Sunday, October 15, 2006

Post-WW II Politics and Intellectual Discourse in Japan in 544 Words

The following has grown out of an online exchange with a political scientist in Nevada. (Appearntly, it’s not all slot machines and baccarat tables and hot pants and shiny leather boots there. Not that I have any first-hand knwoledge of such matters.) It’s a skeleton of a first draft, backdrop really, for my understanding of where we stand as we consider the way ahead for our place in East Asia and the world at large.

If de-Stalinization rekindled Japanese hopes within the intellectual mainstream for a kinder, gentler USSR, the brutal suppression of Hungarian dissent in 1956 disabused them of any such fantasies and forced them to seek other paths to utopian bliss. (The 1968 quashing of the Prague dissent merely told us that nothing had changed.) The sixties saw the rise of revolutionary romanticism and a new radicalism was in the air, but the student uprisings petered out and came to an end for all practical purposes in the early seventies with the last-ditch stand at the Asama-Sanso mountain lodge and the implosive slaughter on Mount Haruna.

Through all this, though, the thrust of the intellectual discourse had always been at odds with the mainstream real world, which remained staunchly pro-business conservative. This narrow focus if anything intensified with the 1973 oil crisis. Suddenly, keeping the economy running became the number one national concern. The great intellectual debates of the fifties and sixties no longer seemed important. “Non-pori, i.e. apolitical”, became the political keyword of the day.

Over the rest of the seventies and eighties (and indeed ever after), Japan never recovered the phenomenal growth rates of the preceding two decades, but it certainly fared much better than the American and European forerunners. Japan was seen as the economic juggernaut of the 21st Century; its single-minded focus on the economy had paid off. Perhaps the intellectual discourse wasn’t so important after all. Perhaps, for Japan, history had come to an early end.

Or so it seemed, until the humiliating backlash from the 1991 Gulf War despite shouldering 13.5 billion dollars (of which 9.5 billion went, in the first instance at least, to the US) of the costs drove home to politicians the need for a global presence beyond the economic sphere. The more nationalist-minded thinkers, who had already stood to benefit from the failure of the various socialist role models, gained force from this development. The high-risk tactics of North Korea, as it failed to wean itself from its Cold-War benefactors, has given this trend a tremendous boost. Nationalist narratives seem to have made some headway in displacing left-wing ideology as the opposition to the political mainstream in the real world. It is nowhere near as powerful as the latter was in its heydays, but it is gaining force. And the mainstream of intellectual discourse itself reflects the need to recognize the real-world concerns that the current security environment raises among the general public.

(Sidebar: The irony is that Ichiro Ozawa, the latest head of the Democratic Party of Japan, was at the forefront of this political shift with his 1993 call for Japan as a “hutsuu no kuni, i.e. normal nation”, but had been forced to tack to the left with the DPJ. Will he again change directions with the DPRK nuclear tests?)

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