Why is the Japanese media out to get Makiko Tanaka? Ever since she took office, Japan's "Iron Lady," the blunt-talking daughter of a former prime minister, has been the target of leaks from within her own Foreign Ministry, and vicious attacks in the Japanese media. The apparent reason is that she has alienated the lifetime civil servants who staff Japan's central government, and who will brook no interference with their financial and political prerogatives. Tanaka strode into office and was no sooner through the door when she began investigating rampant embezzlement – a top ministry official spent hundreds of thousands of yen on the racetrack and girlfriends – and moving to establish control over an out-of-control institution. More than any other figure in Prime Minister Junichero Koizumi's Cabinet, Tanaka represents the spirit of reform, of impatience, of the urge to challenge and change the complacent paralysis of Japanese politics: and, perhaps because of this, she is arguably the most popular figure in the government, even more popular than Koizumi. In the narcotized Japan of postwar prosperity, no normal person ever took the slightest interest in politics: the Koizumi revolution changed all that. Japanese housewives and "office ladies" are now glued to the tube during the afternoons, when Japan's parliamentary debate is televised: they can't wait to watch Makiko Tanaka take on the men – and win.
The bureaucrats who staff the Japanese central government are the deadliest enemies of the Koizumi reform movement: appointed virtually for life, these palace eunuchs owe their power to the preservation of the status quo, in foreign as well as domestic policy. This means that, in the Foreign Ministry, they are the enforcers of Japan's subjugation, flunkies of the American overlord who bitterly oppose any attempt by Japan to assert itself. They hate Tanaka not only because she threatens their traditional hegemony over government policy, but also because of her Asia-centric worldview. The bureaucrats look to Washington, because that is where their marching orders are coming from: but Tanaka marches to a different drummer . . . .
In a series of leaks, anonymous officials have revealed the confidential content of Tanaka's private conversations with top officials: remarks that are clearly meant to caricature her as anti-American and pro-Chinese. As the leading voice of an occupied Japan that would like to stay occupied, Ashai Shimbun gleefully cited Japanese government "officials" as saying that Tanaka could cause a crisis in US-Japan relations, and "furthermore, senior ministry officials have concluded their boss is pro-China and anti-US." This was the culmination of a full week of disclosures, during which these same unnamed officials leaked the alleged content of Tanaka's conversations with the foreign ministers of Australia and Italy. She was quoted as saying that President George W. Bush's enthusiasm for the missile defense project was due to "conservative people such as advisors to his father when he was the president. I suspect there is influence from his support groups such as oil industry people in his homeground Texas." This set off a firestorm, with newspaper editorials denouncing her as "erratic" and "news" stories quoting one anonymous official as saying that obviously the Foreign Minister has "mental problems." All the usual American suspects chimed in as well, with Time magazine loutishly labeling her "The Lady with the Big Mouth."
So what's the big deal? After all, Tanaka was simply expressing an opinion that is not at all unusual in this country, and many would argue is simply a statement of fact: that George W. is indeed surrounded and supported by those corporate interests that will profit from construction of the "Star Wars" missile defense system. In Japan, however, such bluntness is revolutionary, and not only on account of the Japanese reputation for extreme discretion. As a protectorate of the US, Japan's subservience in foreign affairs has been the given of its foreign policy since the end of World War II. Indeed, it cannot be said that Japan has even had a foreign policy distinguishable from that of the Americans. With the appointment of Tanaka to the foreign ministry, Japan's self-abasement is now coming to an end: this is the meaning of the struggle between Tanaka and what she called a "castle full of demons" the foreign ministry staffed by officials who have been feeding anti-Makiko stories to both the Japanese and the American media every single day since she took office.
The latest leak reports a conversation she allegedly had with the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer: according to Mainichi Shimbun, Tanaka "hinted that Tokyo should flex its independence more and not be bound by the Japan-US Security Treaty," and quotes her as saying: "Japan has been protected by an umbrella of nuclear weapons under the Japan-US Security Treaty. . . . Japan should be more independent." This is breathlessly reported to be "Tanaka's latest verbal landmine," and is supposed to be a great embarrassment. But is it?
Back in the 1960s, the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty – the document that formalized and codified the terms of the American military occupation – was the occasion for riots that rocked Japan. In Okinawa, the presence of US troops has become so onerous that the inhabitants are rising up unanimously with Tanaka's support demanding their exit, or at least a radical reduction. Is the desire to be more independent really all that radical, does it really discredit Tanaka as a "loose cannon" out of her depth, as the denizens of the "castle of demons" and their American masters have been saying? I would argue no: that instead of discrediting Tanaka, it merely burnishes her image as an outspoken symbol of the new Japan – the Japan, as Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara famously expressed it, That Can Say "No!".
To the colonial vassal who wrote the Mainichi piece, the worst possible accusation against someone in the government is that they have somehow incurred the displeasure of the Americans. "Further bad news haunted the foreign minister," we are told. "A high-ranking US official poured cold water on her planned June visit to Washington and talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell." It is always "bad news" to an underling if a superior won't grant them an audience – but think of how US envoy Richard Armitage felt when he arrived in Tokyo to discover that the Japanese Foreign Minister was indisposed and not able to fit him into her schedule.
