Sunday, November 30, 2008

The center cannot hold

A new Nikkei-TV Tokyo poll conducted at the end of November found that Prime Minister Aso Taro's approval rating is in free fall.

According to the poll, Mr. Aso's approval rating fell seventeen points to 31%, while his disapproval rating rose nineteen points to 62%. Twice as many respondents oppose the government's plan for a new stimulus package as support it (56% to 28%). The LDP remains more popular than the DPJ, but I doubt that's of much comfort to either Mr. Aso or the party's backbenchers.

The dramatic fall in support for the government reinforces the notion that the LDP-led government — and with it the Japanese political system — is shuddering to a halt along with the Japanese economy. Mr. Aso's own economy minister has indicated that he stands with the 56% of respondents in the Nikkei poll who oppose the stimulus package, telling the Financial Times that the stimulus package will not work. "The time for endurance has come," he said. Japan, it seems, is at the mercy of the global economy; domestic consumption will not be coming along to stand in for foreign demand for Japanese goods.

Little wonder that Mr. Aso may be losing control of his own party. It seems that the remaining reformists may finally be reorganizing themselves to pressure the prime minister and pull the LDP into the future. The latest sign is that Nakagawa Hidenao has announced the creation of a new study group with the goal of creating "secure foundation accounts" designed to consolidate payments to citizens and free up some 220 billion yen (approximately $2.3 billion) annually to meet the government's social security obligations. The idea is to both cut waste from budgets (including drawing down the so-called "buried treasure" of Kasumigaseki, the special accounts) and streamline administration by directing all government transfer payments (tax rebates, unemployment compensation, welfare payments, farm subsidies, etc.) into a single account.

At his blog Mr. Nakagawa claims that this study group — which apparently includes Koike Yuriko and Watanabe Yoshimi among its twenty members — is about policy, not politics. Why can't it be both? There is clearly unrest stirring within the LDP ranks. The clearest sign is that Mori Yoshiro felt the need to criticize critics of the Aso government in a speech Sunday. Speaking in Hyogo prefecture, Mr. Mori said, "Why only a little more than two months after selecting him do they not feel the need to defend the party president? This is not the Jiminto. This is the Jibunto. They think only of themselves." [For non-Japanese speakers, Mr. Mori was making a pun on the LDP's name, changing the middle character min, from minshu — democracy — into bun, making jibun, oneself, i.e., from the LDP to a party of one.] It's generally a good sign that things are even worse than they appear when Mr. Mori feels the need to discipline party members publicly.

Mr. Nakagawa may claim that he is thinking only of policy, but he doth protest too much. He is on record of having said, "If the dissolution of the lower house [and a general election] are delayed, I will not understand for what purpose Mr. Fukuda Yasuo resigned and a party president election was held" — and he was Ms. Koike's staunch backer against Mr. Aso in September. He clearly knows that forming a study group at this juncture would send a signal to both allies and enemies that he is preparing for both the aftermath of Mr. Aso and the aftermath of a general election, whichever comes first. Yamamoto Ichita writes at his blog that the new study group took his young reformist colleagues by surprise, and that they wrote to him inquiring about what Mr. Nakagawa has in mind. (Mr. Yamamoto responded with what is probably sage advice at this point in time — don't worry about maneuverings within the party, worry about getting reelected. There will be no miracle from above as in 2005.)

It remains unclear how events will unfold. The government continues to reject the idea of a general election any time before the spring. The government is still trying to make the most of the extended Diet session to respond to the crisis, even if it won't be submitting a new stimulus package. Instead Mr. Aso is looking at other measures to dampen the impact of the economic crisis on workers, appealing to big business to hire more unemployed workers in smaller municipalities and new graduates (perhaps hoping to avoid what happened in during the 1990s), regularize irregular workers (instead of sacking them), and to raise wages. I doubt government appeals to the good conscience of companies will work. Meanwhile Ozawa Ichiro has hinted that if Mr. Aso resigns, he will bring the DPJ into a grand coalition comprised of all parties to manage the government until a general election. Whether Mr. Ozawa is serious is irrelevant; he will undoubtedly make up his mind at the spur of the moment. I imagine, however, that his purpose in letting this slip now is an attempt to encourage "opposition forces" within the LDP to overthrow Mr. Aso in order to bring about the grand coalition — a national government to deal with the crisis? — and hasten the approach of a general election and with it a DPJ majority government.

For the moment, Mr. Ozawa's fantasy is unlikely to come to pass. Mr. Aso's predecessors were able to hold on despite crumbling support inside and outside the LDP, and I suspect that Mr. Aso is no less determined than Messrs. Abe and Fukuda to hold on despite adversity.

In the meantime, Japan will continue to sink.

Aso shops for books again

Aso Taro has apparently made it through his reading from last month and so took another trip to a bookstore with an aide this weekend.

Once again he reportedly passed up manga for more serious reading.

This time it appears that he's thinking hard about Japan's international role. He purchased Mindset for a strong Japan, a discussion between former Tokyo Foundation chairman Kusaka Kimindo, and conservative writers Takemura Kenichi and Watanabe Shoichi. Mr. Watanabe is notable for having a view of history akin to Tamogami Toshio's. According to his Wikipedia (JA) entrycaveat emptor — he believes in the conspiracy theory that the Chinese Communist Party was behind the Marco Polo Bridge incident, he denies that the massacre at Nanjing occurred, he believes the February 26th conspirators were communists, and he believes that Japan has no reason to apologize to the comfort women. Not surprisingly, he is a regular in publications like Will.

He also purchased a book on contemporary Japanese foreign policy told as a narrative of "great men" (i.e., prime ministers from Konoe onward) and — unless Asahi is mistaken — yet another copy of How good a country is Japan?, which he purchased last month. Interestingly, he also purchased John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash of 1929, in which Galbraith attributed the Great Depression to a "speculative splurge."

With the same warning that I am commenting on Mr. Aso's choices without having read the books in questions, I am perplexed by what Mr. Aso is reading — and why his picks are being publicized. Is the prime minister trying to reverse the image that he is intellectually unserious (and incapable of reading kanji)? Meanwhile, why does he keep buying books that undoubtedly do nothing to confirm his ideas about Japanese foreign policy? What will Mr. Aso learn from reading either Mindset or the book on Japanese foreign policy that he doesn't already know or think? He certainly isn't looking to be challenged by books. Having read Mr. Aso's book about his grandfather, he clearly is comfortable viewing Japanese foreign policy as a story of great leaders. Is his faith in his own greatness wavering light of events? In the case of Mindset, what can Mr. Aso learn from yet another polemic about the need to recover Japan's national essence?

I would be more impressed if Mr. Aso were reading books challenging the conservative interpretation of history or dispassionately analyzing Japanese foreign policy without resorting to hysterical rhetoric about China.

Naturally none of this will matter at all to the Japanese public, who care less about reclaiming Japan's spirit than, for example, about reversing the dramatic decline of Japanese industry.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The LDP will lose the next general election

A mere two months into Aso Taro's premiership, some LDP members are already looking for a way to throw him overboard.

Mainichi reports that the most vigorous criticism is from the party's young reformists — not surprisingly, as they fear for their political lives — but the Mainichi article goes on to quote various senior LDP officials voicing their criticism over the beleaguered prime minister.

The criticism focuses mostly on a series of ill-considered remarks (which were clearly the downside risk of choosing Mr. Aso), the latest of which is a remark that the DPJ will undoubtedly repeat over and over again during a general election campaign: Mr. Aso lamented publicly about having to pay for elderly patients who do nothing but eat and drink.

