Walter Hamilton. A paranoid state?

Sep 25, 2014

The same question might be asked of many places on earth in these security-conscious times. On this occasion, however, the subject is Japan: a state several times removed, one would have thought, from legitimate concerns about an imminent threat from an alien creed enforced by a ruthless blood-cult. (Enough of that; you only have turn on commercial radio to know what I mean.)

Japanese paranoia comes to mind for several reasons. I could hardly believe my eyes when watching the main evening current affairs program on NHK (the national broadcaster) the other night. During a story on last week’s International Whaling Commission meeting, a graphic appeared giving the reason why New Zealand had brought a motion to impose stricter conditions on “scientific whaling”. The purpose, said NHK, was to “cause Japan international embarrassment.” It’s believed the program, News Center-9, is closely monitored by NHK’s conservative president––a man who on taking up his job stated that it was not the business of a public broadcaster to contradict the government of the day­­––and, under pressure from above, nervous editors can go to absurd lengths to toe the line. By the way, I can report that whale meat has just been added to the menu at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo. If that is not a snub to the International Court of Justice, which this year ruled against Japan’s whaling program, I don’t know what is.

But enough of cetaceans, there are bigger “fish” to fry in this discussion.

A Japanese friend of mine recently returned from a visit to Uluru. She enjoyed the trip very much, she said, especially the cordiality of the Australian tourists she encountered at the Rock. Most had either visited Japan or knew people who had, and they were eager to share their favourable impressions of the country. This affability came as a shock to her: “I had the impression foreigners did not like Japan,” she told me. My friend is a well-educated and widely travelled individual; so how can we account for her paranoia?

The “foreigners” to which she refers, of course, are Chinese and Koreans––although NHK’s characterization of New Zealand as a hostile state suggests a deeper strain of vulnerability and grievance.

Japanese antipathy towards China and South Korea, and vice versa, has rarely been as intense as it is now. About 53% of Chinese respondents (and 29% of Japanese), in a recent poll, said they expected a war to break out between the two countries before the end of the decade. The percentage of Japanese respondents who said they had a negative impression of China increased to 93% from 90% a year earlier, according to Genron NPO, a Tokyo-based non-profit group. Similar findings have emerged from surveys on attitudes between Koreans and Japanese.

This siege mentality has been on display, too, in the nation’s mass media. I’ve mentioned NHK. There’s also the case of the Asahi Shimbun, the country’s venerable, left-of-centre newspaper that has been under fire from rivals on the right over its coverage of the “comfort women” issue. Some of the Asahi’s assailants have even called for its closure on the grounds that it willfully damaged relations with South Korea by publishing a false account of the Imperial Japanese Army rounding up Korean women on the island of Cheju during the war and forcing them into prostitution. The articles that ran in the newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s were based on the testimony of one Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have witnessed the round-ups (his evidence is also cited in several “authoritative” books). The Asahi now accepts (many years after his claims were first challenged) that Yoshida fabricated his testimony and, under relentless attacks from right-wing commentators, the president of the newspaper group has made a public apology.

In the context of the “history wars” now raging in Japan––fed, as I suggest, by a siege mentality verging on paranoia––this admission of error is not necessarily beneficial to the cause of reasoned debate. While the Yoshida claims undoubtedly should have been retracted earlier, the public is now being led into believing his testimony singularly brought about South Korea’s hardline position on the issue and caused the breakdown in bilateral relations. Some on the right are demanding that Japan abandon its earlier admissions of culpability, despite an abundance of other, unassailable, evidence of state-sponsored prostitution in Japan and its colonies. (Readers may care to review the treatment of this issue in my book Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story.)

A far-right candidate in the last Tokyo gubernatorial election, Toshio Tamogami (who garnered 12% of the vote), has joined the chorus with a new book entitled Why Does the Asahi Shimbun So Hate Abe Shinzo? General Tamogami served as Chief-of-Staff of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force until he was sacked in 2008 for publishing an article justifying Japanese imperialism: “If you say that Japan was the aggressor nation, then I would like to ask what country among the great powers of that time was not an aggressor?” If the Asahi can, at one stroke, be discredited in the public eye, then alternative versions of history propagated by Tamogami and his ilk gain traction by default.

In the interest of disclosure, I should point out that I have used this blog-site to criticize Shinzo Abe myself on a number of occasions. I don’t hate him and neither do I judge, from reading its editorial pages, does the Asahi. Its criticisms of Abe’s new security laws, military ambitions and other actions provocative of Japan’s near neighbours reflect policy disagreements not personal animus. Given that the government has a skilled and well-resourced public relations machine at its disposal (not excluding NHK) to prosecute its side of any argument, the attacks on the Asahi seem superfluous, except for an ideological purpose.

But if this blog is about paranoia, perhaps the author should take care not to succumb as well. And what is paranoia, anyway, but an unreasonable sense of persecution. When we take a look behind the poll figures quoted earlier, we find evidence of just that: a common tendency of human beings to feel antagonistic towards those whom it is presumed harbour ill feelings towards us. Both the Chinese and the Japanese are convinced that the other is hostile towards them, and because of this they must return hostility. In the vicious cycle the origins of their discord disappear into a fog of self-justification. Opinion polls may tap into the public consciousness, but they are often poorer predictors of behaviour. Is the prospect of war, alarmingly foreseen by a majority of Chinese respondents, as real if we also know that they expect the other side to start it?

Contrary to the opinion-poll view of the future we have evidence that Chinese tourists, for instance, are growing tired of Japan being unofficially “off-limits” to their curiosity. As reported in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun: “In July, Chinese visitors to Japan doubled on the year to 281,000, making them the largest tourist group from aboard, according to the Japanese government. The figure has climbed back above the level seen in July 2012, before tensions flared.” Japanese businesses are said to be growing more optimistic about the Chinese market, as political considerations give way to pragmatic commercial interests. Perhaps the many Chinese tourists mingling with the temple crowds in Kyoto or taking their lunch at a noodle bar in Tokyo will discover that ordinary Japanese don’t really feel about them quite as they imagined they did.

It would be a good beginning to a sounder dialogue.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years for the ABC.













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