Monday, November 23, 2009

Tamogami, Palin, and populist conservatisms

It has been just over a year since General Tamogami Toshio (ASDF-ret.), then the chief of staff of Japan's Air Self-Defense Forces, was drummed out of the service after he was awarded the top prize in an essay contest sponsored by the APA Group for his essay "Was Japan an Aggressor Nation?"

In the year since he became a household name, Tamogami has become a leading figure of the Japanese right, as I expected following his appearance before the House of Councillors foreign and defense affairs committee. According to his website, by year's end he will have given more than seventy lectures across Japan. He has made at least seven TV appearances, and has his name on twelve books (aside from a number of them being transcripts of conversations with other right-wing figures, it is unlikely that Tamogami has written much of what his name is attached to). And he has been the subject of a fawning special issue of WiLL, which features his writings, including autobiographical writings, conversations between Tamogami and Ishihara Shintaro and Kobayashi Yoshinori, and contributions from right-wingers like Sakurai Yoshiko (whose "work" Tamogami cited in his essay), Watanabe Shoichi (the Sophia University emeritus professor who chaired the selection committee for the APA contest), Nishimura Shingo, an outspoken Diet member, and Kyoto University's Nakanichi Terumasa, among other regular contributors to WiLL and similar publications.

Tamogami Toshio: Japan's Sarah Palin.

The comparison is not without merit. Like Palin, Tamogami claims to be speaking the truth to power, in both cases left-wing elites who they claim have stifled the expression of the country's true identity. (The WiLL issue is full of complaints about double standards aimed at the Asahi Shimbun especially, complaints about free speech only for those who speak ill of Japan.) While Tamogami and other revisionist conservatives claim to care only about revealing the noble truth of Japan's wartime past and its beautiful history and seek to promote policies that will enable the Japanese people to be proud of their country again, the revisionist right's program is less a program than an aesthetic appeal, a collection of slogans about pride and greatness, about reclaiming Japan's past from the anti-Japan Japanese left and escaping the postwar regime.

And so with Mrs. Palin. As far as I can tell from the reviews, her book is long on right-wing platitudes, extremely short on policy substance. And like her Japanese counterpart, Mrs. Palin sees the "lamestream" media as the enemy within. Like Tamogami, Palin is the voice of a defensive, populist conservatism mobilized to defend traditions seen as under siege by left-wing elites who want to weaken the resolve of their respective countries in the face of threats at home and abroad.

Both have found considerable success as private citizens, finding it easier to speak truth to power when not in a position of authority. Not surprisingly Tamogami has, according to Asahi, rejected LDP overtures to run as a candidate on the LDP's proportional representation list in next summer's House of Councillors election. Why would Tamogami want to trade the lecture circuit for a seat in the upper house, in which he would have to wait his turn to speak, obey certain rules of decorum, and be only one of 242? He has far more freedom to attack the DPJ government now than he would as a representative from a marginalized LDP.

Meanwhile, the similarities between Japan's revisionist right and America's populist right will be in full view next year when Tamogami visits New York City to give a speech and appear at a dinner cruise. Sharing the stage with him will be Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas who posed a surprisingly formidable challenger for John McCain in the race for the 2008 Republican Party presidential nomination. While Huckabee has crafted a kinder, gentler image than the moose-hunting, media-scorning Palin (he has been a regular on Comedy Central, after all), he occupies a similar space in the post-2008 conservative movement, a populist evangelical Christian who has railed against the powers that be not just on cultural grounds but on economic grounds (alienating some Republicans in the process). Some polls show him as a front runner for the Republican nomination in 2012.

I hope someone will ask Huckabee why he has agreed to share the stage with Tamogami, who you may recall believes that the US went to war against Japan because Franklin Roosevelt was manipulated by Stalin (through the influence of Harry Dexter White). Perhaps some journalist will ask Huckabee what he thinks about Tamogami's thoughts on the humanitarianism of the Japanese empire or Japan's war of self-defense against China or his opposition to the corrupting influence of America upon Japanese culture or his calls for a Japanese nuclear arsenal.

I have a hard time seeing how someone viewed as a serious contender for the nomination of a major party could associate himself with Tamogami and still be taken seriously.


Juliette B. said...

Thank you for your always interesting articles.

Anonymous said...

The questions directed at Gov. Huckabee are quite apt, and I applaud them.

Regarding Gov. Palin, she has been the target of the most vicious and hypocritical smear campaign in modern US history.

Whatever one may think of her "aw shucks" populist philosophy, she has much more justification for denouncing the "lamestream media" than Tamogami, whose (fascist) side of things has had de facto state sponsorship ever since the LDP was formed.

