Just a tentative attempt at making sense of where we’re at, and where we’re going.
As Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto goes, so goes the generation that remembers the war, and the peculiar external outlook that it carried. The latest outcry over his comments on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is another sign of their passing.
Defense Minister Morimoto is being subjected to harsh criticism—deservedly so in my view, but that’s a subject for another occasion—over his comment on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Takeshima (Dokto to any Koreans reading this). Specifically, Morimoto stated that “it is a matter that is based on the exigencies of South Korea’s domestic politics. Other countries should refrain from commenting this way and that way on the domestic politics of another country.” Now you may think that this is a pretty nutty thing for a defense mister to say about a contested piece of territory with deep symbolic meaning in the bilateral relationship. And it is. But you have to cut him some slack; he’s 71 years old. And no, it’s not about what you think.
Satoshi Morimoto, born in Tokyo 71 years ago and growing up in the Osaka suburbs, experienced firsthand from his earliest years through his childhood and youth WW II and its aftermath, and post-war reconstruction. As such, he could not have been immune to the sense of personal guilt and shared victimhood that his teachers and, later, many members of the newly ascendant elite genuinely felt towards Japan’s neighbors. Such sentiments all but guaranteed that whenever sentiments flared up, over a new incident, real or imagined almost exclusively on the other side, the instinctive response on the Japanese side was quell the anger and, if necessary,to acquiesce.
The same background must have been at work when 73 year old Uichiro Niwa, the Japanese Ambassador to China, gave an interview to FT reporter Mure Dickie and came out strongly against Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s plans to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their private owner, fearing that “decades of past effort [would] be brought to nothing” (“Tokyo warned over plans to buy islands”, FT, June 6, 2012). Niwa may have survived the resultant uproar only because he was deeply embedded in the economic and political establishment in the LDP regime as a go-to guy on economic policymaking.
Against leaders who broadly shared this background, it was easier, relatively speaking, for players on the other side to move the markers on the ground, at sea, and the language and rhetoric with minimal resistance. That Japan had the decidedly stronger economy and enjoyed more prestige, at least within the developed world, for most of this process, like made the concessions easier for the Japanese side.
But this generation is passing—Morimoto and Niwa, at the forefront of the action, are exceptions—and many people have remarked on how the younger generation are decidedly more assertive, more desirous of normal nationhood, than their elders. The Japanese establishment and general public are feeling increasingly distressed with regard to national security and the economy in connection with their neighbors, even as the guilt- and victimhood-laden past increasingly becomes an impersonal relic of “history.” What made practical and emotional sense then, is making increasingly less sense now. Expect the Japanese side, then, to become more assertive, and the political tensions to rise over the coming years, even as the economic relationships broaden and deepen. Even now, we are seeing this in Foreign Minister Gemba’s revival of the Japanese referral of the case to the Hague.