Is Mr. Aso deliberately trying to bury the LDP? Does the LDP stand the slightest chance of regaining the support of elderly voters, whose support for the LDP has wavered in recent years? There is no question now that Mr. Aso is completely out of touch from his country's citizens, and he completely lacks an internal censor that is a politician's best friend.

And there is nothing the LDP can do to rescue itself. If it dumps Mr. Aso in place of a new leader (who exactly would the LDP turn to next?), the party will demonstrate conclusively that it is little different from the DPJ, concerned more about its political fortunes than the good of the country. [NB: I don't buy — and I suspect few others do — the LDP's claim that it stands for policy over politics, while the DPJ is only politics. But in case anyone needed further evidence...] If it retains Mr. Aso, there is no telling what he'll say next to offend some important LDP constituency whose support for the governing party has been wavering. With Japan's recession worsening and no sign of effective government action, the government's approval rating will continue to slide, the chorus of disapproving voices from within the LDP will continue to howl, and the DPJ will continue to appear capable of governing when compared with the dysfunctional LDP.

LDP reformists who think that a new leader can reverse Japan's decline are deluding themselves. As absurd as Mr. Aso's remarks are, his critics are wrong to think that the problem is Mr. Aso's insensitivity. Even if Mr. Aso was well spoken and considerate or if the LDP had opted for one of his rivals, LDP members would still be worried about the LDP's relentless decline in public opinion. The LDP is the problem. Divided between past and future, city and country, reform and reaction, the party is incapable of fixing itself, let alone Japan. If Koizumi Junichiro could not fix the party — although Mr. Koizumi certainly played a role in heightening the contradictions within the party's ranks — no leader can. The LDP needs to lose. Japan needs the LDP to lose. Replacing the LDP with the DPJ won't fix all of Japan's problems. But it is an essential first step.

Thanks to Mr. Aso, Japan is that much closer to taking that first step.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Aso in a tailspin

Prime Minister Aso Taro is in Peru for this year's APEC summit, a summit that will undoubtedly be an even greater exercise in futility than usual.

At home, his administration is faltering.

He is under fire from within the LDP for recent gaffes. (It was only a matter of time before Mr. Aso talked without thinking.) The most politically costly gaffe may prove to be his remark that many doctors lack "common sense." Masuzoe Yoichi, the health, labor, and welfare minister, admonished his prime minister to stay on message, as he has struggled to make the case for the LDP's efforts to fix medical care for the elderly. Mr. Masuzoe is not alone in criticizing the prime minister. Oshima Tadamori, the LDP's Diet strategy chairman, cautioned the prime minister to "be careful with his words." More significantly, Karasawa Yoshihito, the chairman of the Japan Medical Association, called upon Mr. Aso to take back his remark and apologize. Chairman Karasawa's remarks are indicative of a growing rift between the LDP and the JMA, a longtime supporter of the LDP. While the JMA may no longer wield the clout it once did — as Gerald Curtis noted — the JMA can damage the LDP simply by making a public show of breaking with the ruling party. The Ibaraki prefectural medical association has already announced that it will endorse DPJ candidates in the next general election to protest the new eldercare system. How many more will follow Ibaraki's lead after Mr. Aso's remarks?

More significantly, Mr. Aso may be facing a wider rebellion within the LDP on matters of policy. The prime minister told a press gaggle earlier this week that he is considering a plan that will freeze the privatization of Japan Post. It did not take long for the LDP's remaining reformers to recoil in horror. Nakagawa Hidenao, de facto leader of the Koizumians, swore that the prime minister must not be allowed to reverse course on postal privatization. Yamamoto Ichita responded with an angry post at his blog, promising that he (and presumably his fellow reformers) would not remain silent. Mr. Yamamoto noted that if Mr. Aso were to proceed with a freeze, it would be a direct repudiation of the supermajority upon which his government is based, seeing as how the 2005 general election was contested on the very question of postal privatization. I'm not certain that the public is as enamored with postal privatization now that Mr. Koizumi's spell has been broken. But the symbolic effect of reversing course on postal privatization would be unmistakable: it would illustrate clearly that the Japanese people have been the victim of a classic bait-and-switch in the three years since the last general election, voting for a party that promised reform without sanctuary only to be ruled by governments interested in fortifying the walls of existing sanctuaries.

Finally, a group of twenty-four young LDP reformers led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Shiozaki Yasuhisa and administrative reformer minister Watanabe Yoshimi has appealed to the government for the passage of the second stimulus package during the current Diet session, echoing similar calls from the DPJ. The group called for the government to lead effectively in the face of the crisis. Kawamura Takeo, chief cabinet secretary, responded by saying that the government is reluctant to act because it cannot trust the DPJ to cooperate on the stimulus, thus illustrating the young Turks' point. What's the point of having a supermajority if it cannot be wielded decisively in response to a crisis? (Of course, I'm skeptical about the value of the stimulus package — this article has me convinced.) In any case, both Yomiuri and Sankei speculate whether the new group is the beginning of an anti-Aso group.

Clearly Mr. Aso's landslide victory in September did not spell the end to the LDP's civil war. The LDP is no less divided over its future, and despite being marginalized by Mr. Aso, the reformists are still capable of stirring up trouble for the prime minister. Mr. Aso appears to have little control over his party or the agenda. His government seems reduced to searching for new ways to rally support for the government rather than finding new policies or implementing old ones. MTC describes this as Mr. Aso's "lightness." I agree wholeheartedly. Mr. Aso sold himself as the agent of an aggressive reform conservatism that would reinvigorate the LDP and make the case to the public that under his leadership the LDP can be trusted to fix the problems created by Mr. Aso's LDP predecessors. But it seems that, as MTC suggests, Mr. Aso is little more than the exhorter-in-chief, long on pep talks for the Japanese people, short on policies that will make the least bit of difference in rescuing his faltering country.

And now the LDP is stuck with him, at least until the prime minister decides to call (or is forced to call) a general election.

In the meantime, we will be treated to the spectacle of yet another prime minister's approval ratings take a nosedive.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The DPJ gambles

Prime Minister Aso Taro returned from the G20 meeting in Washington and immediately met with Ozawa Ichiro to discuss the conclusion of the extraordinary session of the Diet.

The LDP and the DPJ are set for another showdown over the MSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, as the DPJ has announced that it will boycott upper house deliberations and prevent the enabling bill, which passed the lower house on 21 October, from coming to a vote in the upper chamber. By boycotting deliberations it will also prevent a vote on a bill to recapitalize struggling banks. By blocking votes, the DPJ hopes to force the government to extend the Diet session — originally scheduled to expire at month's end— in order to pass these bills. To pass both bills for a second time in the lower house (by way of Article 59), the government would have to extend the Diet session until 5 January; to pass only the refueling mission bill, it would have to extend the session to 2o December.

