Monday, November 10, 2008

”Nationalism”, “Militarism and Aggression”, The Tamogami Affair

Michael Reimer writes:
At Mainichi, an opinion piece on Tamogami asks "Why is it that a person who has a distorted view of history and rejects the government's position is able to rise to the top of the ASDF?" ( I read the BBC piece that you linked to on Wednesday, which concluded that "for every black van, or the odd headline-grabbing revisionist statement, a wealth of unobtrusive signs suggests militarism and aggression have been durably expelled from Japan's collective psyche."

When I lived in Japan I felt somewhat differently. The headline-grabbing revisionist statements seemed more frequent than the BBC suggests, and while I never saw the black vans, I regularly met seniors who expressed (moderately) nationalist views. To me there seem to be two possible explanations for the frequency of the headlines, one of which is just that nationalism is a hot topic and hence overrepresented in the media, and the other that it's still far from being "durably expelled from Japan's collective psyche". My personal experiences led me to the latter conclusion, so I assumed that views like Tamogami's are the sort of thing that government administrators would turn a blind eye to as long as they're kept reasonably private.

The question from Mainichi gets to the heart of all that, so I'd really like to know how you would answer it.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of the Japanese public does reject anything that smells of what people conventionally understand as “militarism and aggression”. To see “Japan’s collective psyche” (whatever that is), you need look no further than the half of the Japanese public who oppose even the refueling operations in the Indian Ocean. Imagine the outcry if the Japanese government actually decided to send troops under a UN resolution and a request from the host nation to actually engage in fighting against terrorists.

Some mainstream political leaders do hold views regarding our recent history that most Koreans and Chinese find deeply offensive. But history is history; I see little if anything in their statements that could be projected into the future as even a precursor of “militarism and aggression.” If anyone reading this spots, say, Shoichi Nakagawa calling on the Aso administration to take back the Northern Territories by force, I’ll be happy to revisit that point.

As for “nationalism”, which is a very different subject, I’m sure there are many people, especially older males, “(moderately) nationalist” if you will, who hold views about our history that are… but I’ll refrain from repeating myself. Where the frequency of “nationalist” sightings in the media is concerned, it’s a matter of opinion, but I think they are rare and in any case are not necessarily evidence of tendencies toward “militarism and aggression.” Also keep in mind that Cabinet Minister and Diet member sightings at Yasukuni have trended down in recent years.

Finally, with regard to your point that “views like Tamogami's are the sort of thing that government administrators would turn a blind eye to as long as they're kept reasonably private,” I agree, and as a supporter of liberal democracy wouldn’t want it to be any other way. But that was not the case, if news reports are to be believed, with General (Ret.) Tamogami, who was anything but private with his views in his official capacities.

Over the course of this blog including this exchange, I’ve come away with a clearer understanding of the distinctions between the Yasukuni of Yushukan and the Yasukuni of Makoto Koga and Junichiro Koizumi, between aggression and nationalism, between history and destiny, and where people like Toshio Tamogami stand in all of this. But that’s for a another time.


Janne Morén said...

Just a few side comments: I think that what your correspondent calls "moderate nationalism" is, in general, moderate. As long as we have nation states as our primary societal unit it would be naive to think some form of nationalism would not be present, even pervasive. Neither do I think that it is necessarily wrong, as long as it really stays moderate.

I agree with you that most of Japan rejects the past militaristic nationalism. But I do disagree that it "has been expelled from the collective psyche". Quite the opposite, the very fact that it is so controversial shows it to be a very current, ongoing concern, like an inflamed rash that people continue to pick and prod. If it really was a concern of the past only it would not merit the constant attention and anxiety it gets.

Around 1991, during a standard military exercise near the southernmost Swedish-Norwegian border, it was discovered that the area was still a demilitarized zone, set up after the breakup of the union in 1905. The union breakup (well, really a union in name only; they were anything but equal partners) was very contentious, and for a while it was touch-and-go as to whether Sweden would try to retake Norway by military force. The Swedish military establishment was all for a military invasion. Cooler heads prevailed and the demilitarized zone was one mechanism to cool down the situation.

The zone was removed in 1993 by Norway and Sweden after having been forgotten by both parties since around the first world war. That, to me, is what a historical - as opposed to current - issue looks like.

Jun Okumura said...

If you mean by “militaristic nationalism” the kind of historical revisionism we hear from the far right, then you’re right. When I hear revanchist talk from the same people, then I’ll agree that “militarism and aggression” has not “been expelled from the collective psyche”.

Mary Witzl said...

I'm not really qualified to answer this -- I spent 17 years in Japan, but most of that time I was not much interested in either history or politics -- but I agree with you. Many of the Japanese people I knew while living in Japan, however, did worry a lot about Japanese nationalism, the failure of some Japanese politicians to acknowledge Japan's wartime agression, etc. They are the people I automatically think of whenever non-Japanese people ask me about Japanese nationalism.

Jun Okumura said...

Mary: People situated in the Japanese center-left—the people whose views are in broad accordance with those of Asahi editorial writers and reporters—are bothered by those things; they worry mainly, I think, when it upsets our neighbors and the U.S. public. Further to the left lie fears of militarism as defined down by the post-WW II Japanese version of pacifism.

At least that's how I see it.