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.
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