Governments lie – WMD threats from Iraq, communist invasion threats from Vietnam…Now they say the threat is from China, and that this time they are telling the truth.
They insist also that the ally we seek in Asia, Japan, has rejected its militaristic past and will help us resist that China threat. Tokyo has apologised for past aggressions/ atrocities in China.Thanks to the reformist zeal of the postwar Occupation it no longer clings to the Shintoist and Emperor worship myths and symbols that underlay those past aggressions.
It shares our values, or so it is claimed.
On this basis prime minister, Mr Morrison with his officials and some journalists set off for Tokyo last week to sign an agreement promising joint military cooperation with that reformed Japan.
But did they know the people they were talking to?
Arriving Tokyo, I assume no one noticed something strange about the date in the entry documents they had to sign. In Australia the date would have been November 18, of the year 2020.
But in Japan it was November 18 of the third year of Reiwa, the name of era created by the present Emperor’s ascension to the Chrysanthemum throne
That strange Japanese dating had some background. The postwar US Occupation reformists had tried to get Japan to move to the Gregorian calendar used by most of the rest of us.
But Japanese conservatives as part of their post-war campaign to rid their nation of disliked Occupation policies insisted Japan should retain the emperor-based calendar system from the past.
Then having got their way and created havoc in the printing industries (the dating system has to be changed every time there is a new emperor), the conservatives went on to create the now well-known Nippon Kaigi, described by Wikipedia as ‘Japan’s largest ultra-conservative, right-wing to far-right organization. Established in 1997 it has approximately 40,000 members. The group is influential in the legislative and executive branches of the Japanese government through its affiliates.’
China has its Communist Party with 90 million members. Japan has its Nippon Kaigi. China has its Confucius Institutes. Japan has its well-funded Japan Foundation.
Between them and with the help of other powerful conservative organisations both have urged a return to Japan’s prewar values. They dislike Western-style progressive gender policies and education systems. Some urge a return to Japan’s prewar education system and a re-writing of the history textbooks to tone down or remove references to Japan’s war guilt.
They have also urged a revival of Japan’s animistic Shinto religion which the Occupation authorities had tried to abolish for its role in encouraging militarist values. They are also rigidly anti-China.
Fourteen out of the government’s twenty cabinet members are Nippon Kaigi members, with the prime minister Yoshihide Suga as its deputy head. Almost the entire cabinet claims membership of the Shinto Association for Spitual Leadership set up in 1969.
Japan’s political leadership is also touched by Japan’s militaristic past. Prime minister Suga says he is proud to inherit the ideological line from the former prime minister, Mr Shinzo Abe, whose maternal grandfather and mentor was Nobusuki Kishi.
According to Wikipedia, Mr Nobusuki Kishi was known for his ‘brutal rule of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo in Northeast China in the 1930s, Kishi was nicknamed the “Monster of Manchuria” …and later went on to co-signed the declaration of war against the United States on December 7, 1941.’
‘After World War II, Kishi was imprisoned for three years as a suspected Class A war criminal. However, the U.S. government did not charge, try, or convict him, and eventually released him as they considered Kishi to be the best man to lead a post-war Japan in a pro-American direction..’
He went on to force through Japan’s 1960 security treaty with the US and to pave the way for his son and grandson to rise to political leadership in postwar Japan.
Also in the party to welcome Mr Morrison was the formerly almost unknown Japanese Defense Minister, Nobuo Kishi, younger brother of Shinzo Abe. His very name gives us some clue to his political background and it is no surprise that he too is active both in Nippon Kaigi and the Shinto Association.
Mr Kishi’s political hobby is relations with Taiwan. He urges a security treaty between the US, Japan and Taiwan, an idea which fulfilled would certainly lead to a war with China in which Australia would also most certainly be involved.
It is usually claimed that postwar Japan is different because it is a democracy. And it is true that government and opposition parties exist and debate policies vigorously. But that was true also prewar. And it did not stop the militarists from using the levers of power and corruption to suppress their opponents.
We see the same today in the way with massive rightwing corruption being used to fund this plethora of dubious outfits pushing rightwing agendas.With the help of the rightwing media, the heavily biassed Sankei Shimbun especially, their tentacles spread into all areas of Japanese society.
The leftwing opposition cannot compete. Opposition parties are now little more than ‘defeated dogs howling in the distance’ as the Japanese saying puts it.
Both former prime minister Abe and the current defense minister Kishi were close to the ugly Moritomo scandal where they were able to use public servants willingly to cooperate in the corrupt land deals allowing some rightwing, Emperor-loving fanatics to set up a school which was supposed to pioneer the return to the pre-war education system and values urged by Nippon Kaigi.
Mr Suga is not without blame; as former Chief Cabinet Secretary he could often use his position to influence public service appointments.
None of this is to say Japan overnight is going to turn into the militaristic monster of prewar years. Immediate postwar Japan saw a burst of genuine pacifism and a desire to turn to Western values.
It helped me greatly to get to my present situation in Japan as former head of two universities and member of innumerable societies and committees. I will always be grateful to the honesty and friendship I have found in almost the entirety of the Japan to which I have been exposed over almost half a century.
The revival of the Emperor system with its enormous bureaucracy and archaic ceremonies may seem intimidating. But some years back I got to be invited to the palace with my wife for a two hour chat with the current emperor Naruhito when he was in waiting.
We found him to be a gentle soul mainly interested in talking to us about his hobby, mountain climbing, and his past Oxford education.
Even so, in recent years it is hard to deny the return to a much tighter nationalism and some fascistic tinges in attitudes. I have seen some of the changes close up and they are worrying.
Whether this helps create a reliable foreign policy ally for Australia in anything other than its current quixotic anti-Beijing campaign is doubtful.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and Japan correspondent for ‘The Australian’ who has worked in Japanese education for almost 40 years.