April 16, 2001

Japan Awakens

The recent confrontation with China has shifted the focus of US policymakers to Eastasia, but most analysts have viewed this in terms of cold war ideology (the neoconservatives) or economics (Team Bush). As far as I know, only William Pfaff framed the issue in geopolitical and historical terms, making the point that this may be the beginning of America's Eastasian problem – and that the coming confrontation is not only going to be with China, but, increasingly, with Japan.


Statesmanship, writes Pfaff, "tries to make realistic assessments of power relationships and national interests. In the Chinese-American case, its starting point has to be that China is where it is, and the United States is on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean." This point was hardly made in the "mainstream" Western media, where the idea that the Pacific must be an American lake is unquestioned, except in the commentary of Time magazine's Tony Karon and a few others, who made the trenchant point that Chinese spy planes trolling 70 miles from American shores would certainly not have gone unchallenged by the US military. Andrew Sullivan, writing in the [London] Sunday Times, emphasized the economic factor, but as an aside, made the point that "there is also a strategic rivalry. The two nations share an ocean, the Pacific, over which only America has real hegemony. They are the natural superpowers of the 21st century and, with the collapse of Russia, no longer have a mutual enemy. So a readjustment is inevitable. The question is when and how."


Well, yes, the two nations "share an ocean," but by conceding that "only America has real hegemony," Sullivan does little but imply the enormous imbalance in that relationship. The reality is that China does not even enjoy "hegemony" – good lord, are we stuck with this clunky coinage as the ubiquitous foreign policy buzzword of the Bush era? – over its own coastal waters, while US dominance extends from the California coastline to the South China Sea. Pfaff goes on to make the point that China is not the only Eastasian country that has a beef with us, raising the interesting issue of Japan:

"Since 1945 and the defeat of Japan, the United States has been in the abnormal situation of effectively dominating Japan, formerly East Asia's greatest power. The United States keeps large military installations in Japan, where 21,000 U.S. troops are stationed. As a result of the Korean War, Washington also now keeps a force of 36,000 in South Korea – a country that US diplomacy had, in 1950, identified as outside the zone of US security interest. This military deployment has only remotely to do with the security of the United States. Neither China nor Japan has now or ever had an interest in conquering the United States. Japan in 1940 wanted to drive the United States and the European colonial powers out of the western Pacific, which it considered its legitimate zone of interest."


Hear! Hear! "Abnormal" is putting it mildly. September will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty with Japan, which, you'll note, stipulated that the occupation of that country by Allied troops would not exceed 90 days after the treaty went into effect, but: "Nothing in this provision shall, however, prevent the stationing or retention of foreign armed forces in Japanese territory under or in consequence of any bilateral or multilateral agreements which have been or may be made between one or more of the Allied Powers, on the one hand, and Japan on the other." That turned out to be a very big but, as every Japanese government since the days of the MacArthur Regency submissively went along with the continuing occupation and the vassalage of Japan was extended into the indefinite future. There are, however, some signs that this passivity may be ending, and that China is not the only rebel against the American Hegemon.


Pfaff asks: as the only non-Asian actor in the Eastasian theater, what exactly are American objectives in the region? The US, the only foreign power, must leave Eastasia to China, Japan, and their supporting cast of regional players: "They can see this," avers Pfaff, "even if Washington cannot." Or will not. "What the United States cannot reasonably want is to exercise permanent power in the Far East," Pfaff continues, "against China's hostility, and eventually that of Japan, which sooner or later will shake off its subordination to the United States. However, that is a long-term consideration, and Washington deals in the short-term." If recent political, economic, and cultural developments in Japan are any indication, however, the time-frame may be much shorter-term than Pfaff or anyone now imagines. Japan is waking up from half a century of sleep, jolted into clarity by its ongoing and ever-deepening economic crisis, shocked into remembering its sense of national sovereignty and identity with something other than horror.