This time around the refueling mission is an incidental hostage. Mr. Ozawa's strategy in blocking a vote is eminently clear. By forcing the government to extend the Diet session to pass the aforementioned bills, Mr. Ozawa hopes to pressure the government into submitting a second stimulus package in the current session rather than waiting until next year's ordinary session. In his meeting with Mr. Aso, Mr. Ozawa was adamant — the stimulus must be submitted in the current session. The government is now on the defensive. If it fails to submit the bill in the current session after the DPJ declared its willing to cooperate, it leaves itself vulnerable to charges from the opposition that it is dangerously passive in its management of the Japanese response to the crisis. If it yields to Mr. Ozawa's demand, it runs the risk of the DPJ's withdrawing its offer of cooperation. Little wonder that the government is already trying to use the media to bind Mr. Ozawa to his promise. Yomiuri reports that according to the executive of the ruling party (parties? — Yomiuri's sourcing is vague), Mr. Ozawa said in his meeting with Mr. Aso that "if the second stimulus is submitted, we will cooperate. In the event that I break this promise, I will resign my seat."In a press conference after the meeting Mr. Ozawa denied that he said such a thing, and based on Yomiuri's dubious sourcing, I suspect there's little truth in the quote. But it does show the government's need for a guarantee for DPJ cooperation if it is to submit the supplementary bill before it would like to.

Of course, the government could simply call Mr. Ozawa's bluff and submit the bill, daring the DPJ to reject it. Asahi suggests that this is what the LDP is beginning to come around to this view. Presumably the DPJ reasons that if it does reject it, it will trigger an election contested on the question of economic stimulus. It is conceivable, however, that the government could stick to its intention to postpone an election until after April, resubmitting a new stimulus package in the regular session as planned.

However, it is worth recalling that amidst all of this tactical maneuvering by the LDP and the DPJ, the Japanese people are not entirely convinced that it will make any difference in their lives.

In short, this clash has less to do with the content of the legislation in question than in the images each party wishes to project to the public. The DPJ wants to show itself as concerned about the public, compared with the out-of-touch LDP. The LDP wants to appear responsible and deliberate, compared to the reckless and untrustworthy DPJ (led by the shifty Mr. Ozawa).

Two crises

In the comments section of this recent post, I have been accused of overstating Japanese decline and understating the US decline.

I have actually said very little about the economic crisis in the US — and what I have said about Japan is not particularly new. For the most part I have simply updated an argument that I have made since the early days of this blog to take new circumstances into account: Japan is in the midst of systemic, secular decline, akin to the bakumatsu, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-nineteenth century. I am far from alone in making this argument; Ozawa Ichiro himself is fond of making it, with the implication that he and the DPJ will be the instrument of Japan's restoration. (Among foreign observers, Michael Zielenziger has made a similar argument.) Japan's decline long predates the current financial crisis. It arguably goes back to the bursting of the bubble and the onset of the "lost decade." The decline has institutional causes, demographic causes, and leadership causes, but these factors all add up to an unmistakable and precipitous drop in the state of the Japanese economy, the post-2001 "boom" notwithstanding.

The current crisis has served merely to illustrate just how fragile the post-2001 "recovery" was and just how little the Japanese economy has changed. As an article in this week's Economist notes, "In the long run, what Japan needs is as clear as it has always been: less dependence on export-led manufacturers, more productive and internationally minded service companies, and a more flexible workforce that welcomes women, older workers and immigrants...For the time being, where the world economy goes, so goes Japan." The Koizumi revolution was still-born. Structural reform was left incomplete before Mr. Koizumi departed. Even worse, Mr. Koizumi failed to destroy the old LDP. He dealt it what may ultimately prove to be a mortal blow, but in the short term he gave the party enough of a boost to ensure that a largely unchanged LDP would continue to hold power during this critical period. But not only did Mr. Koizumi serve to prolong the life of the LDP, he also dealt the DPJ a serious blow. Not only did he steal the opposition party's better ideas, but he also served to draw reformist candidates to the LDP. With Mr. Koizumi as party leader running as an LDP candidate was palpable for young, idealistic reformers. By doing so, Mr. Koizumi deprived the DPJ of candidates who would naturally belong to the DPJ's reform wing. The DPJ's leadership crisis can at least partially be laid at the feet of Mr. Koizumi. The young reformers — now orphaned in the LDP by Mr. Koizumi — may yet leave, but I think that when we assess the impact of Mr. Koizumi's tenure, we must consider this line of reasoning as one of the negative consequences. As a result, Japan now has a ruling party which in the three years since the last general election has turned its back on structural reform (and paying down the debt) and an opposition party that is not nearly as reformist as it could be.

Is it really necessary to spell out again the crisis facing Japan today? The dying regions? The bleak demographic outlook? The national debt? It is hard to overstate the impact of Japan's national debt problem. According to this list, Japan ranks third in the world in debt/GDP ratio at 170%, behind Zimbabwe and Lebanon. The next highest G8 country is Italy, in seventh place at 104%. The numbers will change somewhat in light of various stimulus packages in response to the crisis, but in Japan's case it will only get worse. Granted, the US has a major debt problem of its own, which barring drastic action in the coming years will only worsen. But the US has one important advantage that Japan doesn't have: the dollar remains the world's reserve currency. Despite the crisis, governments and investors are still willing to hold US dollars. This doesn't mean that the US can avoid adjustment (more on this momentarily), but it does give the US government more room for maneuver. Japan's situation is not hopeless — as an anonymous commentator to my earlier post notes (scroll to the bottom), Japan's debt/GDP ratio includes prefectural debt and most of it is held domestically, which gives the government a cushion that the US government may not necessary have.

The consequences of Japan's debt are clear. The government is trapped. How will it revive economic growth, foot the bill for a greater portion of welfare provisions (effectively building a welfare state), and cut its debt to more sustainable levels so that it will be able to do more for its retiring baby boomers? Japan is not alone in this dilemma, but it is feeling the pain particularly acutely.

What about the US?

First, let me say that US elites have been no less incompetent (ideological, short-sighted, arrogant, etc.) than their Japanese counterparts. The biggest difference is that Japanese elites have had years to correct their mistakes. Say what you will about President-elect Obama, but at least American voters had the good sense not to reward the Republican Party with another presidential term. I've seen few signs that the Democratic Party is any better equipped to deal with the crisis, but at least the Republican Party has been sentenced to some time in the wilderness, which one hopes it will use productively.

I have no doubt that this crisis is dire, and that the US has yet to hit bottom. There is still the risk that the recession will become a depression. It is still unclear whether the banking crisis has passed. The Paulson Treasury appears to have mishandled the bailout package.

And then there are the structural problems. To say that America has been living beyond its means is a gross understatement — America has been living as if the very idea of limits didn't exist. No limits to energy consumption. No limits to the US government's ability — by means of its unrivaled military — to reshape the world and provide extended security for the American people. At the same time, the US has neglected its infrastructure, its health care and pensions systems, and, most important for future growth, its education system. Above and beyond these serious problems, Americans and their government have acted as if there were no limit in the rest of the world's demand for US debt.

Americans are now learning the meaning of limits. The question, as Paul Krugman notes, is what the post-crisis economy will look like. He looks at the balance of consumer spending, nonresidential investment, residential investment, government purchases, and net exports and concludes that a smaller trade deficit should step in for lower consumper spending, which means that the US may become more dependent on exports than it has been in the past. Meanwhile, as Niall Ferguson argued in Monday's Washington Post, central to this transformation will be the US relationship with China, a relationship Ferguson describes with the unfortunate word "Chimerica."

"In essence," Ferguson argues, "we need the Chinese to be supportive of U.S. monetary easing and fiscal stimulus by doing more of the same themselves. There needs to be agreement on a gradual reduction of the Chimerican imbalance via increased U.S. exports and increased Chinese imports. The alternative — a sudden reduction of the imbalance via lower U.S. imports and lower Chinese exports — would be horrible.

