Will Japan repeat past errors?

by Hugh Cortazzi

Is Japan in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past? History does not repeat itself and circumstances today are very different from those of 80 years ago, but ultra-nationalism has been latent in some circles in Japan for centuries and poses a potential threat to peace and to Japan’s long-term interests.

The United States today is Japan’s ally not its enemy. There are anti-American elements in Japan and understandable resentment against Japanese bases in Okinawa, but hostilities between Japan and the U.S. are unimaginable in the foreseeable future.

The Korean Peninsula has been seen for centuries as “a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.” The North Korean regime, which poses a threat to world peace, has South Korea, the U.S. and Japan as its first targets.

Relations with South Korea are bedeviled by the history of Japanese colonial rule and complicated by the presence in Japan of a significant Korean minority, which has suffered from the racial prejudices of some Japanese. The dispute over the Takeshima islets provides material for ultra-nationalist rhetoric in both countries. If there was good will on both sides the dispute should be solvable. Unfortunately jealousies including commercial and economic issues get in the way.

China 80 years ago was poor and riven by strife. Its GDP has now overtaken that of Japan and it has formidable armed forces as well as ultra-nationalist elements. A repetition of Japan’s aggression against China in the 1930s is impossible. But extremists in both countries are a threat to the development of closer relations between the countries.

Extremists use the dispute over the barren Senkaku Islands to arouse patriotic feelings. Japanese attempts to deny that there is a dispute are belied by what former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982. He then said that it had been agreed with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that the dispute should be shelved and settled later. The provocative intervention by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and mishandling by the Democratic Party of Japan government at the time made matters worse. There is a danger that a miscalculation or provocative action by either China or Japan could spark conflict.

There is no conceivable Japanese interest in aggressive action against Southeast Asian countries today. The British, French and Dutch have all withdrawn and the main Japanese interests in the area are trade and investment.

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are well trained and equipped, but have generally kept out of politics. Civilian control has been maintained, although there have been signs of a wish to dilute this and one or two senior officers are reported to have expressed ultra-nationalist opinions. A military coup d’état fortunately seems most unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The pre-war zaibatsu conglomerates, which were dragooned into supporting the military in prewar days, no longer exist. The primary interests of the various economic and commercial groups are in remaining profitable in the face of foreign competition. While they will try to limit the penetration of the Japanese market by foreign rivals they have nothing to gain and much to lose from extremism and ultra-nationalism.

There is a populist appeal in “standing up” to China, Russia and South Korea but if conflict looked likely Japanese people would not knuckle under in the way their forefathers did in the 1930s. While there have been attempts to indoctrinate the young to become more patriotic and nationalist, they have not been brainwashed in the way their great grandparents were.

The Emperor has studiously kept out of politics and would not be manipulated by extremists in the way Japan’s military leaders misused reverence for the Showa Emperor.

The idea of a repetition of the events of the 1930s is thus totally unrealistic. But there is a real risk that the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party will pursue policies leading to a more autocratic and nationalist regime, which could threaten Japan’s long term national interests.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the coterie that surrounds him have taken the first steps toward “counter-reformation.” Abe has been ultra-sensitive to criticism and, while there is no official censorship, pressure on the media to support his policies has grown. NHK, which should be independent, has become a government mouthpiece. The kisha club (press club) system, which is used to feed government information to the media, has been used to promote self-censorship by the implied threat of being excluded from access. A vendetta against the Asahi Shimbun seems to have been at least partly successful.

The official secrets act enacted in late 2013 without adequate parliamentary scrutiny contains provisions that could be misused to limit freedom of speech. Anyone familiar with the spy mania of prewar Japan must be concerned about the dangers from this piece of legislation. My requests for an analysis of the law have so far evoked no official response.

Abe wishes to amend the Constitution. The focus has so far been on Article 9 and defense issues, but right-wing circles have mooted dilution of the human rights clauses and enhancing the status of the Emperor. Nihon Kaigi, a right wing group with many associates in the LDP, is reported to be an increasingly influential force.

Abe’s historical revisionism, which is being backed by many members of his party, is a major cause for concern. The main focus has been on the Nanjing massacre and “comfort women” issues, but other crimes by members of the Japanese Imperial forces during the war have not yet been erased from memory in Southeast Asian countries. Nor have the nearly 13,000 allied POWs and tens of thousands of local slave laborers who died building the Burma-Siam railway been forgotten, even if Japanese school textbooks do not mention these facts.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, any attempt by Abe to dilute the Murayama and Kono statements or to deny historical facts will be damaging to Japan’s reputation in the world and to Japan’s national interests.

A repetition of events in the 1930s is inconceivable but there is much about politics in Tokyo to cause alarm among those of us who admire Japanese culture and have many Japanese friends.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.