Monday, August 23, 2010

Is Koizumi a “Nationalist”?

You may already be aware that I think that the conventional wisdom that puts former Prime Minister Koizumi in the same nationalist camp as Shinzo Abe and the deceased Shoichi Nakagawa is completely misguided. This led to an on-going exchange in the SSJ Forum which should appear by and by in its archives, and a Q&A with Steve Martin, a post-graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Steve is working on a dissertation concerning “Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, their effect on Sino-Japanese relations, as well as the motivation behind the visits.” Copied below with Steve’s consent is the Q&A.

Good luck, Steve, with your dissertation. And long live your blog on “Japanese politics to Asian cinema, book reviews, photography and (not least) the Hanshin Tigers.”

You wrote that Koizumi did 'everything right' on the SSJ forum- endorsed the Murayama statement, condemned the war criminals, adopted guerilla tactics, and although he projected force this was more to do with political circumstances that a coherent 'nationalist vision' for Japan. Paul Midford replied that Koizumi was a "nationalist with guts", and Abe one without.

That is, "guerrilla tactics" regarding his visits to Yasukuni, doing the deed with minimum fanfare, avoiding 15 August and other symbolic dates. And if avoiding Yasukuni as prime minister were the measure of "guts," Hashimoto, and Aso would also be gutless, and Nakasone, who backed off after his first visit when the Chinese complained, would be a spineless wimp. But it was Abe who made an assault on post-war education and took a stab at constitutional reform including a revision of the government's interpretation regarding collective defense. I could have said all this and more with regard to Abe, but that was so obviously outrageous that I didn't feel the need to refute it and continued to focus on the conventional wisdom regarding Koizumi.

In my dissertation, which is partly about how bilateral ties were affected by the visits and partly about motives, I suggest that Koizumi was motivated by his own personal, intuitive logic in visiting the Shrine, and needing to affirm meaning to the lives lost in war.

I have no idea what went on in Koizumi’s mind as he visited Yasukuni, but my understanding is that he made a promise to the Izokukai (association of the families of the fallen soldiers) to do so during his successful LDP presidential campaign and was determined to keep it. And what could be more important than that? As far as I can gather, he was never associated with Yasukuni before his successful run.

At the same time, he recognised the political utility of the symbolism of the visits, and benefit from them, e.g. 2001 LDP presidential election, 2002 distraction from a number of financial scandals (Tanaka, Kato Koichi).

The connection between the 2001 election and Koizumi’s visits is obvious as I mentioned above. I'm not aware of any connection between that and any political financing scandals. I can't see a net upside for a prime minister in a Yasukuni visit and the inevitable rupture in relations with China and Japan as far as overall public support, which is where the scandals hit, is concerned. Yasukuni counts only with a specific constituency.

I thus argue they were not part of a larger articulation of a 'nationalist vision' in foreign policy, mainly because Koizumi wasn't interested in foreign policy. Similarly support in Iraq was more to do with what Uchiyama has described as a "Pavlovian response" to U.S. requests for aid, than a desire to remilitarise Japan. I was wondering what you think of this argument as to Koizumi's motivations.

I agree with what you say here; I’m not sure that he was interested in domestic policy either, at least not in a way that Nakasone or Hashimoto cared. Koizumi appears to have been as political an animal as Ozawa, which is saying a lot.

Secondly, I was wondering what, if anything changed in Koizumi's manner and/or S-J relations vis-a-vis Yasukuni visits when Hu Jintao took over from Jiang Zemin in 2003.

Hu appears to have decided to wait it out, likely reasoning that, as with all nightmares and democratic leaders, the head of Japanese government would not outlive the CCP leadership. It must have helped that Hu appears to have been prone to much less of a visceral response than Jiang. I can think of three reasons for this: one, Hu did not have Jiang's sense of personal betrayal at the hands of Koizumi; two, Hu's more phlegmatic personal makeup; and three, Hu’s upbringing as a member of the post-war generation that missed both the personal effects of the war and the 80s intensification of the use of Japan as a ready foil in the CCP’s founding fathers myth. (A similar phenomenon has also been reported in 80s Singapore).

Finally, I have mentioned the utility of the 2001 and 2002 visits, but I was wondering if you could see any (short-term?) utility of the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 visits. I think I need to strengthen my argument here.

I think that it’s more a matter of the disutility of backing down. Koizumi couldn’t stop. He’d lose face, and face the scorn of the considerable conservative base. He must have seen a much larger domestic downside politically to that than anything he would have gained from appearing to be nice to China. That said, he did do his best to minimize the diplomatic fallout, so he definitely was aware of a domestic downside. But I do not see any short-term, in the sense of immediate political issues, utility in 2003-2006 as well as 2001 and 2002. And don't forget that the economic relationship remained on course, both day-to-day and for crisis management.


PaxAmericana said...

It looked to me like many of Koizumi's actions were part of brand-building. One of his strengths was that he stood out from the usual parade of prime ministers, and many voters thought it was worth switching brands, so to speak. He may also have considered the politics of theatrical gestures, which is somewhat common in US politics, but may not be very common in Japan.

Jun Okumura said...

Paxy: I agree; "brand building" and "politics of theatrical gestures" are excellent ways to describe what Koizumi did. Japan is still waiting for its James Carvilles and Karl Roves.

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