Friday, August 17, 2007

The LDP Loses Big and Prime Minister's No-Show at Yasukuni Takes on New Meaning for TIME

Prime Minister Abe comes in with a muscular foreign policy and national security agenda, loses Upper House election, putting Japan back on the old, more inward-looking America-reliant track. The correspondent thinks that that is not a good idea, given the rise of China and India.

That appears to be the storyline of this TIME article from Bryan Walsh. Though it's pretty much what conventional wisdom dictates these days, there's no reason to reject it for that sake alone. In fact, there's much to be said for this line of reasoning, although I personally am more or less satisfied with the course that our national security policy will likely be taking. (For one thing, I believe that Japan's national interests are generally consonant not only with India but also with China, and that the Chinese authorities feel the same way.)

But my quarrel, as so often, is with the details. For if the media cannot get the facts right, then how can you be sure that they understand? And if they don't understand, why should we believe what they say?

Prime Minister Abe did not go to pay his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15. Mr. Walsh sees this as "simply the latest step back toward a more disengaged Japan." But it was nothing of the sort. His no-show was foreordained sometime during the spring or summer of 2006, when Mr. Abe and his associates reached an unstated understanding that Mr. Abe would not visit Yasukuni during his likely tenure as successor to Junichiro Koizumi. In fact, it has enabled Mr. Abe to pursue what some call a nationalist agenda with nary a peep from Chinese authorities. (Most people see such acquiescence as a consequence of their desire for domestic stability. I don't disagree with this assessment, but I also believe that this is possible only because they do not actually see such a Japan in its own right as a strategic threat in its own right.) Besides, he has always believed that the spring and autumn rites are the more important events, which makes sense when you consider his historical perspective and political agenda.

In fact, the Upper House election vote against the LDP had far more to do with outrage at the political financing scandals, public communications-challenged Cabinet members, and the public pension system debacle than with rejection of Mr. Abe's external policies. The resultant difficulties that the ruling coalition will have in getting an extension of the counter-terrorism act could be of serious consequence – I change my mind on an almost daily basis about the prospects for a deal - but they have as much to do with the personal inclinations of Ozawa Ichiro, the DPJ leader, than with policy differences between the LDP and the DPJ as institutions. Yes, Mr. Abe needs a renewed emphasis on the domestic front, but that in of itself need not set back his external policy priorities, which from international standards were exceedingly modest in the first place. The DPJ supports patriotism in education, and a constitutional amendment needs a supermajority in the first place. And the tentative favorite to take over just in case Mr. Abe must leave is Taro Aso, whose views are to a great extent in synch with Mr. Abe's. (I still have trouble seeing him as prime minister material, but I digress.) Don't assume that Mr. Abe's policy priorities are on the outs, just because he himself is on the ropes.

Then there is the historical backdrop. Mr. Walsh writes:

Aug. 15 is the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, a day of reflection for the Japanese and celebration for much of the rest of Asia.

Now there are 1.3 billion people in China, and I am sure that it is a cause for celebration for the Han, or 91.1% of Chinese citizens., and I am sure that the 72.3 million Koreans feel even more strongly about this. And I guess that most of the 4.6 million Singaporeans will agree that August 15 is a good day. But what of the 1.44 billion people on the Indian subcontinent, not to mention the 20 million Sri Lankans just off shore? Do you think that they share, to a man, fond memories of the victory for their British overlords? Do the 234 million Indonesians care that on August 15, the Dutch could finally confirm for good (or so they thought) the return of their East Indies colonies? Or was it merely a milestone of decidedly mixed blessings that passes barely noticed in the narrative of their fight to regain sovereignty, which they officially declared on August 17, only two days later? As for the 142.8 million Russians, or at least 79.8% of them (geographically, Russia is a predominantly Asian empire), I'm sure that they remain disappointed that the war ended so early. In fact, they made sure it didn't, for themselves at least.)

You see, underpinning Mr. Walsh's article is a uniquely American perspective that sees the war with Japan as a war of liberation, and there is an undeniable truth to that. But for most of Asia, it was a war of the empires. Know that there lies Japan's true transgression, and that "Asia" so understands that. Know too, that there is also a very broad Japanese consensus on this that includes Mr. Abe to Mr. Ozawa and stretches from the left and far into the right, including along the way luminaries such as Yasuhiro Nakasone.

Why does all this matter? For one thing, unless you understand the backstory, you won't understand the who, what, and why of the conflicts over our histories and the contemporary symbols thereof. More to the point of this complaint, you will have no clue of the long-term external consequences of the setback to Mr. Abe. For another, you won't understand why so many well-meaning American interjections into the debate at best do nothing and at worst exacerbate them, but that's a subject of another story.

Sorry, Anonymous. Not enough time and energy today for a longer piece on habatsu. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Jun, fine, that was an interesting piece. Worth waiting another few days for a comment on habatsu. Cheers, T.

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks for your kind words, as well as your patience, T.