Shinzo Abe’s election as leader of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) this past week and his imminent installation as Junichiro Koizumi’s successor as prime minister is something Americans should look forward to with mixed feelings. Koizumi was a mold-breaking leader, bringing the Japanese economy out of the doldrums, reforming the postal savings system, and smashing the LDP’s faction system. But much less heralded is his legitimation of a new Japanese nationalism, described in greater detail in the article by Mike Mochizuki in the current issue of The American Interest. Abe is, if anything, even more committed to building an assertive and unapologetic Japan than Koizumi, who for the past five years has managed to antagonize China and South Korea by his annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.
Yushukan military museum next to it, which is operated by a private religious foundation. Walking past the Mitsubishi Zero, tanks, and machine guns on display, one finds a history of the Pacific War that the museum proudly explains restores “the Truth of Modern Japanese History.” It follows the nationalist narrative by which Japan was a victim of the European colonial powers, one that sought only to protect the rest of Asia from them. Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, for example, is described as a “partnership”; one looks in vain for any account of the victims of Japanese militarism in Nanjing or Manila.Anyone inclined to think that the controversy over Yasukuni is an obscure historical matter that the Chinese and the Koreans use to badger Japan for political advantage has probably never spent much time there. The problem is not the fact that 12 Class-A war criminals are interred in Yasukuni; the real problem is the
One might be able to defend the museum as one point of view among many in a pluralistic democracy, but for the fact that there is no other museum in Japan that gives an alternative view of Japanese 20th-century history. Successive Japanese administrations have hidden behind the fact that the Yushukan museum is run by a religious organization to wash its hands of responsibility for the views expressed there. The fact of the matter is that Japan, unlike Germany, has never come to terms with its own responsibility for the Pacific War. Although the socialist prime minister Murayama officially apologized to China for the war in 1995, Japan has never had a real internal debate over exactly what its degree of its responsibility was, and has never made a determined effort to propagate an alternative account to that of Yushkan to its young people.
My exposure to the Japanese right came in the early 1990s, when I was on a couple of panels in Japan with Watanabe Soichi, who was selected by my Japanese publisher (unbeknownst to me) to translate The End of History and the Last Man into Japanese. Watanabe was professor at Sophia University and a collaborator of the elder Ishihara, the nationalist politician who wrote The Japan That Can Say No. In the course of a couple of encounters, I heard him explain in front of large public audiences how the people of Manchuria had tears in their eyes when the occupying Kwantung Army left China, so grateful were they to Japan, and that the Pacific War was all about race on the part of the United States (i.e., keeping a non-white people down). He is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier, but one who unlike his German counterparts can easily get large and sympathetic audiences to listen. (I am regularly sent books by Japanese writers explaining how the Nanjing Massacre was a big fraud.)
There have been a number of disturbing recent incidents in which physical intimidation has been used by nationalists against critics of Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits, such as the firebombing of the home of former prime ministerial candidate Kato Koichi (see Steve Clemons’ account). On the other hand, the publisher of the normally conservative Yomiuri Shimbun has stepped up to the plate, attacking Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and publishing a fascinating series of articles on responsibility for the war.
There are a number of American strategists who are eager to ring China with a NATO-like defensive barrier, building outwards from the US-Japan Security Treaty. Since the waning days of the Cold War Washington has been pushing Japan to rearm, and has officially supported a proposed revision of Article 9 of the postwar constitution that bans Japan from having a military or waging war. We should be careful in what we wish for, however. The legitimacy of the entire American military position in the Far East is built around the fact that we have taken over the sovereign function of self-defense for Japan; a unilateral revision of Article 9 by Japan against the backdrop of its new nationalism will isolate Japan from virtually the whole rest of Asia. We presume that Article 9 revision has long been part of Abe’s agenda, but whether he pushes ahead with it will depend in large part on the kinds of advice he gets from close friends in Washington. President Bush has been unwilling to say anything to his “good friend Junichiro” on these historical issues out of gratitude for Japan’s support on Iraq; perhaps he could start with a clean slate once Abe becomes prime minister.