What do Seumas Milne, Shinzo Abe, Yukio Mishima, and Okinawa have in common? The United States.

Last month, Seumas Milne wrote a column with the heading, “70 years of foreign troops? We should close the bases” (The Guardian, Jan. 22, 2014).

“There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion,” he reminded readers. “With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-89 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066” for the string of military bases U.S. forces have held for the better part of a century.

Well, something close applies to Japan. In fact, unless you go back to the prehistoric times where foreign invasion, occupation and such remain in the realm of speculation, Japan never had anything like what it has had since the summer of 1945.

The Guardian columnist went on to point to “the neuroses of the British security elite, for whom the preservation of a lopsided ‘special relationship’ with the U.S. is the acme of their aspirations for the country,” referring to the “anxiety” of British “securocrats” over “risking American displeasure or neglect.”

Ah, American displeasure. How profusely the Japanese security elite sweated when the U.S. announced it was “disappointed” by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine!

But Milne’s observations drew my attention not just because what he said of the U.K. applies to Japan with a greater force, but because I learned that Milne is regarded as a “left-wing” commentator. British politician-journalist Daniel Hannan once counted him among “My top five Leftie columnists.”

That taxonomy brought to mind a wry analysis Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) made a year before he chose to kill himself. At the time, the students’ movement, a large part of which was opposed to the Vietnam War, was reaching its peak. Yet Prime Minister Eisaku Sato kept going out of his way to support the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. He was also visiting Washington to meet President Richard Nixon to cement the U.S.-Japanese security ties yet again.

With all that in mind, The New York Times asked Mishima to contribute an article. By then, he was widely known for showing off a “small nationalistic student group” he created. He happily complied.

“Those who insist on the independence of the Japanese minzoku, oppose American military bases, oppose the [Japan-U.S.] Security Treaty and shout, ‘Return Okinawa at once,’ would be nationalist and right-wing in a standard understanding abroad,” Mishima wrote. “But in Japan, they are left-wing and Communist.”

The word “minzoku” is hard to translate because its meaning kept changing. First, the Japanese chose to translate President Woodrow Wilson’s “self-determination” as minzoku-jiketsu, which was closer to its German Selbstbestimmungsrecht der Völker. The word minzoku was for Völker and it came with a good dose of Gemeinschaft.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, minzokushugi (nationalism) replaced minzoku-jiketsu, and pacifist Japanese intellectuals took it up as a great slogan for former colonies to gain independence.

But the same intellectuals began to frown upon the word minzoku when it was used on its own because it hinted a revival of prewar “Japanism.” It was minzoku in that sense whose movement Mishima openly supported in the last part of his life.

However, the role reversal occurred to the other side as well, Mishima was delighted to tell the Times readers.

“A certain section of the traditional right wing, completely bereft of their stock-in-trade nationalism by the left wing,” Mishima observed, “countered the left-wing demonstration against the port call of the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise by sallying forth with the American flag in the left hand and the Japanese flag in the right.”

In doing so, “they were just like Madama Butterfly’s child on the operatic stage,” Mishima mocked. The Times gave Mishima’s article the heading: “Okinawa and Madame Butterfly’s Offspring.”

Puccini’s masterwork was banned during World War II as an insult to the “leading minzoku” that was Japanese.

Is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as “nationalistic” as the foreign media make him out to be? (Japanese media generally call him “conservative.”)

To characterize Abe as such because of his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine — it enshrines those convicted in the nebulous category of “crimes against peace” (Class A) — at this late date strikes me as plain silly.

Here, allow me to say that the Tokyo Trial was a well-meaning sham or, as a friend of mine who strongly disagrees with me on this score would call it, a show trial.

The historical justifications advanced for putting Japan on trial were self-righteous to the core, as Helen Mears pointed out in “Mirror for Americans: Japan” (1948). The West’s postwar condemnation of Japan “in toto” would be “a perfect illustration,” she said, “of respectable people smashing their own glass houses.”

The international laws for justifying the trial, such as they were, were wobbly at best, as Richard Minear argued in “Victor’s Justice: Tokyo War Crimes Trial” (1971).

Then there was the trial format. It was of the kind deemed unacceptable in the U.S. (except in the South until the 1950s), as Elizabeth Vining observed in “Windows for the Crown Prince” (1952). The countries that tried Japan served simultaneously as prosecutor, jury and judge.

Was the purpose of the Tokyo Trial to lay down the principles of international justice for the world to come?

Well then, how about the great many political and military leaders of the world — especially of more powerful nations — who have committed all classes of “war crimes” enumerated in the Tokyo Trial, and still gone scot-free?

The U.S. refuses to join the International Criminal Court set up to deal with “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”

Is Shinzo Abe “nationalistic” in the “traditional” mold? No way. Abe is in no position to demand that the U.S. vacate its military bases in Japan, including the biggest one, in Okinawa, for all the fervent wish of the island’s residents. Well then, is he a “leftie”?

Japan is a country where its conservative leaders can’t survive without showing “glimpses of nationalism” even as they advocate “international cooperation,” Mishima judged in 1969. The situation hasn’t changed a bit.

Hiroaki Sato is a writer and translator in New York. “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima” is his book with Naoki Inose.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.