Blame Abe’s bad history on diplomat George Kennan



Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish policies, historical revisionism, and heavy-handed efforts to manipulate domestic and foreign media have infuriated critics in Japan and its neighborhood. They might want to reserve some of that anger for U.S. super-diplomat George F. Kennan.

During the early years of the U.S. postwar occupation, an ungainly mix of idealistic New Deal reformers and right-wing satraps of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, launched a radical attempt to liberalize Japan’s economy and society — prosecuting war criminals, busting up industrial combines, imposing land reforms and nurturing a labor movement, among other changes.

A new Constitution largely drafted by U.S. lawyers and civil servants dramatically expanded citizen rights, giving Japanese women what the historian John Dower called “one of the strongest equal-rights provisions in modern constitutional law.” (Dower’s Pulitzer-winning “Embracing Defeat” covers the period brilliantly.) The Constitution also formally committed Japan to pacifism under Article 9, in hopes of turning the country into what MacArthur, with typical bombast, called the “Switzerland of the Pacific.”

Kennan, however, saw MacArthur’s reforms as a recipe for strategic disaster. With China torn by civil war, Europe flattened and divided, and the Cold War taking hold, Kennan believed Japan needed to be built into “the cornerstone of a Pacific Security system.”

Beginning in 1947-48, he and his allies in Washington engineered a 180-degree turn in U.S. policy. War crimes trials came to an abrupt end, public employees lost the right to strike and the United States began to nurture Japan’s businesses and export industries. Not only were conservative prewar politicians and bureaucrats rehabilitated, but more than 20,000 leftist union members and other workers were fired in what came to be known as the “Red purges.”

One of the bigger beneficiaries of Kennan’s “reverse course” was Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who had co-signed the declaration of war against the U.S. in 1941 and overseen the conscription of hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese laborers as head of the Munitions Ministry. Dower called Kishi “brilliant and unscrupulous”; another historian of the U.S. occupation, Michael Schaller, dubbed him “America’s Favorite War Criminal.” In 1948, after spending three years in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison while being investigated as a Class A war criminal, Kishi was released along with 18 others for lack of evidence.

U.S. money helped Kishi become prime minister in 1957. According to Schaller, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to provide secret campaign funds to Kishi and selected members of his relatively new Liberal Democratic Party. In return, Kishi shepherded a revision to the mutual security treaty between the U.S. and Japan that scrapped some elements unpopular with Japanese but secured the U.S. right to retain its bases in Japan and, in a secret protocol, the right to move nuclear weapons “through” Japan. (Protests over the treaty would go on to force Kishi’s resignation.)

There’s no doubt that the U.S.-Japan security relationship, which Kishi’s grandson Abe has now strengthened with newly-revised guidelines, ranks with NATO as one of the greatest U.S. strategic achievements of the postwar period. Yet the other side of the ledger is less frequently tallied (not least the cost to U.S. workers and communities of U.S. policymakers axiomatically putting security before economics when dealing with bilateral trade tensions). As a result of Kennan’s actions, the U.S. short-circuited promising economic and political reforms that could have made Japan a much more vibrant and dynamic society today.

If they’d been allowed to flourish, for instance, Japan’s labor unions might now be stronger advocates for higher wages, helping to break deflation’s grip. The Japanese bureaucracy — intentionally given great powers to implement the about-face in U.S. policy — might have less of a stranglehold over all aspects of Japanese life. The equal-opportunity protections for women might have added up to something more than just words on paper, rendering Abe’s much-vaunted “Womenomics” push unnecessary. Ordinary Japanese might even have a much more favorable view of the American temperament than they do today.

The LDP would probably not have been so politically dominant for so long: As late as the mid-1990s, the U.S. was still protecting the party by refusing to declassify documents about the CIA’s cash payments, with the State Department arguing then that “many of the LDP’s present leaders date from the period in question.” Now the entrenched economic interests that have always backed the LDP are blocking much-needed structural reforms that Abe says he wants to institute.