"There also needs to be an agreement to avoid a rout in the dollar market and the bond market, which is what will happen if the Chinese stop buying U.S. government bonds, the amount of which is now set to increase massively."

The very word Chimerica undoubtedly keeps Japanese officials awake at night, as it captures what has long been the worst nightmare of many Japanese elites: ever closer cooperation between Washington and Beijing. The thought of the economic crisis bringing the US and China closer together, perhaps under the watch of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is surely causing a spike in the blood pressure of certain Japanese. (That said, Ferguson does not mention that Japan holds more US treasuries than China, meaning that surely US-Japan bilateral negotiations are no less necessary thank US-China negotiations.) (Correction: As of September, China became the largest holder of US treasuries.)

The adjustment will undoubtedly be painful, particularly for my generation — the so-called millennial generation — which has known only good times (indeed, perhaps the most prosperous period in human history). But America still has, to use Aso Taro's favorite phrase, "latent power," starting with comparably favorable demographics. Interdependence also works in America's favor, as it may have plenty of help from other governments in shifting to a more sustainable footing. The rest of the world still catches America's flu.

Ultimately it is foolish to argue that one country's problems are worse than another's. The developed countries have their collective back to the wall, and not for the first time does the world run the risk of watching an age of unprecedented prosperity collapse into an "era of fear." (It is worth revisiting a Tony Judt essay to which I linked nearly a year ago.) Japan's and America's problems are both severe, but different. For the past two decades, Japan has fallen from a great height, and barring adjustments, it may have further to fall. The US may yet experience a similar decline.

Finally, I must repeat what I said in the comments to the earlier post: I do not celebrate Japan's decline. I lament it, and wish its leaders had done more sooner — and failing that, I wish that they be held responsible for their failures. I don't believe that Mr. Aso is wrong to believe in Japan's latent power, and hope that the government finds a way to release the energy of the Japanese people.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Japan sinks?

Aso Taro has arrived in Washington for the G20 summit on the global economic crisis.

He leaves behind a country tottering on the brink of ruin. The OECD has announced that, like the reappearance of cancer after remission, Japan may once again experience deflation in 2009. Consumer confidence is at a record low. The question on the table now is not whether Japan will be able to avoid recession, but how long the recession will endure. The government's latest stimulus package is on hold until January, leading some within the LDP to wonder whether Mr. Aso has a handle on the situation. (The Economist summarizes the bad news here.)

The Japanese people, it seems, are battening the hatches. As Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post Thursday, Japanese citizens are not particularly enthusiastic about the government's announced tax cuts, an attitude that might change when they start receiving payments, but then again, it might not. The Japanese public has been through this before, and rather than wait for the government to do the right thing, it seems that citizens are preparing to take care of themselves, whether by stuffing yen under the mattress, deferring big purchases, or doing a bit more shopping at the hundred yen shop. Little surprise that there is little taste for structural reform or any other kind of shock therapy.

Mainichi has released the results of its latest annual survey of livelihoods. Mainichi surveyed 3371 respondents in the Kanto and Kansai areas, and found that the level of insecurity among those surveyed is the highest since 1998. More importantly, support for the institutions of "Japanese-style" capitalism has grown: respondents who favored the protection of the seniority system of compensation rose six points to 22.3%, and belief in the value of meritocracy fell nearly nine points to 41.4%. Citizens seem less interested in Nakagawa Hidenao's argument that Japan will be able to grow itself out of its problems than in being sure that they will have enough in their old age. They are not interested in promised handouts or, for that matter, talk of consumption tax increases to come. It seems that what they want is quite simple: some modicum of economic security and some acknowledgment on the part of the government that things have gone horribly astray, that the quality of life is withering. They will not be comforted by Mr. Aso's pep talks concerning the "latent power" of Japan or the DPJ's promises to put lifestyle first.

Mr. Aso may yet pull off an electoral victory next year — it is increasingly certain that the next general election will not be held before April 2009 — but a general election will not substantially alter the situation (even with a DPJ victory, although a DPJ victory would at least ensure that the same party controls both houses of the Diet for the next several years).

In case there was any lingering doubt, the Koizumi era is over.

Little wonder that Japanese are hoping for an Obama of their own: the political system is broken and the economy is faltering. Neither the LDP's nor the DPJ's performance in the face of crisis has been particularly impressive. The DPJ's greatest strength remains that it's not the LDP, and even that assertion is increasingly questionable. Japan looks increasingly set to decline steadily, unable to take decisive steps to restore national dynamism. This is the bakumatsu, but with few signs of a restoration to come, despite Ozawa Ichiro's determination to be the vehicle of that restoration.

Perhaps Japan should hold a lottery to pick a new ruling elite, choosing from among the eminently sensible housewives of Tokyo. I don't see how they could be worse than the status quo.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

General Tamogami refuses to fade away

Is Tamogami Toshio a millstone around Aso Taro's neck?

The now former chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Forces (ASDF) appeared before the House of Councillors foreign and defense affairs committee and continued his determined campaign to dispel the postwar consensus on Japan's wartime past.

In his remarks, General Tamogami appeared to play dumb. Asked about the Murayama statement, in which then-Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi made a sincere apology for Japan's wartime behavior (and argued that "Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism"), the general hid behind his and his fellow airmen's right to freedom of speech. He noted that his essay said nothing about the Murayama statement and asserted that even JSDF members have the right to freedom of speech.

The essence of civilian control is that the prime minister is the commander-in-chief of the JSDF and the Diet is responsible for "basic administration." While it is true that General Tamogami did not use the phrase "Murayama statement" in his essay, only a fool would be satisfied with that answer; General Tamogami's essay was all about the Murayama statement and the worldview that produced it and has sustained it in the thirteen years since it was promulgated. The general certainly knew what he was doing. Say what you will about Japan's revisionists, but they are not fools (as in the case of the Nanjing massacre: most don't deny that something happened in Nanjing, but many turn it into a matter of numbers, shifting the discussion from the enormity of what the Imperial Army did in Nanjing to China's purported manipulation of the figures to make Japan look bad).

Of course, now that he is out of the service General Tamogami did not hesitate to criticize the Murayama statement, describing it as "an instrument for the supression of one's opinions." But questioning the fact that ninety-seven members of the JSDF submitted essays to a revisionist essay contest is not the suppression of the freedom of speech — it is the reassertion of civilian control. The SDF ethos encourages SDF personnel to "refrain from taking part in political activities." While the APA essay contest may not have technically been a "political activity," the submission of essays by JSDF personnel was effectively political. By questioning the civilian government's official position on Japan's wartime history (Mr. Aso reaffirmed the Murayama statement in Diet interpellations in early October, although there are now questions as to whether Mr. Aso has accepted the Murayama statement), General Tamogami was deliberately insubordinate to his commander-in-chief, and given that his essay had the potential to undermine the government's efforts to build closer relations with China and South Korea, it is hard to see this affair as anything but interference by a senior JSDF officer in political matters. Merely asking the general to surrender his pension is mild, considering that he had been openly calling for historical revisionism for years before this incident.

On balance, I'm not sure whether this hearing was a good thing. I certainly think that it's better that these views are out in the open, but it seems that all the hearing accomplished was assisting General Tamogami in his transition from ASDF general to right-wing pundit. It won't be long now before he is a regular contributor to Voice and Will. He is already being treated as a matyr for the cause by his fellow revisionists; for example, Hiranuma Takeo, former LDP member and adviser to Nakagawa Shoichi's "True Conservative Policy Research Group," has criticized the defense minister's request that the general gave up his pension. It may have been better off to let General Tamogami fade away, as another loudmouth general disrespectful of his civilian masters once said of old soldiers. (The general played up his matyrdom, saying, "I think the world is full of examples of dismissal for saying that one's own country is a bad country, but I don't think there's a single example of dismal for saying that one's own country is a good country.")

