A new day is dawning in Japanese politics, or so its next prime minister, the nationalist Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather served in the Tojo war cabinet, would have us believe. The trouble is that a new day for Abe will break with a rising sun that could chill the region.
The timing is profound, as if history was mocking us. As China marked the 75th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, Japan elected as its prime minister the grandson of an official at the heart of the war machine. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was jailed after the war as a suspected war criminal but went on to become prime minister (as if Albert Speer had become German chancellor).
For all but five years of the last 60 years Japan has been governed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This is a group of right-wing parties that came together to consolidate their voter base after the initial liberalism of America’s occupation gave way to a more rigid approach following Mao’s victory in China and civil war in Korea. The Japanese refer to this as the Reverse Course. The traditionalists that America had originally shunned in Japan were now back in favor.
Japan prides itself on its sense of history. But the lessons of its past remain fundamentally unabsorbed. The failure to apologize for atrocities, especially but not just Nanking, means relations between it and China and its neighbors are stunted by the toxic waste of arrogance.
Japan has pretended for 22 years that its moribund economy, tarnished democracy and sense of drift were manageable. The people were told what Europe is being told now; that with the application of painful remedies, the country will again have a future to inspire it and a present to be proud of.
But time is running out. China was the great boost to Japan: without that mass market on its doorstep, the economy would be in even worse shape. But the Chinese are turning against purchasing Japanese products.
Patrol ships from both China and Japan shadow each other off a group of jagged islands in the East China Sea. In the skies above, planes buzz each other. This is not Europe of 1912-14, but there are disturbing similarities. Rising jingoism, militarism, a “teach-them-a-lesson-attitude,” a new power threatening an established one, strident “no surrender” utterances and aggressive posturing from politicians. A single shot, at sea or in the air, would be heard around the world.
The actual timing does not help, either. The world will soon turn its attention to the centenary marking the outbreak of what innocently, and misleadingly, became known as the War To End All Wars that led to The Peace To End All Peace.
The average shelf life of a Japanese PM, since 1945, is about 18 months. Abe will probably fall from power by the summer of 2014. That is not a reason for those against conflict in the region to cheer. The Galtieri option for weak leaders – marine adventurism – is discredited, but should never be discounted.
What makes Japan different, so belligerent, is a piece of Tokyo real estate near Book Street and, alarmingly, nestled beside the defense headquarters.
Yasukuni is a shrine dedicated to far-right militarism, where history and facts are warped through Japan’s Black Hole of consciousness. A mural at the shrine celebrates Japanese resistance at the battle of Tokyo Bay. Divers are seen heroically attaching mines to US warships. But there was no battle. It is make-believe. The Rape of Nanking is ignored. This is not a shrine, as so often mistakenly said, that honors the war dead. This is a shrine that honors Japanese militarism. It celebrates conquering other lands.
Nobody is suggesting that Japan will become a military state in the foreseeable future, but the building blocks for such a state are disturbingly visible on the streets of Tokyo – from the schoolboys in their Prussian-style uniforms with brass buttons, to the menacing black sound trucks which blare out nationalist propaganda and to which police turn a deaf ear.
Immediately after World War II, Japan experienced its only time of true liberalization. Trade unions were allowed, political debate and dissent encouraged. But then the occupying Americans became concerned by the Cold War and reversed course. War criminals were rehabilitated – Abe’s grandfather among them – and political stability became the watchword. Beliefs that sustained and nourished the extreme right were never challenged, as they were in post-war West Germany.
Imagine the outrage if a truck bearing symbols of the SS and blaring out wartime propaganda paraded down Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm today as policemen stood idly by. Impossible, yet an equivalent occurs in Tokyo daily.
In Japan, where the defeat of militarism, not militarism itself, has been discredited, the reminders of a militaristic era are an everyday sight, and its people are blind to their menace.