Jan 9th 2019

Japan First

TOKYO – Even whales have now been affected by US President Donald Trump. This year, Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and resume commercial whaling. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government claims that eating whale meat is an important part of Japanese culture, even though the number of Japanese who actually do so is tiny compared to a half-century ago. And leaving the IWC will mean that Japanese whalers can fish only in Japan’s coastal waters, where the animals are relatively few.

The truth is that the decision was a gift to a few politicians from areas where whaling is still practiced, and to nationalists who resent being told by foreigners in international organizations what Japan can and cannot do. It is an entirely political act, inspired, according to the liberal Asahi Shimbun, by Trump’s insistence on “America First.” This is a matter of Japan First. Even though Trump is unlikely to mind, Japan’s insistence on whaling is bad for the country’s image.

Abe, himself a staunch Japanese nationalist, has a complicated relationship with the United States. Like his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, also a nationalist who was arrested as a war criminal in 1945, but who then became a loyal anti-communist ally of the Americans, Abe does everything to stay close to the US, while also wanting Japan to be first. One of his dreams is to finish his grandfather’s attempt to revise the postwar pacifist constitution, written by the Americans, and come up with a more patriotic, and possibly more authoritarian document that will legalize the use of military force.

Japan has to be a stalwart American ally. Germany and Italy, the other defeated powers in World War II, have NATO and the European Union. Japan has only the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the US to protect itself against hostile powers, and the rise of China terrifies the Japanese. That is why Abe was the first foreign politician, after British Prime Minister Theresa May, to rush to congratulate Trump in person in 2017.

In some important ways, Japan has benefited greatly from being under America’s wing, and from the postwar constitution, which is not just pacifist, but more democratic than anything the country had before, enshrining individual rights, full suffrage, and freedom of expression. Constitutionally unable to take part in military adventures, except as a highly paid goods producer during America’s various Asian conflicts, Japan, rather like the countries in Western Europe, could concentrate on rebuilding its industrial power.

But the democracy that Americans are still proud of installing after 1945 has also been hindered by US interference. Like Italy, Japan was on the frontlines in the Cold War. And, like Italy’s Christian Democrats, Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party benefited for many years from huge amounts of US cash to make sure no left-wing parties came to power. As a result, Japan became a de facto one-party state.

This led to a kind of schizophrenia among Japan’s conservative nationalists like Abe. They appreciated American largesse, as well as its military backing against communist foes. But they deeply resented having to live with a foreign-imposed liberal constitution. Like the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946, in which foreign judges tried Japan’s wartime leaders, the constitution and all it stands for is seen as a national humiliation.

The Japanese right would like to overturn much of the postwar order, established by the US with the support of Japanese liberals. Abe’s revisionist project does not only concern the pacifist Article 9, which bars Japan from using armed force, but also matters like education, emergency laws, and the role of the emperor.

To change Article 9, the current coalition government would need support from two-thirds of the Diet, as well as a popular referendum. After his landslide election victory in 2017, Abe has the required parliamentary majority. Whether he would win a referendum is still doubtful, although he has vowed to test this soon. On education, he has already won some important victories. “Patriotism” and “moral education” are now official goals of the national curriculum. This means, among other things, that obedience to the state, rather than individual rights and free thought, is instilled at an early age. It also means that the history of Japan’s wartime role, if taught in classrooms at all, will be related more as a heroic enterprise, in which the young should take pride.

In the past, the US, despite all its own flaws and criminal conflicts, still stood as a force for good. An ideal of American openness and democracy was still worthy of admiration. At the same time, again as in the case of Western Europe, dependence on US military protection has had a less positive affect. It made Japan into a kind of vassal state; whatever the Americans wanted, Japan ends up having to do. This can have an infantilizing effect on politics.

In the age of Trump, America is no longer so dependable. This might at least help to concentrate Japanese minds on how to get on in the world without the Americans. But the US has also ceased to be a model of freedom and openness. On the contrary, it has become an example of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism. Japanese nationalists need no encouragement to follow this model. If they do so, Trump certainly will not stand in their way. They will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 7th 2018

BERKELEY – Mitch McConnell, the US Senate’s Republican Majority Leader, recently proclaimed that “2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here,” not l

Mar 7th 2018

NEW YORK – Defending the right of United States citizens to buy semi-automatic rifles or carry concealed weapons is akin to denying any human responsibility for climate change. Rational arguments are not the point.

Mar 6th 2018

PRINCETON – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on

Mar 5th 2018

President Donald Trump finally appears poised to make good on his promised threats to slam the door on free trade and erect walls around the country’s economy.

Mar 2nd 2018

CAMBRIDGE – Most economic forecasters have largely shrugged off recent advances in artificial intelligence (for example, the quantum leap

Feb 27th 2018

NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned.

Feb 23rd 2018

NEW YORK – When Donald Trump took office early last year, many pundits believed that he would settle into his presidency and pivot to normality. But a large number of America’s mental health experts didn’t see it that way.

Feb 23rd 2018

LONDON – Almost exactly 20 years ago, after months of delicate and difficult negotiation, leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main political camps – Catholic nationalists and republicans on one side; Protestant unionists on the other – signed the Good Friday Agreement, ending more than 30 years of

Feb 19th 2018

Could “fake news” have helped determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

Feb 19th 2018

MADRID – When, on a visit to Warsaw in 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt suddenly dropped to his knees before the Monument to the Ghetto Uprising, Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s communist leader, whispered, “wrong monument.” Gomułka would have preferred a tribute to Poland’s fallen soldiers in Wo

Feb 19th 2018

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

Feb 16th 2018

At last year’s opening ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Congress, President Xi Jinping proclaimed his belief that China was on the precipice of becoming a great global power. He declared that China was no longer a poor country.

Feb 14th 2018

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today.

Feb 13th 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – It’s gotten to the point where one might almost feel sorry for Donald Trump. While that “almost” reflects a gap too wide for Trump’s opponents to bridge, it can be said that February has, thus far, been cruel to the US president, though he clearly is no innocent victim.

Feb 8th 2018

PRINCETON – Consider the disaster of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

Feb 7th 2018

We have been talking about this for the last 12 months: when will financial markets realise that the amazing performance of 2017 was not sustainable? When will stock markets adjust? Are we approaching the next big market crash? When will the bubble burst?

Feb 1st 2018

CHICAGO – In the early days of 2018, the Russian economy is stagnating. This is no statistical blip: the average annual growth rate in 2008-2017 for Russia was just 1.2%.

Jan 31st 2018

SYDNEY – Imagine that you, like me, are a typical product of Western liberal democracy, and are invited to give a lecture to a group of Chinese students in Beijing or Shanghai on its benefits.

Jan 30th 2018

LONDON – China’s recently released GDP data for 2017 confirm it: the country’s dramatic rise, with the concomitant increase in its global economic relevance, is not slowing down.

Jan 30th 2018

MADRID – It has been a confusing couple of years for “Davos man” – the members of the global hyper-elite who gather each year for the World Economic Forum’s flagship conference to mull over the challenges the world faces.