Escape in Japan

Ian Buruma – The New York Review of Books

Copyright The New York Review of Books
Excerpted from a very fine piece about Japan’s woes by always interesting Buruma.
… In 1960, after widespread demonstrations against the renewal of the US–Japan security treaty had led to the resignation of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, his successor, Ikeda Hayato, announced a government plan to double everyone’s income through high-speed growth. Enriching the population under the paternalistic rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was a deliberate attempt to deflect political energies into economic well-being. The middle class was offered a deal: material wealth in exchange for political acquiescence, a virtual one-party state with no more protests, and the dutiful army of salarymen would be taken care of. Labor unions had been pretty much tamed, sometimes with the strong-arm help of gangsters. And Japanese pacifism was guaranteed by a constitution, written by Americans in 1946, which banned the use of armed force. Responsibility for national security was handed over to the US, which had (and still has) military bases all over the Japanese archipelago.
This system, put in place in 1955, when the LDP was formed, and cemented in 1960, suited the Japanese political and business elite, who could now concentrate on industrial expansion. It suited most Japanese, who wanted nothing more to do with war. Like a reformed alcoholic, many Japanese feared that even one little sip of military action would lead to another bender. And it suited the US, which wanted Japan to be a reliable bastion against communism. So CIA money was funneled into the already well-stocked coffers of the LDP for several decades, to make sure all signs of leftism were kept at bay; rather like what happened in Italy, where the Christian Democrats benefited from a similar arrangement.
When the US and its allies occupied Japan after the war, one of the main goals was to establish a stable democracy. To the eternal credit of General MacArthur’s administration and Japanese democrats, they succeeded. But in the LDP state, democracy began to suffer from lack of use, as it were. The left was both marginalized and, briefly, radicalized. As happened in Italy and Germany, the fragments of the 1960s protest generation exploded in acts of mindless violence in the 1970s: airline hijackings, purges of “traitors,” murder sprees on behalf of Palestinian liberation, and other revolutionary causes.
The electoral system, skewed to favor conservative rural constituencies, made it hard for more liberal parties to challenge the supremacy of the LDP, which was soon corrupted by the vast amounts of money slushing through the system. The ruling party, in fact a huge pork-barrel operation, became increasingly gummed up by a congeries of factions led in recent years by members of political dynasties going back at least three generations. Prime Minister Aso, for example, is the grandson of Yoshida Shigeru, prime minister in 1946, and one of the chief architects of the LDP state. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, a recent predecessor, was Kishi’s grandson.
The postwar deal (often called the “Yoshida deal,” or the “1955 system”) had another consequence, which is now becoming painfully obvious: it marginalized Japan as an international player. While China and even India receive enormous attention as rising powers, Japan, which still has the second-biggest economy in the world, is seldom in the news, except when some hack politician says something silly about the role of women or the last world war. No Japanese political thinker has made any impact in the West, or indeed anywhere else. Intellectually and politically, Japan seems to exist in a peculiar bubble of its own.
It did not look this way twenty years ago, when all kinds of intelligent people were warning us about Japan’s imminent dominance of the world. The “Japan model,” of brilliant bureaucrats steering huge business and industrial conglomerates toward ever greater victories on the world markets, was seen as either a great danger or something to emulate, or both. Pundits declared that “soft” economic power was much more important than the “hard” military kind. Even if the slump of the 1990s did not exactly destroy the “Japan model,” with its fuzzy borders between private and public enterprise, it certainly showed up its vulnerabilities. And the recent collapse of the “American model” has caused even greater havoc, because of Japan’s sacrifice of domestic consumers’ interests to the demands of its export industries, now in search of customers.