Joseph O'Leary said...

Just discovered your extraordinary website, recommended by Paul Scalise.

Palin smeared? No, she must be stopped! Exposing her lies and general witlessness is a worthy task, but it makes no dint on her supporters. Watch this:

PaxAmericana said...

I don't see the harm in open debate, but would say expand it to:

-the humanitarianism of the American empire
-the corrupting influence of American and Japanese cultures
-reducing the US nuclear arsenal and creating a Japanese one

Not that Tamogami inspires any confidence around the world, but it is, after all, the US that is called a "rogue nation" by many when speaking off the record.

Finally, as per Carroll Quigley's remarks about the public being able to "throw the rascals out" without changing anything, the issue for lots of folks is that the "establishment" is the problem, and they are what needs a good cleaning. This is likely to lead to a dramatic rise in populism or even radicalism within the broader public over the next few years, at least in the US. Palin and Ron Paul are probably just early examples of this phenomenon.

Fat Tony said...

Tamogami is not the Sarah Palin of Japan. His vision of Japanese history, like that of Kobayashi, Sakurai, et. al. directly contradicts what most Japanese people know. Palin's conservatism is an exaggeration of what many even liberal Americans believe are the positive aspects of their country.

A better comparison might be Kobayashi and Glenn Beck, but even then Kobayashi is an out-and-out revisionist in the context of Japanese political discourse, whereas Beck is considered just a mindless nationalist dickwad by most of America (one hopes). In any case, you won't see Kobayashi hosting his own show with a hinomaru fluttering in the background on a big screen and 2 million-plus viewers tuning in per night. The best he has ever mustered is 650,000 readers for Sensoron.

You can have outrageously nationalistic views in the U.S. without being branded a "revisionist." I don't think the same is true of Japan. That says something about the two different societies.

Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for a half a year or so, and this is the first time when I see your otherwise open political leanings clouding your judgement.
I am not American and not Japanese (Hungarian as it happens), therefore have no stake in these debates. As an outsider, I think your parallel between Palin and Tamogami shows significant bias towards the former. You clearly dislike both, but that seems to be the only real parallel between the two.
I think it serves your analysis well if you stick to Japanese politics. It is so much easier to be non-partisan when you are an outsider.
Otherwise, great blog.

Tobias Harris said...

Fat Tony,

My comparison was a bit glib, and it's fair of you to call me on it. And I could write a completely different post on the differences between the Japanese revisionist right and the American populist right.

But I do think they share important features in common. For one, I think they both typify Hofstadter's "paranoid style." They both see dark conspiracies to subvert their nations. They believe in a mythic past that can be restored were it not for the machinations of left-wing forces. They both direct considerable firepower at their countries' mainstream medias, while developing a parallel network of media organizations that serves as an echo chamber for their arguments. And they both stem more from political feelings than from political ideas. They produce manifestos, of course, but when you boil them down they are awfully thin on detail. That is precisely what we saw once the revisionist right wielded power in the form of Abe Shinzo. Beyond constitution revision and "reforming" the education law, there wasn't much to his agenda.


I take your point, and, in fact, in my original commentary on Tamogami's essay I said that he had some good points to make, but his points were undermined by his determination to rewrite history.


I understand your point, but as you'll note in my response to Fat Tony, there are important similarities between the two movements.

Fat Tony said...

"That is precisely what we saw once the revisionist right wielded power in the form of Abe Shinzo."

Yeah, but there are significant differences between most of the real revisionist right in Japan and folks like Abe, particularly on how they view the United States. Abe's agenda for constitutional revision was supposed to bring Japan closer to the U.S. as a partner (a-la his speech earlier this year about "managing" the Pacific.) Hard core revisionists think moderate Japanese conservatives are helpless in the face of U.S. power and see constitutional change as a method of resisting Washington.

Most of the real revisionists, for example, think Japan's support of the Iraq War was a mistake. They believe their stance on Iraq proves that they are against the invasion of other nations. For them this suggests Japan's entry into China was a "non-invasion," because, obviously, if it were an invasion they would be against it. Circular logic, I know, but I am just repeating what they write.

I do understand your reasons for comparing the "FOX" right and the revisionists in Japan. And I think you are generally correct in saying that their arguments in both cases stem from unease about the perceived erosion of, again perceived, traditional values. But the approach of the American "popular conservatives" and the Japanese "revisionists" is very different. The extreme right in Japan is not stupid. Tamogami's essay was solid bullshit, but a hell of a lot of the other extremists do develop some rather sophisticated arguments in presenting their "take" on history. Many of them have solid academic and literary credentials as well (although most are not trained historians - Higashi-nakano Shudo is a notable exception).

