What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
There are (at least) two kinds of anti-Americanism: one popular, the other intellectual. Naturally, they are symbiotic. The former is volatile, rising and abating in step with the current state of affairs. The latter is more constant, providing an ever available platform for the former, and as such it is more important.
Popular anti-Americanism in Japan today is currently not as strong as in neighboring Asian countries such as South Korea and China. (An October 2004 survey by Asahi and other newspapers said 74 percent of Japanese and 65 percent of South Koreans have favorable views of the American people. According to a June 2005 Pew survey, only 42 percent of Chinese have a favorable view of the United States.) Intellectual anti-Americanism is harder to measure, not least because of its diverse nature. Its constituents in Japan include anti-globalists, postmodernists, nativists and nationalists, some of whom claim to be pro-American. But intellectual anti-Americanism in Japan is significant and probably growing. The potential for popular anti-Americanism is therefore growing along with it.
A similarly diffuse structure characterizes intellectual anti-Americanism in other advanced countries thanks to an increasingly globalized intellectual climate. Intellectuals are as transnational as large corporations these days. They read the same global literature, whether by Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami; they watch the same films, whether Hollywood or “indie” movies; and they keep up with the situation in Iraq through the same cable news networks and the Internet. But Japanese anti-Americanism has particularly deep roots in the country’s historical experience because the two preeminent events in modern Japanese history happen both to involve the United States as the major player: the Meiji Restoration (1868) and defeat in the Pacific War (1945). This is not true of any other major country. Japanese society changed dramatically after 1868 and 1945, and the Japanese people remain complicatedly ambivalent about both epochs. In each case, America created in Japan a strong sense of loss, but in each it opened the door to progress and power, as well. Both the trauma of defeat and the exhilaration of advancement are inseparable from the tangle of Japanese-American history. No wonder ambivalence reigns in Japanese perceptions of the United States.
The origins of Japanese anti-Americanism date to the anti-foreigner “Strike the Barbarians” movement among young samurai who rebelled against the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid-19th century. That movement, arising in a closed Japan from the perceived threat of the colonizing West, evinced a nascent modern nationalism whose goal was a stronger unified state. The commotion had started earlier in that century with Japan’s first contacts with Russians probing down into East Asia, and had heightened with news of the Opium War. But it was the 1853 visit of the Black Ships led by the U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry that stimulated an overwhelming impulse for internal reform. Within a mere 15 years of Perry’s first visit, some of the young anti-foreign samurai had become leaders in Japan’s headlong modernization project.
The process of opening up the country and jump-starting modernization under threat from American gunboats, along with the spiritual metamorphosis of young anti-foreigner revolutionaries, casts a complicated shadow over Japanese attitudes toward the West, and particularly toward the United States. A Japanese Jungian psychoanalyst, Kishida Shu, said in a popular 1977 book, Monogusa Seishin-bunseki (Idle Psychoanalysis), that Japan felt “raped” in its collective psyche, and that its sense of humiliation in the ensuing collective trauma may explain the schizophrenic love-hate attitudes toward America and the West that endure to the present day. This psychoanalytical discourse in itself, though it sounds a little outlandish, represents one variant of Japanese anti-Americanism. Still, the shadow cast at the start of Japan’s modernization is worth analyzing in various ways to understand the Japanese outlook on America.
Consider the issue of mania: The speed with which the Japanese people absorbed modernity as symbolized by America is astonishing by almost any measure. For example, only twenty years after the United States completed the first transcontinental railway (1869), Japan succeeded in connecting Tokyo-Osaka/Kobe by rail, with other lines extending in various directions from Tokyo. Just two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, Japan domestically produced its first phone, and so on.
