Tuesday, September 06, 2005

One of the more interesting periodicals on international relations is Foreign Policy magazine, noted for out of the box thinking and an ability to attract heavy-hitters as writers. The current issue is no exception which features a number of big names in the "Here today, gone tomorrow" feature, including the current governor of Tokyo and one of Japan's most popular political figures, Shintaro Ishihara, who fiercely decries " Japanese Passivity":

"...The Japanese used to have the spirit and backbone of the samurai, the same warriors who were applauded by Walt Whitman when they visited the United States in the 1860's. When will we recover our national virtue, described so well by Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword?"

This is a fairly shocking reference. It is true that foreigners can sometimes capture the essence of another nation's character and Benedict, who labored under considerable wartime constraints in writing her classic treatise, deserves to be alongside Alexis de Tocqueville and the Marquis de Custine in that regard. That being said, we need to note that Benedict's critique was not exactly a laudatory one as well as being tilted toward describing what even then would have been an interpretation of Japanese social mores favored by State Shinto reactionaries. This is not the equivalent to Senator Clinton or Speaker Hastert favorably alluding favorably to Democracy in America; it is more on par with a Southern politician praising the values extolled in Birth of a Nation.

Kokutai reactionary romanticism is not the real problem. Shintaro Ishihara, who has his eye on the Prime Ministership of Japan, clearly has ambitions to overturn Japan's postwar consensus and security relationship with the United States, whom he does not trust, to rearm against a resurgent China whom he fears yet frequently seeks to provoke. This is no small task, given the make-up of the Diet, the strength of the consensus viewpoint even among Japanese conservatives and the fear among the Japanese elite of allowing another "shadow shogun"like Kakuei Tanaka to amass personal control over the levers of government. Something Ishihara would absolutely need to have in order to effect Japan's rebirth as an independent power on foreign policy and defense issues.

While this would seem to be an unlikely outcome we need to remember that in historical terms Japan's relationship with the United States is highly abnormal and continues to exist despite the fact that economic and strategic circumstances have shifted radically since the 1950's. The current consensus of Japanese military dependency on America may be more fragile than Western or even Korean and Chinese observers realize. Japan's " natural" position would be the world's number two military power, which it could assume easily and probably would benefit from economically in the short run due the Keyenesian effects of a robust defense build-up.

This would of course be dangerous for Eastern Asia which would see a resumption of the arms race as Japan nervously eyed China and the two Koreas, inevitably inducing India to try to keep pace with China and Pakistan with India. The United States would then have the thankless task of trying to manage this unruly herd of rising yet insecure powers. This is not any kind of future worth creating in my book.

Let's be glad Ishihara isn't getting any younger.
Great post, but I find myself in disagreement on a number of points.

First, Bennett's book is pretty good, and lots of middle-aged-and-above Japanese people, including plenty of lefties and liberals, think it's an accurate portrait of their country, not just blowhards like Ishihara. So it isn't really "shocking."

Also, Ishihara is popular, but that doesn't tell the whole story, just like Guiliani's election in NY doesn't make the city a hotbed of right-wingers. Ishihara was the first politician to meaningfully take on the corrupt banks. And it began a trend -- across Japan in the late 1990s, governors and mayors had to challenge corrupt/disfunctional institutions when the central government failed to act. Combined, this led to Koizumi's very successful premiership today.

Ishihara's problem is his lack of realism -- he is a romantic. He decries both America AND China. People in charge realize you have to pick, not challenge both, and the overwhelming consensus is to work with the US to combat a growing China. Japan is modernizing its military and preparing to take a more active international role, but this hardly constitutes rearming. And if Japan does remilitarize, it would only be a rational response to China's growing military.

Finally, Ishihara as Prime Minister is an oft-invoked bugabboo, but it's effectively impossible. Japan doesn't have a presidency: candidates have to be elected head of the ruling majority party/coalition from sitting members ot the Diet. Ishihara doesn't even have a seat, and even if he did, he would never win. Add on to that fact that he's now older than Bob Dole was in 1996, and this guy will never be PM. He'll remain a powerful protagonist ala Ross Perot or Gingrich, but he's not going to take power.
Hi Curzon,

Thank you for the bit on the Giuiliani analogy. That was a useful setting of internal context.

Given current political circumstances in Japan I agree with you. Moreover, Koizumi's style and policies suck away the oxygen that Ishihara's spark would need to " catch fire". Right now he's just a drummer boy for an incipient shift of opinion.

On the other hand, let's say Koizumi falls rom power and is replaced by a dull, gray, LDP hack. Shortly afterward, Fatboy Kim in Pyongyang pulls an outrageously threatening stunt. Or China plays at brinksmanship over some islands to humiliate Tokyo. I could see an " Ishihara Party" of ex-LDP members being very competitive in the Diet.

As for Ruth Benedict: I think there are a lot of ways to read Chrysanthemum and the Sword in a sensible and reasonable way of having captured the
" Japaneseness"( "nihonjinron" ?)
of Japan. I found the book an impressive work.

Then there is Ishihara's way of reading it - as a stylized idealization of a rigid On-Giri society. Coupled with his ambitions for military power this would amount to an attempt to politically rehabilitate a moderate version of the early Showa period. I just don't think that can be done and remain " moderate" for very long.
Isn't he the same mayor who raised that sunken N. Korean ship a few years ago so people could see the "N. Korean" threat was real? I remember reading about that in Newsweek International a year ago.

In talking with Japanese contractors on base who I work with on a regular basis for now, they seem more worried about N. Korea than China for now, at least for the next 5-10 years. From my limited vantage point (i speak no Japanese, so i'm basing this on US-friendly Sumitomo contractors and translators for this observation), the majority of people I talk to seem to think China is a more distant threat, while N. Korea is the focus of their concerns. Does Ishihara share this viewpoint?

That's a good question - one in fact better put to Curzon and Younghusband - that gets into more minute coverage of Ishihara's statements than I usually see here in the States.North Korea certainly is a more immediate threat to Japan since Kim Jong-Il appears to be somewhat nuts, so if Ishihara believes that he's not wrong.

That also brings up the issue of what Ishihara says in Japanese vs. English transliteration since Japanese is very nuanced, context dependent language. Ancient Greek it aint. Moreover, he has a history of favoring antiquated, politically incorrect, terms from the Imperial era like "sangokujin".

Hmmmmm my guess is that he's not too crazy about the South Koreans either.
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