Wary Eye Cast on Abe’s ‘New Japan’

Times Staff Writer

For those who view Japan’s swelling nationalism through suspicious eyes, there is plenty of evidence that the World War II loser is straining at its pacifist shackles.

New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to rewrite Japan’s war-renouncing constitution. He yearns for a robust role in world affairs, and has even mused about the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korean missile sites.

Abe’s talk of a “new Japan” also includes a plan to inculcate patriotism in schools and put an end to teaching what he calls a “masochistic” version of Japanese history. His newly minted Cabinet tilts so far to the hawkish side of Japanese politics that Mizuho Fukushima, the opposition socialist leader, has christened it “a Cabinet to prepare for war.”


So as Abe took power this week, wary observers warned of a virulent form of nationalism they say is moving into the mainstream for the first time since Japan’s defeat in 1945. Those voices came from American and European analysts, not just from China and Korea (the usual suspects, to Abe supporters), where memories of Japan’s imperial aggression still burn. When Abe suggested during the summer that it might be necessary to take out North Korea’s missile bases in self-defense, South Korea’s government spokesman said the declaration “unveiled Japan’s expansionist nature.”

Is Japan sliding back to the dark days of the militarist 1930s? Are the Japanese really prepared to surrender their breathtaking materialism for the sort of foreign adventures that brought ruin upon their grandparents’ generation?

Absurd, the Abe crowd responds.

“No single Japanese person thinks we are going back to that period,” says Yoshihide Suga, one of the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s most conservative members and someone who was an early Abe ally on the need to take a hard line with North Korea. “Other countries accuse us of going in a militarist direction, but we are just trying to become a normal country.”

Those who dispute parallels with the 1930s point out that military spending then was the largest single budget item, whereas now it is less than 1% of Japan’s gross domestic product. And unlike the 1930s, Japan no longer has a command economy tailored to the needs of the armed forces, and civilian leaders do not bend to the will of the army and navy.

Yet Abe’s supporters do want to roll history’s clock back if only as far as 1945. Their quarrel is with the political culture that was thrust on Japan after the war. Their targets are the American-imposed constitution and an accompanying education system they accuse of weakening traditional Japanese values and leading to a morally flabby nation.

“When we mention conservative politics, it is not the same as prewar politics or militarism,” says Hakubun Shimomura, deputy chief Cabinet secretary of Abe’s new government. “It is not an arrogant nationalism. We are not hostile to other cultures. But we want Japanese people to respect traditional Japanese culture, a culture that goes back more than 2,000 years but which has been weakened in the last 60 years.”

It is a recurring theme with this new generation of nationalists. Yes, we got rich under the postwar American umbrella, they say. But the excesses of foreign values also infused an individualistic streak that diluted the social harmony at the core of Japanese society.

Foreigners look upon Japan as a remarkably cohesive society, but conservatives here see runaway egotism. And they complain that it has led to more broken families, a dearth of discipline in schools, youths adrift without jobs or hope -- and even children who kill their parents.

And they fret that a rapacious capitalism accompanying globalization is undermining Japan’s business culture, which has traditionally been far less cutthroat.

“Abe’s stance is that postwar Japan is bad,” says Takashi Tachibana, a commentator and author who has written about Japan’s prewar intellectual class and is a critic of the new prime minister. Tachibana says Abe sees the constitution and the 1947 basic education law as the underpinnings of a stunted postwar era, “the root of all evils that need to be fixed.”

Abe’s is not a minority view. Polls show nearly two-thirds of Japanese support a new education law that would require schools to teach patriotism. Although teachers have resisted school board directives ordering them to stand, face the flag and sing the national anthem at school ceremonies, others see patriotic education as simply code for restoring discipline in classrooms gone wild.

Gearing up for a battle to rewrite the education law, Abe has stocked his Cabinet and closest advisors with socially conservative politicians connected to the clamor to restore family values.

The mood is reflected in Japan’s popular culture. One of the best-selling books this year has been Masahiko Fujiwara’s “Dignity of a State,” a lament for the lost values of bushido that the author contends lie at the heart of Japan’s national character. Better known as the samurai warrior’s code, bushido emphasizes a public morality based on virtues such as benevolence, loyalty, respect and honesty.

These values strike a chord in a society wounded by the decade-plus malaise that followed the economic collapse of the 1990s. When the Tokyo office of Warner Bros. was looking for ways to market Hollywood’s “The Last Samurai” to a modern young Japanese audience in 2004, it chose to emphasize the vitality of the movie’s bushido theme. The film made $115 million in Japan.

“Even though kids didn’t know a lot about bushido, it appealed to something in the national DNA,” said William Ireton, head of Warner Japan.

Those are just the sort of emotional atmospherics that worry Abe’s critics. They note the newfound willingness to question postwar shibboleths such as pacifism and war guilt. And they fear a mass mood could be manipulated into something more sinister, pointing to recent cases of government critics intimidated by threats of violence from right-wing extremists.

Abe’s circle dismisses such cases as individual acts, sporadic in nature, and certainly not as savage as the attacks from the hard left in the 1960s and ‘70s. Its members recall the days of massive anti-American demonstrations and the bombing of industrial targets by left-wing groups.

In fact, they say, right-wing violence is declining, along with the number of groups involved.

Abe and his colleagues represent the backlash to the leftist cultural politics of the postwar era. Shimomura, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, says he looks back at his schooling and “can tell I was brainwashed by left-wing teachers. When I was a child, I was taught to have a negative view of the Japanese flag and national anthem.”

For this generation of conservatives, any existential threat to Japan comes not from resurgent militarism at home but from undemocratic, communist governments in China and North Korea. They worry that Japanese diplomatic instincts have atrophied over 60 years of relying on the pacifist constitution for protection. The Abe crowd is highly critical of the diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, whom they accuse of tiptoeing around North Korean and Chinese sensibilities instead of standing up for Japan.

“The older generation was brainwashed by the postwar pacifist education system, but Abe is a realist who sees the dangers in northeast Asia and understands the delusion of pacifism,” says Hideaki Kase, a conservative media commentator. “Japan has been sleeping, and we are waking up to a North Korean nuclear threat and a China that is building its military power and trying to exercise hegemony in Asia.

“Abe has less trust than the older generation in an absolute dependence on U.S. military protection.”

To critics, this is just the kind of talk that leads to trouble. The danger, they say, lies in miscalculation, in the hubris that can sink great ambitions.

“It’s not that Abe himself is so extreme,” Tachibana says. “But when a nation starts taking a strange direction, events can build. No one predicted that the war Japan started against China would spread to all of China and eventually into a Pacific war.

“But it ended up destroying Japan.”