Thursday, September 28, 2006

Will Japan Rise Again?

Monday's Los Angeles Times carried an essay by journalist Michael Zielenziger on the potential reemergence of militarism in Japan, especially amid the ascendance of Shinzo Abe, the ruling party's likely next prime minister. Zielenziger first discusses a bit of the current Japanese malaise, especially the grinding work environment, the rough times for Japan's youth, and the demographic time bomb:

Japan is rapidly aging because its young women refuse to marry and bear children. They say raising kids in modern Japan is far too expensive and offers too little reward. Besides, compared to their mothers, the aspirations of educated women extend beyond child-rearing, even though most Japanese men still insist their wives stay home.

The nation's middle-class army of sarariman (white-collar) workers, uniformed in their blue suits and white shirts, is committing suicide in record numbers — three times as many as die in car accidents — because the system of lifetime employment in which they started their careers is crumbling.

More troubling still are the more than 1 million Japanese twentysomethings who cannot find work and are not involved in any educational or training programs. A high number of these adults, primarily men, are social isolates, or hikikomori. They hide in their rooms for months or years at a time rather than try to fit into a society that demands mass conformity and uses quietly powerful repression to forge it. This Japan has yet to design the social architecture necessary to embrace the individualism and self-expression we in the West associate with the post-industrial era. Neither schizophrenic nor suffering from any other mental illness, the only refuge these hikikomori find from a society they cannot trust is the bedrooms in their parents' apartments. They are the nails that stick up and refuse to be hammered down.

Into this unhappy stew of unacknowledged social unrest enters Abe, 52, who replaces the maverick Koizumi after his more than 5 1/2 years at the helm of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has essentially run the nation since 1955. Recent headlines proclaiming Japan's robust return to economic vibrancy are premature; the economy grew only 0.2% in the last quarter (compared with nearly 3% in the U.S.); the national fiscal debt is 170% of gross domestic product, and the nation is rapidly depopulating. Last year, there were 15,000 more deaths than births in Japan, a nation that does not welcome immigrants. Demographers predict that by 2020, one in nine Japanese will be over the age of 80.
The author continues, however, with a discussion of U.S.-Japan relations and the prospective rise of a new militaristic streak:

THE BUSH administration naturally sees Japan and Abe as Washington's closest ally in the Pacific, even though Tokyo's relations with its most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have never been more on edge. A U.S. that once worried about containing Japanese militarism now insists that Japan's Self-Defense Forces participate in the rehabilitation of Iraq, "putting boots on the ground," as U.S. officials put it, even though these acts violate the constitution our occupation forces dictated to the Japanese. The White House and Pentagon would welcome a Japan that beefs up its defenses against a potential threat from North Korea and the surging power of China.

Yet this narrow focus on projecting military power obscures some potentially more disturbing truths. Only a few steps outside the spotlight being trained on Abe are powerful political leaders such as Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of metropolitan Tokyo. He wrote the book "The Japan That Can Say 'No'," which controversially advocated that Japan strongly reassert its own national and military independence. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has recently advocated that his nation needs to study the option of "going nuclear," and no one doubts that Tokyo has lots of plutonium from its nuclear power plants and the technology to build bombs.

At times of economic and social strain, when millions of young men wonder how they will find work and what their nation will become, virulent forms of nationalism have a way of binding up deeper wounds — witness the protests against Japan in China. Many Japanese recognize that their nation, so suffocatingly embraced by Washington since the end of World War II, has yet to determine its identity and national interests.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine a day when a re-armed, angry and nuclear-potent Japan cuts its ties with Washington in order to reassert a more independent foreign policy? Would that make Pacific Asia a more tranquil or a more dangerous place?
It's certainly not far-fetched to envision the reemergence of Japan as regional and global military power -- and that might not be a bad thing. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is over fifty years old, and we're providing security to a country that's a peer competitor to the U.S. in the world economy (with Toyota Motors Corporation currently about to become the top automotive firm in the U.S. ). Some commentators, also, have referred to Japan as an economic giant but political pygmy, a nation technologically capable to provide for its own defense (in both conventional and nuclear armaments), so there is some expectation that Japan will reassert military leadership in time.

Of course, given Japan's history, and its limited denunciation of its WWII imperial past (compared to Germany), it's not unreasonable for commentators and regional neighbors to be concerned about the future of Japanese power.

Nevertheless, Zielenziger overlooks a strong cultural aversion to the reestablishment of Japanese military assertion. Japan scholars have noted a culture of Japanese anti-militarism -- emerging after World War II -- buttressed by the Japan's "peace constitution," with its limitations on the exercise of military power by the Japanese state.

For example, political scientist Thomas Berger's book, Cultures of Anti-Militarism: National Security in Germany and Japan, argued that deep-seated antiwar norms in Japan have developed over time to limit the development of aggressively militaristic impulses.

It's hard to say exactly what will happen in the near future, and there certainly are remnants of conservative martial supporters in Japan today (evident in the popular backing of
Prime Minister Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine), but Japan at some point needs to reestablish itself as a "normal" country in the international system, providing not only for its own defense, but sharing a larger burden of regional and global security responsibilities as well.

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