But if Japan’s modernization was very rapid, so was the intensity of the reaction against it. Disillusioned former samurai, led by a former powerful modernizer-leader, mounted a major rebellion in 1877—depicted in the 2003 Hollywood movie The Last Samurai. Saigo Takamori, who professed loyalty to the throne throughout the six-month revolt, led tens of thousands of former samurai against the newly-formed modern government, and died honorably by his own hand in a final battle. Posthumously pardoned, Saigo became a popular national hero in the mold of General Robert E. Lee. A bronze statue of Saigo now stands near the center of Tokyo, just as a statue of Lee stands in Alexandria, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. The fate of Saigo’s rebellion also mirrors that of the Confederacy in that, though both were defeated by more powerful modernizing forces, both left a reflection of what had been lost, redolent of honor and historical romance, in the hearts and minds of the winning side.
Saigo’s continuing popularity among ordinary Japanese symbolizes their persistent ambivalence toward modernization, which became ever more synonymous with Americanization as the process advanced. That ambivalence was exquisitely expressed by one of Japan’s greatest postwar literary critics, Eto Jun (1932–99), who wrote during his final three years a small and cryptic book about Saigo. In that book, Nanshu Zan-ei (Saigo’s Remaining Shadow), Eto hints enigmatically that the rebellious hero thought he had to oppose the massive modern army of the new Meiji government because he foresaw Japan’s future collapse in the face of colossal U.S. military might. It is one of the most aesthetically refined anti-American passages in postwar Japanese literature, and it follows a recurrent theme in Eto’s literary criticism—namely, how various authors struggled in spirit with modernity in prewar Japan, and with America in postwar Japan. One of Eto’s major works was about sophisticated American censorship of Japanese literary works during the 1945–51 Allied Occupation and its enduring effects. The work contributed to Japan’s negative image of America, which taught freedom of speech and denied it at the same time.
Feeding upon the irony of the defeated Saigo’s “victory” in people’s hearts and minds, Japan brought forth a refined romantic movement with original thoughts on modernity by the time it began making inroads into Manchuria in early 1930s. The Pacific War, called The Great East Asia War in Japan, was promoted by the militarist government to liberate Asia from Western colonial powers. But many Japanese intellectuals considered it a war to “overcome modernity.” Japan was fighting on the ground against “Anglo-Saxons”—meaning the Americans and the British—while, in the minds of intellectuals, metaphysically fighting against “modernity.” Seven months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, one major publishing house organized a symposium entitled “Overcoming Modernity” in which a dozen distinguished Japanese intellectuals participated, including leading romantic literati, philosophers and even a Catholic theologian.
This debate, later published in Bungaku-kai, a major literary magazine, attempted to address the spiritual state of Japan rather than produce war propaganda. Japanese romantics thought the Japanese people had searched every corner of the world for a true home, ended their search in disillusionment, only to discover their true home in Japan itself. Japan, however, had transformed itself into a grotesque copy of the West, with noisy trains stammering along among various kitsch constructions. “Ah, we lost all!” lamented Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886–1942), a renowned romantic poet.
Where Japan’s romantics sought cultural rebirth by negating the whole modernization process, some Japanese philosophers tried to break the metaphysical impasse by fusing modern German and French philosophies with East Asian thought. The Japanese intellectual climate, synchronizing with that of pre-World War II continental Europe (not least with Heidegger’s philosophy), and in despair about the entire turn of modern life, had already begun its postmodern speculations before August 1945.
And then total defeat in the war brought a second massive wave of “Black Ships”—this time led by Douglas MacArthur—to force modernization (again!) upon Japan. MacArthur was quoted as saying, “Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they [Japanese] would be like a boy of twelve as compared with our development of forty-five years.” It was a fact, he added, that allowed Americans to “implant basic concepts” into Japan.