Meanwhile General Tamogami has probably hurt Mr. Aso. In the short term Mr. Aso has won a small victory, for as a quid-pro-quo for the general's appearance the opposition parties have agreed to bring the bill extending the MSDF refueling mission to a vote in the upper house foreign and defense affairs committee on Tuesday and the whole house on Wednesday, freeing the lower house to pass the bill again on next Thursday. But in the meantime General Tamogami has reinserted history onto the public agenda, which will undoubtedly lead to new questions regarding just what Mr. Aso thinks of these matters. Mr. Aso has categorically rejected the general's putting his freedom of speech before civilian control, but I suspect for better or worse that Mr. Aso's comments will not be the last of this issue.

The history issue will not make or break Mr. Aso's government at home, but it does little to help the prime minister and does serve to distract his government from the gathering economic gloom. (Will the foreign press ask Mr. Aso about this while he visits Washington?) I have yet to see any public opinion polls pertaining to General Tamogami's remarks, but I expect that the public is generally not sympathetic to this perspective.

I want to conclude with a word about the general's perspective. In his remarks on Tuesday, General Tamogami raised an argument that has been made in comments on this blog and elsewhere, namely, that Japan has been unfairly singled out for wrongdoing during the war. He further suggested that talk of Japan as a bad country damages JSDF morale.

I have no idea how General Tamogami can prove the latter argument, but I am not totally unsympathetic to his former argument. However, as I argued here, simple moral equivalency between Japan and the European empires does not work. It is a lazy assertion, and when making a legal argument, as the general attempted to do in his essay, it is a baseless assertion. I understand and sympathize with the desire to see one's country as good, but whitewashing the past, pretending that the sorry moments of history were either not sorry or did not happen is no way to glorify one's nation. As noted previously, many American suffer from a similar problem, failing to see history through the eyes of other and failing to appreciate the harm caused by Americans in the name of high ideals. I can understand General Tamogami's frustration. But the answer is not reinventing a glorious past that better serves what the general sees as the needs of the present.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Guam recedes into the distance

A US official has finally admitted that it is unlikely that the US and Japan will meet the 2014 target date for initiating the relocation of US Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command, was in New York City last week, where he reviewed the state of the Defense Policy Review Initiative (DPRI). In his remarks, he acknowledged that in light of the financial situation in both countries, it is likely that "it'll take a little bit longer to effect – we won’t be done by 2014, or maybe even 2015, but it’s about a decade in execution."

Admiral Keating's admission is the first such admission — to my knowledge — from a senior US official involved with the process. It confirms the picture presented by the Government Accountability Office in its report on Guam. I still think the official view is too optimistic. I see too many potential obstacles to be confident that the process will be implemented according to schedule and according to plan. The biggest question in my mind is what happens if and when the DPJ forms a government. The DPJ's "Okinawa vision" paper — discussed in this post — strongly suggests that should the DPJ take power, it will seek to revise the 2006 agreement.

For now, the extent of the delay will depend on the makeup of President-elect Obama's Asia policy team. If the bulk of Asia policy positions go to China or Korea hands, I would suggest that the outlook for realignment is grim indeed. Realignment will proceed smoothly only if the foreign policy team is seeded with individuals intimately familiar with the issues at stake and capable of making the case for why it is essential that the realignment must proceed as soon as possible. (And, I hope, be willing to consider doing it unilaterally if Japan drags its feet.)

But even with the right people in place the outlook isn't good for Guam. In the current environment, it will be hard to get the necessary support from Congress and the upper levels of the administration.

Japan may have to accept that the Marines may be in Okinawa for longer than expected.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Revisionist America?

At 空, Ken Tanaka responds to yesterday's post about Japanese revisionism by citing Stephen Walt regarding American "historical amnesia."

I definitely take his (and Walt's) point about America's historical amnesia, particularly in regard to Japan. Few Americans appreciate the extent of the damage inflicted upon the Japanese people, or if they do, their appreciation stops at the atomic bombings; in some way the indiscriminate bombing of cities with "conventional" weaponry was far worse. Czeslaw Milosz captured the failure of Americans to understand just how complicated, just how relative reality is in the second chapter of The Captive Mind.

"The man of the east [referring to the eastern bloc]," he wrote, "cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.

"Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be 'unnatural,' and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword. In all probability this is what will occur; for it is hard to believe that when one half of the world is living through terrible disasters, the other half can continue a nineteenth-century mode of life, learning about the distress of its distant fellow-men only from movies and newspapers." (29)

I hardly need to point out that Milosz's observation remains relevant to the present day, 9/11 notwithstanding. (If anything 9/11 reinforced the tendency described by Milosz.)

But historical amnesia is not the same as historical revisionism.

Historical revisionism is, as I have argued, an ideology that is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past. It is an active process. And it involves the conscious and willful denial of generally accepted facts of history. Indeed, in the process of claiming to only be presenting "the facts," the revisionists deny the very existence of facts as commonly understood. For them, the measure of whether something is truthful or not is that it serves political ends. They reject the idea of falsifiability or alternative explanations for events: look at the confidence with which General Tamogami asserted, with merely a whiff of evidence, that the Comintern was behind both the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific war. Revisionists seem to care little about the credibility of the messenger or the method by which the message is produced — only the message matters. Stephen Colbert could have been describing the revisionists when he coined the term "truthiness."

This differs greatly from "historical amnesia," or the natural difference in historical interpretations between history's winners and losers. Granted, Americans have a problem seeing history through the eyes of its "losers." But that is considerably different from the revisionist project, which is a wide-reaching program that seeks to determine how Japanese citizens learn history (by infiltrating the national curriculum, which, unlike in the US, is determined by the central government), how Japanese citizens think about their own country, how Japan conducts its security policy, and how Japan conducts its foreign relations. The analogy to the US fails. Conservative hawks may downplay some of the uglier moments in American history and emphasize the triumphs, particularly international victories, but they are hard pressed to deny those moments and periods outright.

Again, Japanese revisionism is not only or even mainly about the past. By revising how Japanese looks at the war, they also want to revise how Japanese look at the postwar period. If the former was a period marked by glorious sacrifices for emperor and nation, the latter has been marked by selfishness, wanton prosperity, decadence, decay, and "Americanization." The revisionists hope to reclaim the wartime and prewar periods as sources of value for contemporary Japan.

Of course, by working so hard to correct the historical consensus on Japan's wartime behavior, the revisionists merely serve to call attention to the enormity of Japan's behavior — and alarm Japan's neighbors, who remember only too well what Japan did during the war. Revisionism amounts to calling those who suffered at Japan's hands as prisoners of war, slave laborers, comfort women, or unwilling imperial subjects liars.

Revisionism is a problem for the region. It is a mistake to pretend otherwise. Sincere advocates of a more active Japanese security role should doing everything in their power not only to distance themselves from the revisionists, but categorically denounce their brazen denial of history.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Japan's revisionist problem

In my critique of Tamogami Toshio's essay, I asked, "Just how widespread are these views in the JSDF?"

