Walter Hamilton. Japanese Sleepwalking

Sep 17, 2015

Defying public protests and opinion polls that show most Japanese oppose the move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Shin-Komeito ruling coalition are pressing ahead with legislation to nullify the nation’s constitutional ban on overseas military action.

The so-called ‘right of collective defense’ law is being voted out of the committee stage of the Diet––thus ending formal debate––and will soon go to the full parliament where Abe has the numbers to push it through. There have been rowdy scenes in the corridors and chambers of parliament as angry Opposition members have tried to prevent the gag being applied.

Outside, in the streets of central Tokyo, thousands of demonstrators, defying cyclonic rain, have kept up a protest vigil. In Yokoyama, protestors clashed with police. There is a mood of crisis not seen probably since the anti-U.S.-Japan Treaty demonstrations of the 1960s, although that earlier protest movement was far bigger and more determined.

There is every indication that Japan will take the historic step to free up its military options in a way not seen since the end of the Second World War. The Abe Government will have spent a considerable amount of political capital, but even so its approval rating in the latest survey by NHK (the public broadcaster) showed an improvement to above 40%, which is comparatively good for a Cabinet this far into its term of office.

On what will the new Japanese posture be built? In terms of historical memory, I would suggest that the foundations are dangerously weak. Unlike Germany––as has often been observed­­­­­­­––Japan has never adequately faced up to its past. In a real sense, Abe’s conservatives are starting again where his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (a high official in the wartime state and the postwar Prime Minister who forced through the unpopular treaty with the U.S.) left off. In their world-view, Japan was not the aggressor in the 1930s but the victim (of the European powers) and its mission in China and Korea was noble.

I remember visiting Berlin a few years ago and taking a tram to the Philharmonie. In the tram shelter there I noticed a sign bearing a photograph and some bilingual text. It turned out to be one of a series of historical markers related to the Second World War. To my great surprise, it named and described a German Nazi who had perpetrated crimes against humanity: it was a very public and unalloyed reminder of Germany’s dark past. Places like the Holocaust Monument in Berlin and the museum erected at the site where the Nuremberg Rallies were held are further examples of the clear-sighted German approach to their historical legacy.

Contrast this with Japan, where places like the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo perpetuate the nationalists’ apologia for decades of aggression in China and Korea and the brutal military occupation of Southeast Asia.

Whether on a large scale or small, the Japanese are unprepared emotionally and intellectually for a remilitarized future.

I give as a small example of the unreconstructed attitude to the past one encounters almost every day. I happen, at present, to be doing some translation work connected with art history. In a Japanese commentary I am working on, concerning an artist who painted in Manchukuo (the puppet state set up by Japan) and occupied China, the writer persists in using anachronistic place names dating from the time when the Japanese were master. Instead of describing Japan as attacking China in 1937, she refers to the Sino-Japanese Incident. The involvement of the particular artist in wartime propaganda is also silently passed over. Nothing like this would be tolerated in a German publication of any status.

I do not for a moment suggest that the writer of this commentary is a right-wing zealot or even politically aware. Indeed, her approach and language are typical of the way these events are written about in Japan. It runs right through the so-called educated classes. Either people do not know or do not care to know what really happened in the past. The education system has failed to prepare the present generation to deal in a different, safer way with the pressures emerging from the Right for a renewal of national pride and self-assertiveness.

Television coverage of the anti-security legislation protests suggests that a majority of those demonstrating are middle to older-aged Japanese. Perhaps the news programs may be distorting the truth (friends of mine who have attended say around a third are younger people), but what is different about these protests, compared with those in the 1960s, is that they are not being led or joined by mainly student-age Japanese. This is a worrying aspect: the rising generation is either complacent or so badly informed about their nation’s past, the inherent dangers of a society that hides or obfuscates what it should, like Germany, confront every day––whether at a tram-stop or in the classroom or in an art book––are just not appreciated.

Japan does not seem to know how unready it is.

Walter Hamilton reported for the ABC from Japan for 11 years.








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