One can fly to Japan from anywhere, but from Japan one can only fly to the Third World, and it hardly matters whether one lands in Kinshasa, London, New York or Zurich: they are all places where one must be constantly watchful and distrustful, where one cannot leave a suitcase unattended even for ten minutes, where women strolling home through town at 3 a.m. are deemed imprudent, where the universal business model is not to underpromise and overdeliver but if anything the other way round, where city streets are clogged at rush hour because municipal authorities mysteriously fail to provide ubiquitous, fast and comfortable public transport, where shops need watchful staff or cameras against thieving customers, and where one cannot even get beer and liquor from vending machines that require no protection from vandalism. Japan was the world’s only really different country when I first visited forty years ago, and it remains so now, despite many misguided attempts to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world.
Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-born Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi super-boss long held in a Tokyo cell at the mercy of prosecutors who could keep him detained indefinitely by periodically advancing new accusations that he made improper payments to himself, would emphatically agree. He complained that his salaries from Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi added up to a paltry $16.9 million in 2017, while Mary Barra of General Motors received $22 million for running a smaller company, and even BMW paid its boss $9.5 million. That Toyota, the world’s largest automobile company, paid its chief less than $4 million Ghosn would consider irrelevant, because it remains a purely Japanese company, even while producing and selling cars in more countries than any of its competitors. Its plants in Japan need not employ foremen or quality controllers as the workers supervise themselves, clerical employees do not fear for their jobs as automation increases because Toyota never fires anyone except for gross misconduct, and company executives sent to unpleasant countries or given jobs they dislike would never think of hopping over to the competition – it would be treason. By the same token, the boss cannot pay himself even a quarter of Mary Barra’s salary because that would be don’yoku, which might be translated as ‘greedy’, if the word were invested with the full opprobrium of the Japanese original. The force of public disapproval is what allowed the Ghosn prosecutors to keep him locked up for four months.
Japanese entities that are not exposed to international competition are free to remain even more Japanese than Toyota, whether they are the few remaining back country inns which still have mixed-sex baths with no clothing allowed, or the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Jimintō, whose idiosyncratic inner workings sometimes noisily collide with international opinion. Take the example of Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary and the cleverest politician in Japan, who recently announced that Japan was leaving the International Whaling Commission in order to resume commercial whaling. He added to the outrage by criticising the commission for failing to develop a sustainable whaling industry (one of its official goals), even though the industry is ‘integral’ to the life and culture of Japan’s ‘whale-using’ communities. The reaction of the anti-whaling outfit Sea Shepherd was predictably harsh: ‘With this announcement, Japan has declared themselves [sic] as a pirate whaling nation.’ Australian officials were more restrained, because they understood the real import of Suga’s announcement: Japan would no longer, under the cover of scientific research, conduct whaling in the Antarctic, where the 2017-18 catch came to 333 minke whales, including 122 pregnant females, instead allowing commercial whaling only in its own waters, where there is no such abundance. Jimintō being the country’s right-wing party and whaling being a prominent right-wing cause, especially in the right’s stronghold in the tsunami-ravaged north-east, the only way to stop the large-scale whaling that offended Australia was to proclaim the start of whaling in Japanese waters, in the knowledge that with the ever diminishing demand for whale meat, and the ever more costly hunt for scarce whales, the catch would not come to much – less than the Faroe, Icelandic and Norwegian whaling, which is scarcely noticed by anyone.
Kenneth Pyle, author of Japan in the American Century, would not be confused for a second by Suga’s announcement, because in a book that devotes equal space to the view from Japan and the US, he shows equal discernment in recounting the ways in which each country came to collide and then cohabit with the other over the last hundred years. On each side Pyle uncovers things missed by a regiment of prior historians. On the American side, one example is the perpetually overlooked fact that the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki never took into account their most atrocious effects, simply because none of the decision-makers knew anything about radiation: all they had in mind were the blast effects that made nuclear bombing much more efficient than the conventional kind. What they did consider was (accurate) intelligence of the Japanese army’s ketsugo strategy, which involved gathering almost three million soldiers and many more civilians to resist invaders with small arms, spears and suicide bombs for as long as it would take to induce them to accept Japan’s conditional surrender, sans the country’s occupation. This, incidentally, invalidates the later contention that Truman used the bomb in order to intimidate Stalin, a claim which depends on the argument that everyone knew Japan was heading for defeat thanks to the sinking of its oil tankers – ketsugo required no oil.