That these remarks from MacArthur’s 1951 testimony before a Senate committee remain widely known in Japan today indicates not only the deep humiliation felt by the Japanese at that time, but a subconscious despair at being forced to repeat a painful and divisive modernization process under American aegis. Still, in the immediate postwar years, Japanese intellectuals had no alternative but to reaffirm modernity or the modernization project, while romantic and anti-(unknowingly post-)modernist opinion leaders were in effect ostracized from the literary scene for some time. Maruyama Masao (1914–96), a young political scientist soon to become a supremo among Japan’s liberal opinion leaders, stood in the vanguard of postwar Japanese modernism. People raced to buy magazines carrying his critiques of Japan’s premodern ultra-nationalism that had led them to war and disaster. On the other hand, even Marxists just out of prison welcomed the restarted modernization project, which included agrarian reform and the disbanding of the zaibatsu under the aegis of New Dealers among the U.S. Occupation Forces. Anti-Americanism was very weak, perhaps at its lowest since 1853.
But the “reverse course” of the Occupation started soon with the advent of the Cold War. The Occupation authority banned a planned general strike in early 1947—a new line was drawn clearly in the sand. Despite the new Constitution, with its famous anti-military Article 9 imposed on Japan by the Allied powers, Americans began asking Japan to rearm after the Korean War broke out in June 1950. This resulted in a peculiar twist in Japan’s early postwar political psychology, and it was against this backdrop that Japan’s domestic political polarization took shape. That polarization lasted for more than forty years, borne up by the stable construct of anti-American leftists versus pro-American rightists. But both the Left and the Right were saddled with nationalist elements, which created an unexpected twist. Some on the Left soon embraced postmodernism, while many on the Right maintained premodern impulses. In an odd way, that brought these elements together, united by their anti-modernism.
Leftist anti-Americanism during the Cold War culminated in June 1960 when 150,000 radical students and laborers surrounded the Diet building, with five million citizens out on the streets all over Japan protesting the newly revised U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which seemingly allowed U.S. military bases on Japanese soil forever. The demonstrators crushed police barricades and shouted “Yankee go home!” Radical rightists and gangsters, through backdoor deals with the incumbent powers, helped the police. The treaty was ratified in the Diet by a forced vote taken under police protection, but the prime minister later resigned and U.S. President Eisenhower’s planned visit was cancelled.
Although by all appearances a typical Left-Right confrontation, the demonstrators were at heart nationalist and anti-American. The Left and its supporters among the public had expressed opposition to a humiliating security treaty. And interestingly enough, after this colossal mass demonstration, some younger rightists started reconsidering their pro-ruling party (Liberal Democrats), pro-American and pro-capitalist positions. In the late 1960s they ushered in a New Right movement that was anti-capitalist, anti-American more nationalistic and, yes, even anti-modern. A decade later, New Rightists were terrorizing Japanese multinational corporations in the same manner that radical new leftists bombed them under the slogan of liberating East Asia from the “new colonialism.” (The leftist slogan, ironically enough, was similar to one used by the wartime militarist government.)
And then came an iconic event: the suicide of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), an internationally renowned writer. Mishima took the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs of the Self-Defense Forces hostage in an attempted one-man coup d’état. He died by his own hand in a formal act of hara-kiri. Two years before his suicide he had written a small book, On Defense of Culture, calling for the total reconstruction of the Japanese culture that had been destroyed during the Occupation. For many Japanese, Yukio Mishima’s suicide remains a shocking incident, the meaning of which has yet to find rest in proper perspective.
Japan is now home to Marxists-turned anti-globalists, postmodernists and nationalists whose implicit or explicit target is America as a global military, economic and cultural power. All are similar to those in Europe and the United States itself, but with the aforementioned historical characteristics. Japan’s intellectual anti-Americanism, with its roots in the Meiji Restoration and the defeat in the Pacific War thus takes on special associations. In Japan even more than in other countries, modernization is more closely associated with America than with any other expression of the West. And in Japan, anti-Americanism tends to be a phenomenon of the romantic Right as much or even more than of the postmodern Left, the opposite valence of that found in most European countries. That suggests that the American image in Japan will rise and fall in accordance with how the Japanese people navigate their own future, and how their historical imagination interprets the past as they go. Over such processes, no government has much influence.