The release of a new Japanese film, Merdeka (the Indonesian word for "independence"), signals a U-turn in the direction of Japanese political culture, from one centered on self-abnegation and self-renunciation, to one based on the rediscovery of their own tradition – and the truth about their own history. Opening in Tokyo in May, Merdeka depicts the selfless decision of more than 2,000 Japanese officers and troops to stay behind in Indonesia after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and help the Indonesian freedom-fighters throw out the Dutch, who were determined to make a comeback. The [London] Times cites Hideaki Kase, the conservative Japanese commentator, and a co-producer of the movie, as saying "This is the first film about Japan as the liberator of Asia, with Indonesia as the setting." The Times dryly informs us that "the makers hope that China will protest about their latest film" to help promote it, and a tone of barely-controlled outrage is palpable throughout their report. The movie, we are told, "challenges the conventional view of the Japanese as brutal aggressors" who killed "millions." Furthermore, this sinister movie "coincides with a campaign by a group of nationalists rewriting history for schools by glossing over atrocities by Japanese troops and depicting them as noble crusaders for the independence of South-East Asia." In other words, the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has gone Japanese.


Since the end of the (first) cold war, and the implosion of the Soviet Empire, the ghost of Hitler has haunted the Western imagination, the bogeyman whose reincarnation has been proclaimed countless times since his death – Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, even poor old Manuel Noriega, all have been denounced by American Presidents as Hitlerian, or even, in Saddam's case, "worse than Hitler." Perhaps some day soon these same people will be denouncing some future leader of Japan as "another Tojo" – an inevitable epithet for any Japanese politician who dares to challenge the Anglo-American orthodoxy that "the colonies" were better off in the good old days, before independence. None has arisen, as yet, to challenge the Americans, and reassert Japanese national sovereignty, although there are rumors that Shintaro Ishihari, the governor of Tokyo, is considering a run for Prime Minister if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party fails to win a parliamentary majority in elections to be held later this year. If such a "Japan first" nationalist of Ishihara's stripe has a chance at the helm – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago – it will have much to do with the political and cultural atmosphere created by the resurgent Japanese Right.


This resurgence is dramatically displayed in Merdeka, the story of a heroic Japanese officer devoted to the independence of the Indonesian people, and which the Times reluctantly concedes is "based on fact." When Japan took Java, in the first weeks of 1942, Indonesians danced in the streets, welcoming the Japanese army as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by a twelfth-century Javanese king. King Jayabaya foretold the day when white men would one day establish their rule on Java and tyrannize the people for many years – but they would be driven out by the arrival of yellow men from the north. These yellow men, Jayabaya predicted, would remain for one crop cycle, and after that Java would be freed from foreign domination. To most of the Javanese, Japan was a liberator: the prophecy had been fulfilled. The Japanese not only freed Indonesian nationalists from Dutch dungeons, but hired them on as civil servants and administrators. In the waning days of 1944, however, it was clear that Japan could not win the war. The Japanese officially granted Indonesia its independence on August 9, 1945, and the commander of Japan's southeast Asian forces appointed future President Sukarno as chairman of the preparatory committee for Indonesian independence. As one account of Indonesian history puts it, "With the minor exception that three crops had been harvested, Jayabaya's prophecy had been realized."


A week later, Japan surrendered to the Allies. The British, and the Dutch, moved to retake their "rightful" possessions in Southeast Asia. Japanese forces had been recalled to defend the homeland, but a few were determined to carry out the pledge of honor made by their government, and in a final heroic gesture of solidarity for their Asian brothers, they stayed behind, and fought for Indonesian independence against the West. Merdeka is their story, and it naturally enrages the Times of London, which somehow fails to mention British assistance to the Dutch in this battle. Released by a major studio, and starring popular actors, the movie opens with a statement emblazoned on the screen: "The Greater East Asian War was fought in self-defense." So said the Emperor Hirohito in his 1941 declaration of war against the Allied powers, as the noose around Japan's neck was tightening, and truer words were never spoken.


A series of embargoes had been declared by the Western powers, as a protest against "Japanese imperialism" – this from the same gang that had carved up China and feasted on Southeast Asia! By imposing an oil embargo, a steel embargo, and a rubber embargo, the US and Britain were choking Hirohito's country to death: the first act of war was not Pearl Harbor, but the crippling economic sanctions that threatened to destroy Japan. As Charles Callan Tansill's monumental history of prewar American-Japanese diplomatic relations, Back Door to War, conclusively proved – and later historians approvingly noted – Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to maneuver the Japanese into striking the first blow, and struggled mightily to achieve that aim. As Robert Stinnett shows, more recently, in Day of Deceit, the President knew all about the impending Japanese attack: a comprehensive plan existed to get us into a shooting war with Japan, and, when they were finally driven to it, we knew when and where in advance: the US, it turns out, had deciphered the Japanese code, and intercepted messages detailing the Pearl Harbor "sneak attack" were decoded. The President had to have known about it. If this book hasn't been translated into Japanese yet, then it ought to be: a paperback edition in English is coming out in May, and you can pre-order by following the last link. I would highly recommend it, for it gives a more realistic account of the origins of the Pacific war than we are used to – and gives the reader the background to understand the subsequent fate of the region.


