Prime Minister Abe’s history agenda is reshaping Japan

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tags: Abe Shinzo



Gavan McCormack is emeritus professor of Australian National University, editor of The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, author of many books and articles, including at this site (see index). His most recent books are: "Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States" (with Satoko Oka Norimatsu), Rowman and Littlefield, 2012, Japanese and Korean editions from Horitsu Bunkasha and Changbi in 2013 and 2014 respectively) and "Tenkanki no Nihon e – ‘pakkusu amerikana’ ka ‘pakkusu ajia’ ka" (with John W. Dower), NHK Bukkusu, 2014 (in Japanese).

...When Prime Minster Abe announced his decision to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, he offered as his reason the wish to secure the electorate’s approval of his decision to postpone for 18 months the raising of the consumption tax from 8 to 10 per cent. Almost nobody believed that, however, and virtually all commentators agreed that his real motive was to entrench himself in power before support for his government, already commencing significant decline, reached critical levels. Re-elected, he would stand a reasonable chance of remaining in office until 2018. That would allow him to fulfil his grand plan, which is nothing less than the remaking of the Japanese state.

The three basic charters on which the state rests are the Constitution (1946), the Fundamental Law of Education (1947), and the San Francisco Treaty (1951). Commonly described as a “conservative,” Abe has followed a radical political career bent on revision of all of these. He would liquidate the post-war regime and replace it with a “new” and “beautiful” Japan.

During his first term (in 2006) Abe revised the Fundamental Law of Education to make compulsory the inculcation of patriotism, and by 2014 detailed rules to see this carried into practice were being implemented, moral and patriotic education had assumed a core part in school curriculum and history, geography, and civics text for high schools had been required to “reflect the government’s official position on contentious historical issues.”1 His second term agenda has focused on the constitution and the security relationship with the United States under the San Francisco Treaty. Unable to accomplish constitutional revision in the short-term, he simply adopted a fresh interpretation of the terms of the existing one, one that would allow the exercise of a collective right to self-defense on Japan’s part, in so doing opening the path to Japan’s future participation in US-led “coalitions of the willing.” He moves Japan’s defence and security systems closer to full integration with those of the US, commits to construct major new facilities for the latter in Okinawa, Guam and the Marianas, and for the Japanese self-Defense Forces on the Southwestern islands of Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni, and he proceeds towards setting up Japanese versions of the CIA and the Marine Corps (an “amphibious rapid deployment brigade”). Much of this security agenda plainly pleases Washington even as his history and identity agenda alarms it. He may be seen as the personification of the contradictions of the post-war and post-San Francisco treaty system.


When Abe brushed off sustained and strong US advice to the contrary and on December 26, 2013 made his long-anticipated visit to Yasukuni, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo released a statement that “the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”2 The word “disappointed,” with its hint of stern father remonstrating with wayward son, attested to the inequality of the relationship. The State Department’s Daniel Russel also spoke of the “significant challenge” the United States faced in “helping Japan to deal with historical issues that create tensions, and even estrangement sometimes, with its neighbors,”3 and counseled “prudence and restraint in dealing with difficult historical issues.”4 Washington enjoined Abe to “take steps to address decades-old disagreements over forced prostitution at Japanese military brothels in World War II.”5 Then in Tokyo in April 2014, Obama admonished Abe in remarkably direct terms, telling him that it would be “a grave mistake” to allow the dispute with China (over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands) to deteriorate, as Abe showed every sign of doing.6

Ironically, therefore, while no postwar leader has done more than Abe to please the United States, beneath the surface of friendly cooperation, misunderstandings and resentments accumulate and Abe causes as much angst as satisfaction. His Japan is both solipsistic, intent on vindicating its troubled past at the cost of alienating its neighbors, and servile but also resentful towards the United States. The United States, for its part, persists in the overweening assumption that it is its prerogative to dictate and Japan’s obligation to obey.