Jun Okumura quickly provided some sort of answer: more than fifty SDF members submitted essays in the contest won by General Tamogami. Sankei reports that the number of ASDF members who submitted essays is actually seventy-eight by the ministry of defense's reckoning. Asahi notes that this constitutes nearly one-third of the contest's 235 entries. Asahi also breaks down the submissions by rank and finds that of those seventy-eight, none except General Tamogami were flag officers, ten were field officers, sixty-four were company-level officers, and four were cadets. Asahi also found that sixty-two had served under General Tamogami when he served as commander of Komatsu base, which Roy Berman of Mutantfrog found plays a central role in the story of the APA essay contest. (Berman did yeoman's work teasing out the various links between the actors of this saga; it's a must-read.) The contents of the Asahi article suggest that it's possible that the ASDF officers who submitted did so after having been "encouraged" by their commander rather than out of conviction.

But that said, it's possible that despite its efforts to project a warm and fuzzy image (cf. Prince Pickles), the JSDF attracts a disportionate number of people who look longingly to Japan's past as a military power and subscribe to the conservative nationalist interpretation of Japan's wartime past.

Does it matter what the members of Japan's armed forces think about Japan's wartime past? Does historical revisionism conflict with the SDF's ethos of ensuring "the continued existence and security of a Japan that stands on the premise of democracy by protecting its peace and independence?" And if so, what can the government do about it?

I would argue that historical revisionism — as it exists in Japan — is incompatible with the SDF's current mission and Japan's security policy. Revisionism is not merely a matter of "historical understanding;" it is an ideology concerning Japan as it is today and how it should be. Go back and read General Tamogami's essay. The problem for him isn't just that the Japanese people don't know the facts (revisionists love that word) of the war. They've been brainwashed for sixty years into believing that Japan's wartime behavior was dishonorable, and this belief in turn has handcuffed the SDF and made Japan dependent on the US for its security. In short, General Tamogami and other revisionists are openly contempuous of Japanese democracy, because they view Japanese citizens as little better than sheep who have been systematically manipulated by Nikkyoso-dominated schools and the Japanese media. Does General Tamogami actually believe that he was serving Japanese democracy, whose institutions and officials have decided, with the support of the public, to constrain the SDF? Why does he think that the path to a more active security policy leads through greater appreciation of World War II? Arguably a stronger case for an active Japanese international security role would be premised on an appreciation of the folly of Japan's war, of the criminality of Japan's war, of a recognition that the acts committed during the war should never be allowed to happen again? This argument, grounded in the preamble of the constitution, has animated Ozawa Ichiro's case for a "normal" Japanese security policy.

The key point here is, as William Faulkner wrote, "the past is never dead. It's not even past." It is not accidental that the historical revisionists are also the most enthusiastic supporters of various schemes for a more active Japanese security policy, why they are the most vocal defenders of the US-Japan alliance (even as they curse the US for abandoning Japan in favor of China) and the most vocal advocates for Japanese participation in all possible foreign deployments. Reclaiming the past is their means of reclaiming the present and future — and perhaps reclaiming the present by "normalizing" the SDF is their way of making the public more sympathetic to their view of the wartime past.

The problem is that their view of the world is not of the twenty-first century. The conservative-revisionist view of international politics derives much from nineteenth-century Social Darwinism, viewing the world as a brutal, relentless struggle among nations, for which nations must steel their spirits if they are to survive. It's not enough for nations to be prosperous materially. They must be spiritually, morally, and culturally sound. Part of this spiritual soundness is appreciating the struggles of the nation's heroes. While the revisionists claim to be striving for objective truth, the value of history for them is that it's instructive, strengthening Japan for international competition. This view also leaves little room for meaningful cooperation with one's rivals.

As I've argued before, this ideology is actually abnormal in the twenty-first century and no less dangerous than Social Darwinism was in the late nineteenth, as it risks leading Japan and Asia down a path of confrontation, strife, and war. I am not suggesting that revisionists are prepared to go down the path of imperial conquest again. But I am suggesting that the mindset that produced that Japanese empire is alive and well. And don't think that China or South Korea won't mention the general's essay the next time the Japanese government talks tough on a regional dispute (a fight over a disputed island, for example).

Japan is not unique in having elites prone to this view of the world. What sets them apart is that historical revisionism is part and parcel of their case for a new Japan.

Which makes it difficult to imagine what the government can do to correct for the politically incorrect (in the sense that the Murayama statement defines what is correct) views of JSDF officers. The government can prohibit publication, of course, or implement a system of vetting the public statements of officers. Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu suggested that more education is needed for officers. But are education — or bottling up politically unacceptable opinions — satisfactory answers? Not for me. Revisionism exists because the history problem has effectively been swept under the rug since the war ended, left to metatastize into a worldview that seeks to redefine Japanese identity by dismissing the postwar period as aberrant and harkening back to an earlier, purer time.

The government can impose all the safeguards it wants, but there is no safeguard or sanction that can change an individual's ideas. With luck General Tamogami will get the debate he wants. But in the end it will just be another battle in the culture war that has raged since the end of the war.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Aso continues to stumble

Another month has come, and with it more bad news for Prime Minister Aso.

Yomiuri has published its latest tracking poll and found that just over a month into the Aso cabinet the prime minister's unfavorable rating has surpassed his favorable rating. His disapproval rating rose 3.3% to 41.9%, edging past his approval rating, which fell 5.4% to 40.5%.

A majority of respondents (56%) said they approved of the prime minister's decision to put government's response to the financial crisis, but when it comes to the government's response to the crisis, respondents are evenly divided, with 42% supporting the government's response and 46% opposing. The numbers are even less favorable to Mr. Aso's suggestion that the government could raise the consumption tax rate in three years (51% opposed to 42% favorable).

Yomiuri is not alone in recording doubt about the government's economic plans.

Nakagawa Hidenao — who has now made his displeasure with the Aso cabinet public, complaining in a speech in Fukushima of Mr. Aso's decision to postpone an election and begin speaking of a consumption tax — looks at Hodo 2001's 30 October poll and find that while the government's approval rating rose 4.8% to 46% (with the disapproval rating holding steady at 45.4%), there is widespread doubt about the ability of the government's economic plans to stave off a deeper recession. Asked whether the government's intended plans will restore growth, 21.2% of respondents said yes, while 67.6% of respondents said no. What continues to alarm Mr. Nakagawa is that independents remain ill disposes to the Aso government and its plans.

The Aso government is still pushing on a string. It's going to take more than Mr. Aso talking about the government's "concrete plans" for restoring growth in a TV commercial to reverse the tide.

For now there is little for the DPJ but to sow the seeds of doubt in the public's mind about the efficacy of Mr. Aso's plans for the economy. It shouldn't go too far out on a limb to oppose them in the Diet — the public wants some response from the government — but it should be sure to raise lots of questions. It needs to undermine the government's case without being perceived as obstructionist.

Can Mr. Ozawa's party do it? I worry about the DPJ in moments like this, the moment after the government decides to postpone an election following a campaign by the DPJ to pressure the government to call a snap election. Mr. Ozawa has a tendency to let his focus slip. The DPJ must not panic. It must not try to force a showdown. Let Mr. Aso continue to push on the string.

In the meantime, keep making the case that the DPJ is more in touch with the public.

The Tamogami affair

The Times (of London) reports that Aso Taro may face an upper house censure motion over now-retired General Tamogami Toshio's revisionist essay on Japan's activities on mainland Asia in the 1930s.