More troublingly, the party — and Abe’s administration in particular — is salted with members who seem to believe that advancing Japan’s future requires rewriting its past. Many members of Abe’s Cabinet belong to a group championing visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war criminals among its other fallen veterans, and also associate with the Japan Conference, a grouping that seeks to cast doubt on the Nanjing Massacre and wartime accounts of women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military. Such revisionism, and Abe’s refusal to repudiate it, embitters relations with China and South Korea, and thus undermines the effectiveness of the enhanced U.S.-Japan military partnership.

That would come as a disappointment to Kennan, a realist who believed in power politics, not national fairy tales. Next to the Marshall Plan, he saw his work in Japan as “the most significant contribution I was ever able to make in government.” Now, with Kennan’s vision of a “Pacific Security system” even closer at hand, Abe’s historical delusions may be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling its promise.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs.

  • Eaton111

    What a silly article…labor unions, especially civil service unions, are the hindrances to economies and good governance. The reason why the blue states in America are in debt and can’t fire bad cops and crappy teachers is because the civil service unions prevent it, and public reforms of any kind are hard because they don’t like change. Thankfully the red states, like Texas don’t have that problem.

    • Bruce Chatwin

      What a silly comment…”right to work” legislation and the worship of Friedmanite economic theory, not labour unions, are the major hindrances to sound economic policy and good governance.

    • Toolonggone

      Doesn’t really matter which color the state is. Regardless of red or blue, the nation is in total chaos, thanks to irresponsibility and betrayal of politicians who sold their souls to billionaires and corporate deformers. Sad to see so many politicians from red states betraying the voters by double-crossing respect for the public common.

  • Paul Martin

    In the seven years I have lived on and off in Japan I am convinced there is a H U G E generation gap between the older, conservative people who control most of the wealth and power and the younger generation, many who have studied and lived overseas in more liberal environments and want an internationalized Japan not a return to a stringent nationalistic one and the old ways

    • TV Monitor

      Paul Martin

      Actually it is the other way around.

      The older generations in their 50s and 70s were the ones who lived through the war, studied overseas, and were taught the war crimes of Imperial Japan.

      It is the younger ones who came of age after the bubble burst in 1990, who are inward looking neo-con conservatives, who blame their misery on the rise of Korea and China, thus Japan no longer owed any apology to China and Korea. Average Koreans supposedly enjoy a higher standard of living than average Japanese do, while China as whole is now twice as big as Japan and earned the title of Superpower that Japan never did, so why apologize to people, the reasoning goes.

      • Paul Martin

        Ty I get your point and stand somewhat historically corrected, however this doesn’t make life in Japan easier for us gaijins !

      • TV Monitor

        Paul Martin

        Well, maybe it is time to consider packing up and come home, since there is no prospect of Japan turning around. As economy gets worse and worse in Japan due to Abe’s reckless economic policy of printing yen, tough economic conditions fuel social conservatism and rightwing social mood that shun all things foreign, even Americans living in Japan(Americans in America are fine, but Americans in Japan are Gaijins to be shunned).

      • Paul Martin

        Yes…your right about gaijins treatment here in Japan ! I often wish I was back in America where I was a top British radio dj. At least there I had NO problems with racism or discrimination and people opened a lot of doors for us there. Japan is an extremely hard place to do anything especially for enterpreneurs…the established Japanese never return calsl and won’t listen to good ideas if you are a foreigner !
        Japan needs the outside World ore than we need them though…they have no natural resources and like I always say without tourists and foreigners buying their cars, hevy equipment, motorcycles,etc they would hve NO economy !

  • zer0_0zor0

    Truman’s containment policy–Kennan is famous for contributing to that–predates some of the events described here, some claiming that the atomic bombs were dropped primarily to stop Russia from establishing itself in a position of influence in Japan.