On the Japanese side, one example is that it was the danger that the sacred imperial regalia gifted by the gods – the sword Kusanagi, the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama, all still kept in secret locations – would be destroyed by continued fighting that finally induced Hirohito to accept unconditional surrender. Had any of them been destroyed it would have meant his deposition and execution or suicide – an outcome that Dean Acheson, then assistant secretary of state, and the other ‘New Dealers’ would have preferred (in 1969 Acheson told me that he had been furious that the ‘appeasers’ had prevailed, but was soon glad he had been overruled). By contrast, when the former prime minister Prince Konoe Fumimaro, of the ancient Fujiwara clan, approached Hirohito on 14 February 1945 to argue the case for surrender, armed with police evidence that antiwar sentiment was rising fast and turning against the imperial institution, as well as himself, Hirohito was unmoved. Konoe’s young assistant and my subsequent long-time friend Tsunoda Jun blamed Hirohito’s courtiers, probably very unfairly, for the failure, and for Konoe’s subsequent suicide – not avenged until his grandson Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in 1993.
Pyle’s discernment does not fail him as he reaches our own time, with the premiership of Abe Shinzo, whose tenure since 2012 has been marked by important institutional changes, as well as new policies both foreign and domestic, and an even broader change in the tone of public life. The tall and confident son of a foreign minister, grandson of one prime minister and nephew of another, Abe could have served out a stint as prime minister with a bit of image-making and a slogan or two, in the manner of most of his Jimintō predecessors. Instead he launched a risky economic policy based on monetary and fiscal laxity that would have caused Mario Draghi and his colleagues at the European Central Bank to commit hara-kiri, instituted a slew of structural reforms that irritated many of his more right-wing supporters by including vigorous support for female career advancement (enlisting his own wife in the cause), and transformed Japanese foreign policy by turning passive dependence on the US into a true partnership.
With Abe that means much more than phrase-making, as Pyle explains in detail: his Japan now accepts real responsibilities, e.g. to repel any attempt by China to act on its fanciful claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea instead of begging the Americans to do so, e.g. preserving a dialogue with Putin in order to give him a reason for limiting Russia’s support for China (at one point Obama called Abe to try to persuade him to cancel an upcoming meeting, but he didn’t budge). It was not just a question of asserting personal leadership. To change long-settled habits of passivity, Abe established a National Security Council that is not just a gathering place for representatives of the foreign, defence and intelligence bureaucracies, as in most other countries, but an actual policy-making body operated by its own staff, the National Security Secretariat. It has been remarkably effective from the start, formulating Japan’s first post-1945 national security strategy and leading successful negotiations with the Chinese.
Even after seven very active years, Abe’s redirection of Japan’s course remains a work in progress: he is still trying to implement the long-desired revision of the constitution that would allow the armed forces officially to do what they are already doing, and still trying to get through the state-funded universal childcare that is the only way to raise fertility, as France and Israel have shown. That policy collides with another right-wing priority because it necessitates letting in child-carers from other countries, something Abe fully accepts, and which is a result in part of his success in increasing female participation in the labour force. This is just one of the ways in which his actual policies turn out to be not right-wing but merely pragmatic.
It is a tribute to the power of dogma that for most of Abe’s premiership, even before the arrival of Obama’s ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, the US embassy has remained a source of misinformation, misdirection and misunderstanding about both Abe himself and his government. Fixated on his undoubtedly right-wing political affiliations, and nostalgic for the old Japan, which happily professed its pacifism and was so gratifyingly deferential to them individually, too many US diplomats contrived to miss the often very progressive substance of Abe’s actual policies, and their advantages from the US point of view. For example, until he succeeded in changing an absurdly restrictive constitutional interpretation made by long-retired officials (not by constitutional judges), Japan’s self-defence forces relied fully on American support in the event of combat, but were forbidden to provide any support whatever to US forces. As I noted to some of Abe’s officials at the time, had this fact been known to the American public it would have provoked demands to abrogate the US-Japan security treaty.
Opposition to Abe has always made much of his membership of Nippon Kaigi, or ‘Japan Conference’, a gathering of politicians and intellectuals who want to preserve the symbolic importance of the emperor (‘the imperial institution’), traditional family values, the ‘imperial Shinto’ of the national shrines (as opposed to the diffused nature worship of local shrines), patriotism and patriotic education in schools, and, above all, the emancipation of Japan from Article 9 of the postwar constitution:
(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.
