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Land of the Rising Nationalists

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There is an old Japanese saying that the nail that sticks up is hammered down; a proverb reflecting the country’s group mind-set and desire for conformity. At 6 foot 5 inches the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons is a very big nail in Japanese terms. And by drawing comparisons between what he sees as the systematic suppression of debate by nationalists in Japan today and the militarism of the 1930s, he is proving more than willing to stick up in the country’s political discourse.

‘The comparison with the 1930s is to some degree unfair, and I know that,” he said during a recent trip to Tokyo. “But there aren’t a lot of good metaphors to show people what is happening.” Clemons, a senior fellow at NAF and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute, was in Tokyo discussing the response to a Washington Post op-ed he penned describing the intimidation meted out to political opponents by ultra-nationalists in Japan. He says that he has spoken to dozens of people who are too scared to identify themselves for fear of retribution, especially since Koichi Kato, former secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, had his house torched hours after Koizumi's most recent trip there in August.

Japan is expected to rewrite its American-drafted constitution over the next few years, and is also looking to upgrade its Defense Agency to ministry status, as well as reforming its Fundamental Law of Education. As the country faces these momentous political decisions, Clemons sees an open debate about Japan’s identity as being of paramount importance – a debate that must not be stifled even (or especially) in light of the apparent risks that come with speaking out.

Clemons believes that in order for Japan to have a proper debate about its future, it needs to have a frank discussion about its past. But it is on this issue that he thinks the country was ‘lobotomized’ by the US in the post war period, and that it has never really grappled with the militarism that led to its involvement in the Second World War. “If Japan is going to understand the country it wants to be, it needs to be open about the history issue,” he says. He believes that to some extent this is starting to happen, and he praised the efforts of newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun, and its associated Yomiuri Research Institute, for trying to tackle the issue through its “War Responsibility series”.

Makoto Kito, a senior research fellow at the Institute closely involved with the War Responsibility project, admits that there has been a lack of domestic debate over Japan’s past, something which he hopes the series, along with the publication of an English-language version in book form, will help remedy. Kito says that the project marks the first time that Japanese themselves have conducted a thorough examination to establish what went wrong and how Japan ended up going war. He says that the reason it has taken so long is that assigning blame simply is not a very Japanese things to do. ‘People here hate to blame others’.

When asked whether he feels there is a healthy debate now, he is more optimistic than Clemons, saying, ‘I think the debate going on is fine.’ He does, though, admit to having been apprehensive before the final instalment of the series came out addressing the culpability of individuals. ‘Before we published parts of the conclusion we thought some rightist groups might come to accuse us. Maybe on the streets.’

He said they received several letters that were critical, and after the first fax in particular he felt nervous. ‘Some people were unhappy that we were accusing other Japanese of doing something wrong. They don’t think we should be accusing each other’. But he says that in the end there were no violent repercussions. ‘Several days passed and nothing happened. After that I stopped being nervous.’

According to the latest press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders, the apprehension felt by Kito is by no means unfounded. This year saw Japan drop 14 places on the list, compared to last year, to 51st place. The report cites rising nationalism and specific examples of intimidation such as a firebombing at the Nihon Keizai newspaper and attacks on journalists as the reasons for the slide.

David McNeill, a Tokyo–based journalist and co-ordinator of the Japan Focus website, says the problem of intimidation is exacerbated by the reluctance of the ruling party to speak out.

“The question is why doesn’t the establishment do more? It’s a mystery why we didn’t hear mainstream LDP politicians declare the attack on Kato an act of terrorism.”

He says that part of the reason might lie in the traditionally strong ties between the LDP and many of the nationalists. “These links go back a long way. There are reports for example about former prime minister Kishi meeting with the Yamaguchi-gumi [Japan’s largest organized crime group]. And the uyoku [ultra-right] are also useful because they can break up strikes and intimidate.”

But he adds that in terms of actual numbers on the street, ultra-nationalism is on the decline, in part because the LDP has adopted much of their agenda. “The LDP has stolen a lot of their political thunder. If you look at their wish list – constitutional revision, a strong defence, more confrontational attitude toward North Korea – these are all part of the LDP political mainstream now.”

This more nationalist agenda is embodied in newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who Clemons describes as a pugnacious nationalist. Clemons says that he is strongly in favour of a healthy nationalism, like that of Abe’s late father, former foreign minister Shintaro Abe. “I knew his father very well,” he said. “But I think his [Abe’s] nationalism is more akin to [former prime minister and grandfather] Kishi’s than his father’s.”

If Abe is to prove his critics wrong, and allow Japan to achieve a healthy, forward-looking nationalism, then he will have to resist the temptation to cash in on his nationalist credentials for political gain, while also forcefully condemning acts of political intimidation.

This will be difficult. Abe rode a wave of support generated by his stridency over issues relating to North Korea to become head of the LDP and therefore prime minister, and many of his supporters will be expecting more of the same. Indeed the current internal affairs minister recently suggested he will insist NHK, a public broadcaster, give more airtime to the North Korea abductees issue – a pet cause of Abe’s and other nationalists.

In such an environment it will therefore be tempting for academics, mainstream politicians and journalists to keep their heads down. Yet if they do it will be Japan that ultimately suffers as an extreme minority, happy to exploit the Japanese aversion to confrontation, hijacks the debate over Japan’s future.

Historian Henry Steele Commager once said: “The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” Japan’s opinion formers, on all sides of the nationalism debate, would do well to heed these words.


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