I think this would be a mistake — as Jun Okumura noted, Mr. Aso did the right thing. General Tamogami was sacked immediately. Unless it comes out that Mr. Aso somehow vetted the essay in advance, General Tamogami's firing should be the end of Mr. Aso's role in this sordid affair.

But it is worth looking at the general's essay.

Here is my summary of the general's theses.
(1) Japan did not fight a war of aggression: it was a legitimate act of self-defense because Japan's position in Korea and Manchuria was legally recognized.

(2) The Pacific war was effectively the product of Communist manipulation: The Comintern manipulated the Guomindong into provoking Japan so that the two would fight each other. The Comintern also manipulated Franklin Roosevelt into waging war on Japan, because Roosevelt "was not aware of the terrible nature of communism" and was thus easily duped by the Communists into supporting Chiang Kai-shek.

(3) Imperial Japan as humanitarian: Japan was kind to its colonies Korea and Taiwan, and even tried to incorporate them into metropolitan Japan, unlike the European powers. Japan was also the great friend of the peoples of Asia, fighting on their behalf at Versailles and hastening the end of the European empires.

(4) "The US-Japan alliance is great, but...": The alliance is great, but if the alliance continues Japan as we know it will be destroyed. And by the way, if we hadn't fought the war we might even have become "a white nation's colony." Oh, and our Self-Defense Forces, a branch of which I command? They cannot even defend Japan.
Let me start with the obvious contradiction in his argument in thesis (1).

At the start of the essay, General Tamogami dismisses claims that Japan was an aggressor by suggesting that critics simply don't realize that Japan was in Manchuria and Korea on the basis of treaties. Later he suggests that other great powers were aggressors too. Without providing any examples, I will be charitable and assume that he is referring to the presence of the European empires in Asia as opposed to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, which don't help his case.

How is the legality of the European empires any different than the legality of Japan's colonies in Northeast Asia? If anything, the European empires were more secure in their rights in their colonies than Japan was in its colonies, seeing as how it acquired both by coercing the governments of China and Korea. The Dutch had ruled the Dutch East Indies directly for more than two centuries. India had been directly ruled by the British empire for nearly a century at the time of the war. The French had ruled Indochina directly for nearly as long as the British ruled India. In short, international law didn't apply; a Japanese attack on these colonies was legally indistinguishible from an attack on the French or British homelands. And one may recall that Japan did in fact attack these colonies, a fact unmentioned in connection with this argument, meaning ipso facto Japan was an aggressor in the war.

Meanwhile, it is worth recalling that Japan had a reason for using international law to take control of Korea, Taiwan, and portions of mainland China. Japan made a point of conducting its imperial affairs according to international law, as part of a project of showing its neighbors, especially China, that Japan was the most civilized nation in the neighborhood. The peace "negotiations" at Shimonoseki in 1895, when Japan humiliated the Chinese envoys for being unversed in Western international law, was the signature moment in Japan's project to unseat China as the center of Asian civilization; Japan demonstrated to China that Asian affairs would now be conducted by a new standard of civilization, imported into Asia from Europe by Japan. Japan did the same with Korea, when it forced an unequal treaty on Korea in 1876. Finally, to assert that the Japanese annexation of Korea was a legal transfer of authority from the Korean kingdom to Japan — that the Korean government was signing its own death warrant of its own volition — makes a mockery of history. It may be unfair to Japan to make this comparison, seeing as how the European empires were able to acquire their Asian colonies by virtue of their denying Asian nations civilized status and with it the protection of international law, but if General Tamogami wants to make an argument based on international law, he must accept the body of international law, not just the laws that support his argument.

But there is a larger problem with the general's first thesis. Namely he completely ignores Japan's invasion of China proper (i.e., the parts of China where it did not have treaty rights), the Philippines (a commonwealth of the US), French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Burma, and other territories that were legally part of the American, French, Dutch, and British empires as well as the Republic of China. How is it possible to claim that Japan was not an aggressor when it invaded and occupied these territories? General Tamogami attempts a defense of Japan's actions in China by claiming Chinese Communist and Nationalist provocation; he even uses the "T" word, claiming that Japanese forces were subject to acts of terrorism, comparing these acts as equivalent to acts of violence against US forces and civilians based in Japan. (Does he really want to make that comparison?)

But General Tamogami apparently doesn't even believe his own argument, because after explaining why Japan wasn't an aggressor, he concludes, "If you say that Japan was the aggressor nation, then I would like to ask what country among the great powers of that time was not an aggressor. That is not to say that because other countries were doing so it was all right for Japan to do so well, but rather that there is no reason to single out Japan as an aggressor nation." As I've made clear above, there is a reason for singling Japan out as an aggressor, namely because Japan had made a point of conducting its affairs according to international law only to ignore international law when it interfered with Japan's imperial designs.

Turning to thesis (2) about the communist conspiracy that produced the war, General Tamogami's argument is that the US "ensnared" Japan. But not only that, the US — specifically President Roosevelt — had in turn been ensnared by the Soviet Union. The basis for this claim is the US National Security Agency's release of the Venona decryptions, which according to General Tamogami reveal that Roosevelt was under the thumb of Moscow due to the influence of Harry Dexter White at Treasury.

The Venona decryptions reveal no such thing. (They're available online here.)

The Soviet Union had agents in the US, true. Harry Dexter White was one, also true. But to leap from there to "Roosevelt went to war with Japan because he was manipulated by communists" is ludicrous. The US decision to support China and risk war with Japan was, if anything, overdetermined. It cannot be reduced to a simple communist conspiracy. Roosevelt's reasons for war could include a sentimental attachment to China, a growing recognition of the need to halt aggression in Europe and Asia, alarm at humanitarian situation in China, and so on.

This is simply groundless revisionist history that rests more on the perfervid imagination of Japanese conservatives than on empirical fact.

The same applies to General Tamogami's account of the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war, which, as noted above, blames the war on "terrorist" acts by KMT and Communist forces. He claims that the "Comintern theory" of the war's beginning is gaining credence, citing as evidence the controversial Chang-Halliday biography of Mao and a book by conservative hack (i.e., not a historian) Sakurai Yoshiko. He dismisses out of hand the idea that the Kwantung army and the Imperial Army bear any responsibility for actions taken in the lead up to the war.

Moving on to thesis (3), General Tamogami praises Japan for its "very moderate" colonial rule in comparison to other empires. He also singles out Imperial Japan for praise because "among the major powers at that time, Japan was the only nation that tried to incorporate its colonies within the nation itself." It is beyond me why this should be considered a good thing. Is General Tamogami really so ignorant as to believe that Japan's subject peoples — starting with the Koreans and the Chinese — were eager to be incorporated into Japan proper, eager to be made into Japanese, bearing Japanese names, speaking the Japanese language? The general suggests that Japanese rule in Korea and Manchuria were quite peaceful, that Japan brought order and civilization to its colonies. It would be a lie to deny that Japanese imperialism brought some benefits to the colonies, just as it would be a lie to deny that British or French or Dutch empires had any positive impact on their respective colonies. The only appropriate response to all of these empires is, "Yes, but at what cost?" That General Tamogami does not even consider that subject peoples might view the Japanese empire with something other than feelings of gratitude may be the most offensive piece of this essay. The general cites a number of trivial examples illustrating how Chinese and Korean "citizens" displayed their loyalty to the empire. He shows that the Japanese imperial family permitted the last crown prince of Korea's Yi dynasty to marry a Japanese noble woman. What he doesn't mention is that Japanese settlers in Asian colonies were instruct not to mingle with native peoples. As John Dower writes, "Concerning overseas Japanese, admonitions against racial intermarriage were a standard part of policy documents, and the 1943 report spelled out the rationale for this: intermarriage would destroy the 'national spirit' of the Yamato race" (War Without Mercy, 277). Dower goes on to demonstrate just how farcical General Tamogami's claims about "harmony between the five tribes, laying out a vision for the tribes – the Yamato (Japanese), Koreans, Chinese, Manchurians, and Mongols;" Japan's plan for its Asian empire envisioned the economic, cultural, and social domination of subject peoples by Japan. As Dower writes, "The record of the Japanese as colonial or neocolonial administrators in Formosa, Korea, Manchukuo, and occupied China varied depending on the place and circumstances but the basic assumption of Japanese superiority was invariable" (285).