These words make Japan the only country in the world that is legally prohibited from defending itself. Three and a bit years after the new constitution came into effect on 3 May 1947, North Korean forces invaded the South, all available US occupation troops were rushed to hold a collapsing front, and in defenceless Japan the supreme supremo General MacArthur, whose men had drafted Article 9, ordered the quick build-up of an army in all but name – a National Police Reserve of 75,000 men, whose tanks were called ‘special vehicles’. A de facto navy (Coastal Safety Force) followed in 1952, and more units were added bit by bit until in 1954 the Self-Defence Forces Act legalised a very slow rearmament that has continued to this day, though always under very tight spending limits – less than 1 per cent of GDP.
Article 9 was thus subverted by its own sponsors, and as the Cold War continued successive US administrations and their Tokyo envoys welcomed Japan’s rearmament, and indeed often wished for more. But they never supported the rewriting of the constitution – mostly because the envoys were usually liberals vehemently opposed to right-wing Japanese. They tended to lump together three very different groups: true extremists who still defended Japan’s wars of conquest and blame everything on the Americans, including Pearl Harbor (forced on Japan by the American oil embargo, according to them); sinister poseurs mostly fronting for organised crime if not criminals themselves; and Japan’s Tories, exemplified by the courtly, highly literate Kase Hideaki, never a politician but a mentor to many and Abe’s friend, whose views are by no means immoderate. (‘We are dedicated to our conservative cause. We are monarchists. We are for revising the constitution. We are for the glory of the nation.’) Recently, one more principle has become more important: the need to increase Japan’s defensive strength to counterbalance China, North Korea and other hostile powers, though Nippon Kaigi’s manifesto also includes such non-nationalist calls as ‘building friendly relations with foreign countries through social and cultural exchange programmes’.
But more than their words, there is a particular ritual that has periodically mobilised the enemies of Nippon Kaigi and the Japanese right: the visits of politicians to the Yasukuni shrine, which adds a tendentious Second World War museum to Shinto’s normal accoutrements, as well as housing jars containing the ashes of war veterans and worthies dating back to the Meiji restoration. In 1966 jars containing the ashes of 14 prominent wartime generals and ministers – including Tojo Hideki, of Hitler-like fame in his day – who had all been condemned as Class A war criminals by the allies, reached the Yasukuni. Nothing was said or done about them until 1978, when a very right-wing new head priest, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, ‘enshrined’ the Class A war criminals in a secret ceremony, in effect including them among the deities to be worshipped. Word soon leaked out and Hirohito, along with many Japanese politicians, refused to visit the shrine. But for members of Nippon Kaigi periodic public visits are a must, though Abe is exempted from the obligation because of his broader responsibilities.
For the South Koreans, who 74 years after the end of the occupation still cannot forgive the Japanese as the French and Russians forgave the Germans, for the very good reason that most Koreans collaborated (former president Park Chung-hee, father of Abe’s counterpart Park Geun-hye, was once the fervently loyal Masao Takagi of the Japanese army), visits to the Yasukuni shrine by Japanese politicians are opportunities for highly ritualised outbursts of anti-Japanese feeling – rather a luxury for a country that depends on Japanese bases for its defence. For the Chinese, who keep producing anti-Japanese war films and fake newsreels, to ward off the dangers of mass tourism to Japan, where too many friendly encounters might ruin years of indoctrination, politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine offer opportunities for retellings of the wartime story, none of which need mention the fact that Mao and his minions outdid the Japanese at least three to one in killing Chinese.
Ambassador Kennedy protested in December 2013 when Abe visited the shrine to reward his Nippon Kaigi supporters (who stood by him when he was out of office between 2007 and 2012), charging that Abe’s actions would ‘exacerbate tensions’ with Japan’s neighbours. That was an interesting observation, considering South Korea’s non-stop hostility, and China’s frequent provocations, including the widespread anti-Japanese protests of 2010, which were triggered by official media misrepresentations of the Japanese arrest of a drunken Chinese trawler captain who had tried to ram Japanese patrol boats. Kennedy’s complaint hardly worsened Obama’s policies: his administration did not even protest against China’s devastation of vast coral reefs to build military bases. But the US embassy’s hostility did generate an uninterrupted flow of sceptical or outrightly hostile stories in the US press that profoundly misrepresented both Abe and Japan. Pyle is not in Abe’s camp, but he is not against it either. His Abe is the one I know, a pragmatic Japanese Tory driving through reforms at home, while weaving an alliance aimed at containing China, with Australia, Vietnam and India in the lead, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia in tow, Canada looking in, and the United States as the backstop. These reactions to Chinese expansionism – all those territorial claims, from Japan’s very small islands to eighty thousand square kilometres of north-east India – are entirely normal, the elemental logic of strategy at work. But that Japan’s prime minister should lead the way, instead of meekly following, is the novelty worth pondering.