Palin is a good comparison to Abe, I think. But not for these other guys. There are also books beside "Utsukushii Kuni e" that rabbit bullet points about the conservative cause-du-jour in the same way "Going Rogue". "Kokka no hinkaku" is a good example, but it is a quite a ways from the hard core revisionism of Kobayashi, Nisho Kanji and such. As much as I disagree with Abe's views on the constitution and education, I wouldn't put him in their league either.

PaxAmericana said...


As Fat Tony mentioned, it's questionable whether Abe represented a revisionist right as opposed to a US-leaning conservative movement. The revisionists I've heard are fairly opposed to the US, not trying to ingratiate themselves to it.

And I'm not sure the "paranoid style" applies to Palin as it would to, say, Alex Jones. Palin and many others are anti-establishment and anti-elite. These folks went to state universities and resent the perceived power complexes they face. And they would suspect that the reason someone would choose MIT for political science over Boston College is the network that MIT has.

By the way, I think it is very hard to discuss populism in different countries in a blog post. A populism for Japan would presumably require a desire to attain a world perception that it is not largely under American control, while a populism for the US would mean an opposition to the globalization project directed by transnational organizations and the elites at places such as the CFR.

Kuma said...

Dear Tobias, I have to say that I agree with Anonymous’ earlier criticism. Personally, I read your blog for what you’re great at - detailed, acute analysis of Japanese politics. If I want to read liberal rants against awful 'populists/revisionists/conservatives/nationalists’ I can consult Japan Focus. Please stay to the script.

Adam said...

C'mon, people! Where's your sense of history?

Let's concentrate for a moment on Tamogami's key features: pencil-neck geek, desk-chair warrior, staunchly ideological in a "special relationship" with (past) members of the political elite.

Now, rewind US history, say, about 25 years...see an analagous media figure?

(clock ticking sound...RING!)

Our analogous rogue is (drum roll)... Ollie "Still Waiting For My Ticker-tape Parade" North! They not only look alike, they SOUND alike. Ollie epitomizes the "I had no choice" mind-set and demonstrated contempt for the Constitution during the Iran Contra Hearings on par with Tamogami's "Sore ga kankei nai!" shanty following the Nagoya court decision.

North has of course reinvented himself as a talk radio host and now runs with Glenn B. If this kind of thing existed in Japan -- and I thank heavens it hasn't so far -- this would be Tamo-kun's next line of work. In a heartbeat.

Fat Tony said...

"If this kind of thing existed in Japan -- and I thank heavens it hasn't so far -- this would be Tamo-kun's next line of work."

Yes, I guess Sakura TV is aiming to become the next FOX. Any bets as to when they will get more than ten viewers?

To all the people slating Tobias because he dared to have an opinion about contemporary American politics, or indeed, that he dared to have a political opinion at all, please lighten up. The American examples were given to illuminate a contextualize figures that are certainly active, if not popular, in Japanese political circles, and if you read Tobias's blog only for information and not for opinion, I suggest you read a few more newspapers and other sources. It's pretty clear to me that TH has favored a certain position in the Japanese political spectrum since he started this blog. Or does "bias" only matter when it applies to American politicians.

Anonymous said...

Tobias, very interesting post here. The scheduled joint appearance by Mr. Tamogami and Mr. Huckabee may not be as odd as people think. Rightists in the US and Japan do have one common objective, albeit for different reasons: To discredit Franklin Roosevelt as a failed and incompetent US president in the area of domestic economic policy.

This claim allows Japanese rightists to indulge their well-known, conspiratorial visions of a diabolical US "tricking" Japan into war for the purpose of spurring economic recovery after FDR's administration had failed to do so with its New Deal policies.

Such a claim, while outrageous to the sense of patriotism among US conservatives, does dovetail quite nicely with their conviction that the New Deal was a complete failure that actually prolonged the US depression until 1941. So I'm sure Huckabee and Tamogami will enjoy lamenting the failed presidency of FDR during their cruise.

Adam said...

Good point, Anon. Aaaaah...FDR bashing, the common sport of both the Japanese and American right, albeit for different reasons.

Or perhaps not. The richer quarters of Japanese conservatism (which dovetails occasionally with the nationalist right) express their love of "free markets" and distress towards "government interference". These voices became louder during the Koizumi administration and his privatization policies.

The irony of course is that the generally benign social welfare system Japan has today was deigned by that great New Dealist, Douglas MacArthur. For the full story read Embracing Defeat by Tobias's professor John Dower.

Even if Tamo-kun went so ideologically far as to criticize the Japanese welfare state, it would only hurt his populist cred.