It's payback time, as far as the Americans are concerned. When one realizes that the Foreign Ministry officials anonymously dissing Tanaka in the media are just American sock-puppets, the real picture begins to come into somewhat clearer focus. While the US has been careful to avoid making any meaningful statement on what is supposed to be an internecine struggle within Japan, this gesture says it all.
While in Japan the eunuchs skitter about, tut-tutting that the Iron Lady has "psychological problems," in America the pundits haughtily dismiss this Nipponese Amazon as "bizarre," as Business Week characterized her behavior, and a loud-mouthed "loose cannon," according to Time. While the latter had a whole laundry list of rather petty complaints, Business Week was more precisely outraged at her snubbing of Armitage: "She just wasn't up for a briefing about what is the most controversial shift in U.S. defense strategy in, oh, decades," spluttered Brian Bremner, their "Eye on Japan" columnist. "And when you are feeling rundown, who wants to talk to an emissary from your biggest strategic partner on the planet at a time when security threats to Japan from China and North Korea are multifaceted?" But the main threat to Japan is not a Chinese invasion, but an American provocation that could catch them in the crossfire. As for rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, who is really responsible for exacerbating them? Is it Makiko Tanaka, or is it the US – which has stopped the rapprochement between North and South dead in its tracks, and is deaf to the appeals of Seoul to take a softer line?
It isn't Chinese or North Korean soldiers who are raping Japanese women and girls in Okinawa, going on crime sprees and generally making life miserable for the inhabitants of that tortured isle. It isn't the Chinese or the North Koreans who have occupied Japanese soil for over half a century, lording it over a disarmed and prostrate former adversary and enriching collaborators at the expense of ordinary folk. Where is the threat to Japan – from Asia, or from the West?
For a long time Japan prospered from its subservience: or, at least, some Japanese did. The zaibatsu (state-privileged monopolies) grew fat on the spoils of an export-driven economy feeding off the wide-open American market (Japan's was allowed to stay closed), while the rest of the population was kept thin with ridiculously high prices for basic consumer items. The whole system was financed with the cancerous growth of unlimited bank credit expansion, and for a while Japan's economy was the envy of the world: the Japanese financed the spiraling US debt, and we used the land of the rising sun as a forward base of military operations, a key outpost of our Asian empire. But this system began to break down when the Japanese credit bubble burst, and the nation's banking system began to have serious problems. This is the great reform that Koizumi faces: undoing the domestic economic effects of the US occupation. It is a task that the Westerners are supposed to approve of – the Americans have good reason to be deathly afraid that the Japanese will start selling off their American investments – but when someone attempts to carry out a similar reform in the realm of foreign policy … well, that is a different matter altogether.
I have argued, in previous columns on this subject, that the Koizumi phenomenon – which amounts to nothing less than a peaceful revolution for Japan – is an expression of what I call market nationalism. This is not unique to Japan, but is occurring in all the developed countries, to some extent, in response to the increasing military and political dominance of the US in global affairs. It is a nationalism, in short, that has learned the lesson of economics, a nationalism that embraces the universality of the market but insists on the particularity of its own cultural uniqueness and national independence. A resurgent Japanese nationalism, which refuses to accept the myth of Japanese war guilt and wants to reassert its national identity is much in evidence today: in the textbook controversy, in the popular culture, and in Makiko Tanaka's championing of an independent foreign policy for Japan. Can America deal with it?
It is in our interests to do so, not only because a counterweight to China is needed, but also because we don't have much choice – and there is nothing, really, to fear. For this is not a militaristic nationalism, but neither is it pacifistic as a matter of high principle: it has not forgotten the dire consequences of the expansionist empire-building of the 1930s, which led to Japan's downfall, but now it is also remembering the role of the West in provoking and facilitating the triumph of Japanese militarism. As America recalls the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and builds a new Washington memorial to its war dead, the Japanese also reexamine the history of the Pacific conflict as FDR's "back door" to getting into the European war. The Japanese are reclaiming their own history, and dignity, as a necessary corollary to the renewal of their entire society. We can fight it, or go with the flow, but of one thing we can be sure: if we are supposed to be "strategic partners" with the Japanese, then it must be on terms of equality – or not at all.
As related in today's [Tuesday's] Los Angeles Times, when Makiko Tanaka's older brother died, her politician father – former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka – transferred his expectations to her. "He raised me almost as though I was his son," averred Makiko, and the Times reports that he called his headstrong daughter "a fighting cock, an unbroken horse and his domestic opposition." We are further informed that when she married "her father took her husband, Naoki, aside and said: 'It's like you're marrying a man. If you're expecting her to cook or iron for you, you'd better forget it.'" It took a woman to get Japan up off her knees, and stand up for the independence of the nation – and that has made the corrupt and decadent Japanese elites hate her all the more. Unless you're a Japanese Foreign Ministry bureaucrat with an unlimited expense account, or a US State Department official used to ordering your Japanese subordinates around, the only possible response to the rise of Makiko and the firestorm of controversy surrounding her is: Go, Makiko, go!
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