Commentary / Japan

The Showa Era is growing distant

by Kuni Miyake

I wrote this piece on a late evening Nozomi superexpress train bound for Tokyo. It was a tough Sunday night after finishing a six-hour class at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. I have been a visiting professor there since 2006.

The class I taught was the 2019-2020 academic year’s first in a series of eight policy simulation games, a shorter version of the 24-hour war game by the Canon Institute for Global Studies. Sunday’s exercise was focused on the current political situation in East Asia with a special emphasis on the Korean Peninsula.

It is always great to be with and talking to young college students, especially freshmen and sophomores. They are naive and green in a good sense. Most of them were born at the turn of the century, maybe around 2000. They represent a new generation of Japan’s youth in the 21st century.

Having said that, I was not only appalled but also even shocked by the outcome of Sunday’s class. It was not because the students’ performance was poor. On the contrary, they did a great job as newcomers. I was just surprised by the generation gap I felt with those students. The following are the reasons why:

The presumed time and location of this policy simulation game was the Korean Peninsula in real time on May 19. Since the U.S. president walked out of the summit meeting with North Korea’s leader in Hanoi at the end of February, the two sides have explored a third summit meeting on the issue of denuclearization.

Japan and China are trying to make trade deals with the United States, hopefully by June during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. Japan is also seeking to hold another bilateral summit with North Korea to solve the issue of the Japanese abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s. South Korea is trying to stay in and Russia to join the regional game of denuclearizing North Korea.

Nothing amazed me in the first half of Sunday’s simulation exercise. Beijing could not make a deal with Washington. Japan’s prime minister met with his North Korean counterpart in Beijing without agreeing on the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea. Russia proposed new six-party talks, which never came to be.

In the second half of the game, I gave the students breaking news that thousands of North Korean defectors had fled the North, crossed the 38th parallel and started entering South Korean territory. The North Korean army began shooting and the South Koreans started firing back. The 1953 armistice agreement was broken.

Then I asked each of the teams from the United States, Japan, China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea to come up with an action plan to deal with this new contingency. It was those action plans that really shocked me. The following is the gist of the actual action plans that the students prepared at the end of the game:

Japan: No interference in the crisis on the Korean Peninsula with the exception of the Japan Coast Guard dealing with North Korean defectors who enter Japan’s territorial waters.

The U.S.: Use force against North Korea only if its military crossed the 38th parallel, on the condition that South Korea requests it to do so.

China: Do virtually nothing as Beijing tried to prevent a U.S.-North Korea summit and failed.

Russia: Request the U.S. to lift the economic sanctions it imposed against Moscow after the annexation of Crimea.

South Korea: Take no specific measures to stop the shooting over the 38th parallel and continue discussions with the North on the issue of Korean unification.

North Korea: Disclose information regarding nuclear program-related secret military facilities in the country, strengthen measures to prevent defectors from going to the South and request South Korea to repatriate defectors.

Please, don’t blame the students’ naivete. They were pretty good considering they’re young college students who have virtually no detailed knowledge about foreign affairs. I was not surprised at the measures they recommended in their action plans. On the contrary, their imagination and intellectual efforts should be highly commended.

What appalled me most is the fact that during the politico-military exercise nobody referred to the South Korea-U.S. mutual defense treaty of 1953 or to the Japan-U.S. mutual security treaty of 1960. Nobody cared even if conflict resumed on the Korean Peninsula when the armistice agreement of 1953 was breached.

In the wrap-up session of the exercise, I explained that Article 6 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty stipulates that “For the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East, the United States … is granted the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan.” I also said that “the use of facilities and areas in Japan as bases for military combat operations to be undertaken from Japan … shall be the subjects of prior consultation with the Government of Japan.” This means that if the U.S. forces attack North Korea directly from Japan, Washington must consult with Tokyo in advance.

No students in the class seemed to be aware of this. I told them that “prior consultation” was one of the biggest issues when I was a university student in the 1970s. There were no classes and no exams at that time on many campuses in Japan simply because the students were “on strike” to show their opposition to the Japan-U.S. alliance.

What does this all mean? It not only proves that I am getting old but also reveals that the gap between my generation and theirs is much more serious than I expected. The students of today, unlike those in the 1970s, go to class every day and take exams at the end of every semester.

During the Showa Era in the 1970s, we were worried about war resuming on the Korean Peninsula even though war was almost unlikely then. Now my Reiwa Era students cannot imagine a conflict there, even if war is more likely than any other time before.

The Showa Era is growing distant for the people of my generation. As is the case in many nations around the world, we may be losing our basic memories of the past.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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