The general also makes an absurdly ahistorical claim that were it not for Japan's conquests, it would have taken one or two centuries "before we could have experienced the world of racial equality that we have today." While it is impossible to say for certain, it is extremely unlikely that the European empires in Asia would have survived another century, let alone two. Japan's war may have shortened the empires by a decade or so, but as it happened the European powers struggled to resurrect their empires after the war thanks in large part to the havoc the European war wreaked on their economies. So again, the question regarding Japan's role in decolonization is, "Yes, but at what cost?"

Finally we come to thesis (4), which is the most confusing of them all, although the confusion itself is extremely revealing. The general concludes his essay by looking at the security policy of contemporary Japan. He claims that the Tokyo trials are to blame for "misleading the Japanese people sixty-three years after the war." Apparently the Japanese people have been duped into not trusting the JSDF to defend Japan or undertake missions abroad. To General Tamogami the restrictions on Japanese security policy are sustained only because of public pacifism (presumably the result of a program of brainwashing carried out by the left-wing Japanese media and the teachers' union). The decisions made by Yoshida Shigeru and his successors to restrict Japan's military activities, to use the constitution as a weapon against US requests for rearmament, have apparently played no role whatsoever in Japan's security policy. If only the Japanese people learn to have pride again, the JSDF can be released from its restraints.

Meanwhile, his attitude towards the US is frankly schizophrenic, which is typical of the Japanese right wing. He asserts that "good relations between Japan and the United States are essential to the stability of the Asian region" — standard alliance boilerplate. But he also says that as a result of the aforementioned restraints on the JSDF, Japan has no choice but to be defended by America. But at what cost to Japan? "Japan’s economy, its finances, its business practices, its employment system, its judicial system will all converge with the American system. Our country’s traditional culture will be destroyed by the parade of reforms. Japan is undergoing a cultural revolution, is it not? But are the citizens Japan living in greater ease now or twenty years ago? Is Japan becoming a better country?" Apparently the alliance is also a Trojan horse for the dreaded American way of life. In short, the alliance is a fine vehicle for helping Japan become normal again, but Japan must keep America at arm's length. (Interestingly, the forces within Japan arguing for economic and financial convergence with the US are often the same people who share General Tamogami's position on national defense.) This argument is hardly new, and shows that America is a convenient scapegoat for conservatives who do not want to believe that the forces reshaping Japanese society are largely endogenous, perhaps largely the product of the postwar miracle.

I don't disagree with General Tamogami's argument that Japan needs to be better able to defend itself and less reliant on the US. But he has made this argument in the worst possible way, by reminding readers of just how dreadful the war was — and how egregious the arguments of Japan's historical revisionists are (the same people who want to revise Japan's security policy).

General Tamogami concludes his essay with an appeal against revisionism:
There is absolutely no need for lies and fabrications. If you look at individual events, there were probably some that would be called misdeeds. That is the same as saying that there is violence and murder occurring today even in advanced nations.

We must take back the glorious history of Japan. A nation that denies its own history is destined to pursue a path of decline.
If only the general could appreciate the irony of the last line of his essay.

The point is that this essay is atrocious, both intellectually and aesthetically.

But that being said, better that General Tamogami decided to share his opinions with the world (although I imagine he probably didn't expect that the world would be paying attention to the APA essay contest). The world needs to know that these ideas are alive and well in elite Japanese circles. Having read this essay, I'm now especially curious about Mr. Aso's book purchase on Saturday. How can Mr. Aso fire a general for espousing these beliefs — which he continues to espouse now that he's been sacked — and then go into a bookstore and purchase a book that makes similar arguments about Japan's history?

I hope that a journalist will pose this inconvenient question to the prime minister.

I also hope that there is a full inquiry into the circumstances surrounding General Tamogami's essay. Did anyone see it in advance? Who knew what when? More importantly, just how widespread are these views in the JSDF? And, as Ozawa Ichiro asked, why was there no outrage in response to a previously published essay by the general that made essentially the same argument? To reiterate, unless it somehow turns out that Mr. Aso was aware of this essay beforehand, this is not an incident worthy of censure. But it does merit an inquiry into the state of affairs in the JSDF. I would prefer full exposure over the swift punishment called for by the prime minister for those involved.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Mr. Aso's leisure reading

Does it matter what our leaders read?

In another publicity stunt, Aso Taro made an appearance at a bookstore in the Yaesu district of Tokyo on Saturday evening.

Yomiuri reports that Mr. Aso bypassed the manga section and went straight for the economics section, pausing only to admire his books on display. He supposedly bought four economics books, including Hasegawa Keitaro's Reading the general situation 2009 and How good a country is Japan? by Kusaka Kimindo and Takayama Masayuki (the latter a conservative freelance journalist, known for broadsides against both Japan's neighbors and the US, as well as the usual suspects domestically, in the familiar roster of conservative publications).

What does Mr. Aso's decision to read these books tell us, and why does Yomiuri feel the need to share? Is the Japanese public supposed to be impressed that Mr. Aso is foregoing his usual manga for heavier fare (and foregoing his usual evening entertainments to visit a bookstore)?

There is something to be said for political leaders taking time out of their schedules to engage with big ideas — but not too much time, and the choice of book matters.

Let's look at one of Mr. Aso's choices.

Messrs. Kusaka and Takayama's book is a discussion between them. Judging by the table of contents, this book is typical cultural conservative twaddle; Mr. Aso did not, in fact, purchase four economics books.

The section headings offer a collection of the Japanese right's favorite arguments: "The perverse media that discharges 'false images' of Japan;" "The good fortune of a collective endowed with 'wisdom'" (this section's subheadings reveal that this section refers to the blessings of the Japanese people, and they don't just mean Japanese culture — one section addresses America's "inferiority complex" and "trauma" from being a country of immigrants); "The Great Illusion of 'Asia is one'" (one sub-section suggests that Japan should "fear 'slavery' more than 'isolation,'" while the rest of the section appears to celebrate Japan's role in bringing about racial equality in Asia, especially in the first half of the twentieth century); the next section continues the theme of the previous one, arguing, "Japan's power ended the era of 'absolute white [rule];" "Again, becoming 'a country that bears the fears of the world';" and finally, "Japan decides the countries with which it keeps company."

In short, this book appears to be representative of the most belligerent, the most narrow-minded, and the most revisionist segment of Japanese conservatism. I don't want to read too much into this, not having read the book, but it is a farce that Mr. Aso is somehow illustrating his interest in economic problems by reading this book (as Yomiuri suggests).

But more importantly, shouldn't we — or more properly, the Japanese media — be asking what Mr. Aso finds of value in a book with content so different from the confident, forward-looking conservative internationalism that Mr. Aso himself espouses?