Japan’s unreported conservative revolution led by its understated PM

Sol W. Sanders  

In a world of moldering journalism, nothing quite equals the inadequacies of the reporting about Japan. Despite this short shrift, Japan remains the U.S.’ most important relationship in Asia — especially as China is increasingly seen as an adversary and with an unpredictable North Korea.

It is an important trading partner — $170 billion through October this year with a $61 billion deficit in Japan’s favor. Even though that is dwarfed by China’s $468 billion for the same period, with a staggering $268 deficit in Beijing’s favor, it has heft beyond the numbers.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan is rapidly becoming a major scientific center with the third largest budget for research and development at $130 billion with 677,731 world class researchers. Most important, Japan’s civil society, despite its unique characteristics, is a major partner in the world democratic alliance. Its remarkable modernization dating now back more than a century and a half is still a role model, particularly for China, and other less developed countries. Challenged by the growing aggressiveness of China and North Korea, it is the keystone of American military strategy for maintaining peace and stability in Asia and the world.
What then is going on in Japan?

The most popular politician in a generation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is a typical Japanese revolutionary – little talk, much covert action, and stubborn resolve.

A member of the traditional political elite, partially American-educated, Abe appears destined for leading an historic transition. Two aspects of Abe’s strategy are indeed getting some half-asymetrical [cq] “coverage”: “Abenomics”, his effort with fundamental reform to reflate the world’s third largest economy, stagnant now for a generation, and a military buildup coupled with a more assertive foreign policy.

But what isn’t being reported, is a cultural revolution undertaken ever more quietly. That is a movement to shake off Japan’s half century of self-abnegation, a heritage from its Word War disastrous defeat and the postwar American Occupation. Abe’s aim is simply for Japan to assume its rightful role as a leading nation.

One problem, of course, is that Abe – like the rest of us – carries a lot of baggage. He is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, an “unindicted war criminal”, the chief economic architect for the wartime militarists but twice a brilliant postwar prime minister. Furthermore, his wealthy Kyushu forebears, mines and factory owners, impressed Korean labor and Allied POWs, explained if not excused by miserable wartime conditions. Furthermore, when in 2006 he did climb the ladder of the conservative party to be one of Japan’s youngest prime ministers ever [he’s 69 now], he blew it in less than a year.

If reported at all, these juicy [especially for the left] tidbits are fitted into a familiar gaggle of World War II epithets which belie the real story of contemporary Japan.

Contrary to popular prejudice, Japan has expressed as much contrition for its past as Germany. Anyone who knows the Japanese, gets it in full measure at a personal level from the new generations. Japanese leaders have formally apologized dozens of times for their wartime criminal activities. The latest apology was by Abe, himself, on Oct. 18, 2012 when he was preparing to take office again: “Japan inflicted tremendous damage and suffering on people in many countries, especially in Asia. The Abe Cabinet will take the same stance as that of past Cabinets.”

Whatever else Abe is doing, he is not the 1930s Japanese ultra-nationalist attempting to recapture that past. But that is the way he is often presented in his nation’s own almost solidly leftwing mass media, regurgitated by the Western MSM. A central, complicated problem is that legitimate, traditional Japanese cultural institutions were shanghaied by the military to promote their aggression. Disentangling this cultural inheritance is as hard as it is for other civilizations to shed undesirable aspects of their history.

All this is intimately related to Japan’s neighbors, especially China and Korea, that seek to use the old crimes to further current negotiations. Indeed, it ill behooves a Chinese Communist regime to propagandize Japanese wartime history while refusing to acknowledge its own policies since 1949.costing at least a hundred million of its own people’s lives through persecution and government-induced famine. South Korean chauvinists, too, are too ready to forget more than 200,000 Koreans served in the Imperial armies, that its post-Korean War leadership has often been closely affiliated with, granted, a brutal half century Japanese Occupation.

Furthermore, Tokyo has repeatedly made restitution. Starting in 1955, for 23 years Japan paid 600 billion yen [$588 billion in current exchange] reparations to 16 countries, an enormous amount for an economy destroyed by the war. Another $589 million was scraped up for the cost of the seven-year U.S. Occupation. However, much more important: while in its self-interested race from the 1950s to become an economic superpower, Japan helped lay the basis for the current Asia boom [not excluding China]. That came about almost accidentally after Japan, partially blocked by protectionist quotas in export markets, notably the U.S., initiated “outsourcing” — the first glimmerings of later “globalization”. [This powerhouse was recognized by China’s Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, a graduate of Japanese military schools, when he refused formal reparations in the immediate postwar period hoping for just this kind of collaboration.]

