmony in Mao’s kingdom of Yanan. But he does point out the terrible similarities among Mao’s security enforcer Kang Sheng, Chiang’s Dai Li, and Wang’s Shanghai gangster Li Shiqun, the last poisoned by Japanese security police.

It would have been nice if Mitter had devoted more space to exactly what drove Japan to its Imperial madness, though he could reply that this is a book about China, not Japan. He quotes Japanese Gen. Iwane Matsui as saying that the point “is to make the Chinese people recognize that Japanese troops are the real friends of China.”

A few pages later the Japanese ambassador to Berlin boasts of having “killed 500,000 people” at Nanjing and that Tokyo expected — correctly — the West to do nothing.

The real question is what politicians and peoples have learned from history. That is very much an open question particularly for Abe’s Japan, but also for China.

Abe still has much to learn. Is he still trying to vindicate his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi? He should be challenged on this, and whether the peace and security of several billion people in the Asia-Pacific region should be put second to Abe’s respect for his grandfather.

For Beijing, there is the question of accepting the uncomfortable truths and cruelties of history and learning from them, not parroting that the 1.3 billion people are still hurting from the Opium Wars and from the cruelties the Japanese did to their grandparents and great grandparents. The risk for Japan, for China and for the peace and stability of all Asia, is that if Abe and his friends try to turn the clock back, Chinese leaders will revert to a potentially more dangerous nationalism.

China and Japan are cultural cousins who should continue to learn from each other. This is especially so for Japan when Abenomics is faltering because of the failure to release the third arrow — real reforms. It is being called “awanomics” (“awa” means “bubble”) or “muddlenomics.”

The nationalist path that Abe has espoused can only lead to disaster, not least because it will lead to increased military spending that aging debt-ridden Japan cannot afford, if not to sulky confrontation or worse.

The problem is that politicians come from narrow-minded tribes and do not understand how our fates are all bound together. Mitter can teach the lessons of history and learning them may avert disaster.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at Osaka University. * “China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival,” by Rana Mitter.