The base “system” ratified under the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 restored sovereignty to Japan at the cost of splitting Okinawa from it under total military control, reserving the right to maintain bases elsewhere throughout the country wherever and for however long it felt necessary, and retaining fundamental levers of control over national government policy.7 That system has of course been modified from time to time – by the Security Treaty revision of 1960, the Japan-South Korea Normalization Treaty of 1965, Okinawan reversion and then the normalization and friendship treaties with China (1972 and 1978), and the complex of changes underway since 2005. But it has not fundamentally altered. As I have argued elsewhere, Japan’s qualified sovereignty of 1952, instead of being gradually “normalized,” steadily deepened into the “client state” relationship of the early 21st century.8 There were attempts to reduce or even reverse the path of dependency, notably under the Hosokawa and Hatoyama governments (1993-1994 and 2009-2010), but they were feeble, met fierce resistance, and failed. The two governments of Abe Shinzo, from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012, have pursued the reverse process – accelerated and deepened clientelism – and they have slowly transformed the body politic.9

Sixty-three years after the San Francisco Treaty, no government could stand in Tokyo that did not secure a general warrant of approval from Washington (as Hatoyama Yukio in particular found to his dismay). And while Abe learns from Hatoyama’s failure and strives mightily to fulfil the demands for stepped up military cooperation, which pleases Washington, on the other hand his agenda on history and memory defies and even outrages it, threatens the US agenda for East Asia as a whole, and causes Japan’s relations with all its neighbour states to be seriously fraught.

Clientelism, basically a repudiation of nationalism, is masked by nationalist cover, what Nakano Koichi refers to as “Air Nationalism.”10To Washington, however, Abe’s “shrugging off the husk of the postwar state” and “recovering Japan’s independence”11 is an ambiguous agenda, implying the replacement of U.S.-imposed structures with “Japanese” (i.e., pre-1945 fascist and emperor-worshipping) ones.

While these contradictions persist and sharpen, Abe follows an unprecedented program of concentration of power over the levers of state: reaching into crucially important parallel organizations of state: Cabinet Legislative Bureau, National Security Council, the Bank of Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the national broadcaster, NHK. While he fills important positions with like-minded allies and associates, his cabinet is one of ideologues, with clear extremist tendencies, nearly all of them belonging to the organization known as Nihon Kaigi and therefore committed to the notion of Japan as (in the words of former Prime Minister Mori) “country of the gods centring on the emperor.” Apart from the stress on the emperor, Tenno, whom they insist should become sovereign genshurather than symbol, they reject the Tokyo Tribunal (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East or IMTFE), deny the “Nanjing massacre” and the existence of the Comfort Women, call for moral and correct education, and insist on the “beautiful” Japan that was the subject of Abe’s 2006 book.12 It is the sort of organization that in a European context would be proscribed and membership itself treated as a crime. It is characteristic of Abe’s Japan that his “Yes-men” occupy crucial positions, none more so than Momii Katsuto appointed to head NHK late in 2013. In January 2014, Momii was clear as to his role:

“If government says right, who are we to say left?”

The consolidation of consensus at the centre is matched by the virulence of the rejection of dissent and dissenters, and even of those who dare to seem different. More than under any previous government, the mood of intolerance, chauvinism and hostility to dissent spreads. In an atmosphere of ken-kan zo-chu (hatred of Korea and of China), dissenters are hounded and abused as hikokumin, kokuzoku or baikokudo (all being roughly translatable as traitor). The Asahi Shimbun, sometime bastion of liberalism, reels under massive, orchestrated assault, joined and licensed by Abe himself. Toxic waves of xenophobic abuse of China and Korea, speculation about the possibility of war, and “hate speech” vilification of Zainichi resident Koreans, help consolidate Abe’s support base and justify further militarization.

Most recently, Abe has centralized power with establishment of a National Security Council and adoption of a National Secrets Protection Law that prescribes draconian penalties for whistle-blowers and investigative journalists. He also took steps (on which below), at which his predecessors had balked, to enforce the construction of a new base for the Marine Corps on Okinawa. The revised version of the US-Japan Military Guidelines (1978, 1997) due before the end of 2014, was in the event postponed till after the election and is expected to articulate a clearer agenda for integration of both countries’ forces and their stepped up containment of China.

His agenda could be summarized as one of full military integration with the United States on an anti-China axis on the one hand and restoration of the fundamentals of the “beautiful Japan” he associates with his grandfather on the other. The final grand touch was to be a fundamentally revised or rewritten constitution, consolidating and extending the de facto “revision by interpretation” that he had adopted in July 2014. At a founding meeting in October 2014 of the “National Association to make a Beautiful Japan Constitution” (Utsukushii Nihon no kempo o tsukuru kokumin no kai), Abe’s adviser and associate, Eto Seiichi, remarked of the constitutional revision agenda “I feel that at last the final switch has been pressed.” 13

Elsewhere in Japan, few dare to challenge or oppose this radical program. With the opposition disarray, resistance is fragmented and minimal in the Diet. In one place only is there serious opposition - Okinawa. There, legal, political, military, constitutional and diplomatic issues of the Abe agenda are concentrated...




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