No other government has poured as much into UN coffers [11 percent of the UN budget against 25 percent for the U.S.] and since 1989, stretched its:”no war” constitution for participation in UN peacekeeping. That framework, dictated by the American Occupation, originally prohibited all military forces. Abe, as his predecessors, is wrestling with how to amend the document – difficult to achieve given a small but strident opposition – to conform to demands of a normal country which must see to its own defenses, and contribute increasingly to a common defense led by the U.S.

In pursuit of this program, Abe has just completed a special session of the Japanese parliament aimed at restructuring the economy, particularly opening it to foreign investment. As in any other Western democracy, it was tough sledding against vested interests. The measures were to meet the anticipated shock of the American-initiated Trans Pacific Partnership proposal for, essentially, a common market. This requires industrialization of Japanese agriculture, so long chained to uneconomic rice subsidies which Abe has begun to disassemble, a project still unfinished to meet the challenge of lower priced, subsidized American agricultural imports.

What caught the attention of the mass media, however, in Japan and the West, was Abe’s legislation setting up a new security framework. This included not only a copy of the American national security council but a tough new anti-espionage law. It’s no secret that one problem afflicting the now accelerated integration of U.S. and expanding Japanese military has been the sieve of Japanese technical leaks. [Although this is an argument harder to make post-Snowden!] American and allied submarines, for example, still suffer from an earlier commercial transfer of underwater sonar technology to Soviet and then Chinese and North Korean weaponry.

Opposition to Abe came out in dramatic form, not seen since the proposed 1960 anti-Eisenhower visit – which had to be canceled but did not stop the signing of the mutual defense treaty. If history does repeat itself, as Friedrick Engels said, the first time as drama, the second time as farce [referring, of course to Napoleon and his grandson Louis Napoleon’s reigns], this was an example. The powerful Communist and left wing socialist trade unions created under the American Occupation aegis are long since gone. But Nikkyoso, Japan’s radical teachers union which opposes any patriotic celebration from flag ceremonies and allegiance pledges to singing a national anthem [a poem written by the former empress] was still around. And while no fisticuffs dogged the Diet as in the past, there were on and off walkouts of the outvoted and largely discredited minorities in both houses.

Japan’s three largest national newspapers, all left of center, did a good deal of ranting and some highly suspect public opinion polling. But there is as yet no sign that as they predicted Abe’s personal popularity is giving way before these old hot and contested issues. In fact, Abe’s appeal to tradition seems to have rung a bell with what has always been an essentially conservative and very unique Japanese discipline and patriotism.

It is no accident, as the Communists were wont to say, that even the Beijing leadership looks first to Japan for any model for the very difficult economic and social modernization problems it continues to face even after enormous economic progress if a dead-end toward a civil society.

Abe is a long way from achieving his objectives, of course. And there are larger than life barriers still to be surmounted. Not the least is the demographic catastrophe Japan shares with other developed countries [and China and Russia] but to a staggering degree. If present trends continue, Japan’s population would fall from 128 to 87 million by 2060, from the tenth largest in 2010 to the bottom of the world’s top 20 in half a century. Not only does this present enormous social problems, but it makes the Japanese search for a robotic economy even more pressing.

There’s a new growing if unpublicized geopolitical concern, as well. While Abe maintains a stiff upper lip in what is widely seen in Japanese circles to be utter disappointment with the Obama Administration, the cracks are telling. Reportedly, after initial protestations, in recent bilateral consultations with Joe Biden, Abe heard out the U.S. vice president’s proposed mediation suggestions in the growing tension between Japan and China.

But the Japanese were already bewildered by the inconsistencies of the Obama Administration position on a dispute focused on rocky islands between the two countries [and the possible fossil fuel beneath them].

Washington acknowledges their long Japanese occupation and the fact they were covered in the agreement for the 1971 return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. U.S. spokesmen have also reiterated several times that, therefore, they are covered under the mutual defense treaty. But the State Department’s insistence it does not recognize Japanese sovereignty, and statements seemingly apportioning blame equally to both sides for the dispute, is a puzzlement to all, not least an ally. The fact that Biden on his tour, which accidentally coincided with a new Chinese grab for control in the seas between the Mainland, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, included a specific refusal to mediate Tokyo-Seoul tension is another anachronism no one in Asia ignores.

All this is quite a bundle for even a talented Japanese leader, not likely to get a sympathetic ear from the mainstream media, at home and abroad.

Sol W. Sanders, ([email protected]), is a contributing editor forWorldTribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com and blogs atyeoldecrabb.wordpress.com

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