The spirit that animates Merdeka extends even to the Japanese educational system, where new textbooks have been approved by the Ministry of Education that, for the first time, expunge the myth of Japanese war guilt from history books – over bitter protests from the two Koreas and China, who vehemently demand that Japan must kowtow forever for its alleged "war crimes." So far, at least, the Japanese have refused to back down, and the group of nationalist scholars who champion the new textbooks have indignantly denounced such demands as intolerable interference in Japan's internal affairs. As an indication that popular opinion in Japan on this issue is undergoing a transformation, there is the popularity of the graphic novels of Yoshinori Kobayashi, a well-known cartoonist, which debunk the mythology of Japan's sole responsibility for the war: he is popular especially among the youth. The new generation, faced with the looming threat of China, and the unbridled arrogance of the US, is likely to choose a third path: the path of independence.


The Bush administration is widely believed to be tilting toward giving Japan a much wider berth when it comes to providing for its own defense, yet the signals from Washington are hardly encouraging. The decision not to court-martial the commander of the Greeneville is even more shocking to the Japanese than the original incident, and will poison relations between the two nations for some time to come. Isn't it odd how yet another "accident," the "bumping" of the US spy plane over the South China Sea, has defined America's relations with a major Eastasian power in the Bush era: it seems as if America is on a collision course not only with China, but with virtually every country in the region, Japan and the two Koreas included. It is the curious case of the "accident"-prone superpower, that trips over its own feet even as it tries to dominate the world stage. A more pathetic – and more dangerous – clumsiness would be hard to imagine.


During the 1930's, the Japanese proclaimed their intention to create a "co-prosperity sphere" extending from Manchuko (Manchuria) in the north, to Indonesia in the south: together, the Asian peoples, led by Tokyo, would throw out the Western colonialists. Asia for the Asians! In the US, however, sympathy for the Chinese "freedom-fighters" of the Kuomintang was obligatory among fashionable leftists, whose sympathies were with the Chinese Communist Party (then allied with Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalists in a single organization.) The Communist Party in this country launched a very successful campaign of solidarity with China, and support for the boycott of Japanese goods and the embargo. The US State Department, heavily infiltrated by Communists – including FDR's top advisor, Harry Hopkins – then dumped the Nationalists, and suddenly everyone was asking "Who lost China?"


In retrospect, if we hadn't sided with the Communists and their allies at every opportunity, and hadn't reflexively opposed the Japanese, then perhaps China might not loom quite so large on the world stage as it does today. These days, a Japanese "co-prosperity sphere" in the region doesn't sound like such a bad idea. But it can never happen until and unless two events occur: 1) The US ends the military occupation of Japan, dismantles its military bases, and withdraws all its forces from Japanese territory, and 2) The Japanese Constitution – written in poor Japanese by Americans – must be changed to abolish the section forbidding Japan from having a proper army. This has been incrementally violated over the years, and it is time to get rid of it altogether.


Whether Japan can find the right leadership to lead it out of its economic, political, and cultural dead-end is not for me to say. The great problem besetting the country is economic, which, as the economist Jeffrey Herbener points out, is a perfect illustration of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle and the problems created by bank credit expansion. Whether the resurgent Japanese Right can combine the principles of economic liberalism with a foreign policy that puts Japan first could prove as problematic as in the case of American and European nationalists, neither of whom shows any signs of understanding basic economic principles. In Japan, however, where the villains of the Austrian theory – the banks – are clearly exposed in their villainy, there is a unique opportunity. The bad loans wracked up by Japan's investment bankers, encouraged and subsidized by Japan's central bank, are at last coming due, and in spite of all efforts to stave off the economic crisis, the moment of truth – that is, the moment of extreme deflation – is about to arrive. What happens then, politically and culturally, in Japan, is anyone's guess, but my guess is that Washington isn't going to like it.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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