The ups and downs of the Japanese economy, however, don’t explain the country’s relative isolation and political sclerosis. Of all people, the man who saw this coming was Kishi Nobusuke, the ultra-nationalist wartime minister of armaments, arrested in 1945 as a war criminal, only to be released from prison in 1948, when fiercely anti-Communist politicians were suddenly in demand. He was the prime minister who provoked mass demonstrations when he signed a new security treaty with the US in 1960. Kishi was opposed to the “peace constitution” from the beginning. Handing over responsibility for national security to a foreign power, he said, was a humiliating abdication of national sovereignty, rather like the unequal treaties in colonial times. This view is still shared by a significant number of Japanese conservatives. What Kishi wanted was a system in which two more or less conservative parties would hold each other in check. A one-party state, bent on nothing but economic gain, would not only lead to the corruption of power, but put Japan on the sidelines of all but business affairs.
Unprepossessing as Kishi was, he had a real point. Under pressure from the US, which soon regretted having promoted pacifism, Japan created the so-called Self-Defense Forces. But the SDF still couldn’t contribute much to international conflicts except for the odd engineering project. Even for Japanese engaged in patrolling duties, as several hundred now are off the coast of Somalia, the spirit of the constitution had to be compromised. Some, both in and outside Japan, might consider barriers to military action to be a very good thing. But the lack of consensus over the continuously fudged constitution and the odd status of being a kind of vassal state to the US have created anxieties, resentments, and frustrations, which have a depressing effect on political debates in Japan and on Japan’s relations with the outside world.
A glimpse of this can be seen in Kurosawa’s movie Tokyo Sonata. Boredom with Japan’s lack of international status and the emptiness of its pursuit of materialism is why Sasaki’s elder son decides to go to Iraq with the US Army. He craves an ideal, something to fight for.[3] Perhaps this is what the novelist Murakami Ryu meant when he said, “We have everything in Japan except hope.”[4] The same frustration explains the popularity among young Japanese of comic books celebrating Japanese heroism during World War II, and why the rise of China is causing such fear, as well as resentment, especially when Chinese officials use history as a tool to stoke nationalism or to extract political or economic concessions from Japan.
A national debate on Japan’s constitution is long overdue. The conservative Yomiuri newspaper tried to promote this idea in its pages after the 1991 Gulf War, when Japan was criticized for not offering anything but a financial contribution. The proposal was not radical, but simply to make Japan’s right to self-defense explicit. Ozawa Ichiro, a former LDP politician who started his own opposition party in 1993 and more recently, until his resignation in May, led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), went one step further and argued that Japanese forces should be able to take part in international combat missions under the auspices of the UN. He also wants all US forces, except the Seventh Fleet, to vacate their Japanese bases.
The debate stalled, however. Instead, often provoked by unguarded statements by right-wing politicians, there are endless polemics about history, not so much by historians, which would be proper, but by politicians, journalists, and commentators with political agendas. As long as defenders of the “peace constitution” bring up Japan’s former militarism as a reason to oppose constitutional change, conservatives will argue that Japan did nothing wrong, indeed, that Japan fought a noble war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
Such statements by officials are usually followed by swift resignations from public office, especially when they reach the foreign press, causing yet more resentment among the nationalists. The latest spat of this kind occurred last year, when Air Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff General Tamogami Toshio wrote an essay depicting Japan as a wartime victim, dragged into the Sino-Japanese conflict by Chiang Kai-shek and tricked by the US into waging the Pacific war. Japanese journals are still arguing for one side or the other, depending on their political views.
In this respect, Japan is trapped in the 1950s, bogged down in arguments that should have been settled decades ago. Without settling them, however, it will be difficult for Japan to be trusted by its Asian neighbors and have a diplomatic influence commensurate with its economic weight. China will continue to gain influence, probably at Japan’s expense. Meanwhile, the US armed forces are still in Japan, financed to a large extent by the Japanese themselves, even as many people resent their continued presence.
The biggest change since the LDP state was established is that the government can no longer keep up its side of the bargain with the Japanese middle class: the slump took care of that. This has not yet had the effect of repoliticizing the middle class; there are no big demonstrations, at least not yet, nothing except an anxious waiting for worse to come.[5] The election of Barack Obama, which electrified Europeans, fascinated Japanese too. But the main worry in official circles upon the Democrats’ great victory was that the new president might care more about China than about Japan…
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