Koizumi's Snap Election: a contemporary dilemma haunted by history
By Ronald Dore
Koizumi Junichiro, Japan's prime minister, has lost the vote on his grand
scheme to privatise the country's post office with its vast savings pool and
will go to the polls. For now, the village-pump communitarian face of Japanese
conservatism has won out over anti-bureaucratic, privatising radicalism. The
global finance industry will have to wait a little longer to get its hands on
that Dollars 3,000 billion of Japanese savings.
But the snap election next month is likely to focus as much on the dire state
of Japan's relations with China and Korea as on privatisation. Here at issue is
the other face of Japanese conservatism: the reluctance to feel guilty about the
war. The key symbol of that reluctance has been Mr Koizumi's visits to the
Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to pay respects to Japan's war dead. There is
speculation he might open his election campaign with such a visit on the 60th
anniversary of the war's end on August 15. Opinion polls show a bare majority
think it "wiser" not to go. Mr Koizumi may think bravado and talking tough to
the Chinese will win more votes than wisdom.
Certainly, Yasukuni shrine, centre of the oppressive pre-war state Shinto
cult of patriotism, is a strange place to go to pray for peace - which is what
Mr Koizumi says he does. It is exclusively dedicated to those who "gave their
lives for the Emperor" (not including air-raid victims). An attached museum
glories in the patriotic heroism of Japan's tragic failure. Also - a core theme
of Chinese complaints - it enshrines those judged by the Tokyo war crimes trials
to be war criminals.
In the wake of Mr Koizumi's legislative defeat, the opposition Minshuto
(Democratic Party) now has a real chance of governing. What line might it take?
One possibility is to promise serious debate about the justice of those war crimes
trials. Every Japanese party leader must take into account a widespread feeling
that Japan was not singly to blame for the war. Only one-fifth of that bare majority
in opinion polls who thought official visits to the shrine unwise thought also they
were "wrong". But this vague unease is currently expressed and exploited only by
the fanatic populist right whose blogs and manga cartoons make martyred heroes
out of the "victims of victor's justice". The establishment line hitherto has been
not that the trials were "just", but that "Japan accepted the justice of the
trials in the San Francisco peace treaty: the matter is closed". Nothing could
more clearly signal the absence of that key Confucian virtue, sincerity.
One idea might be to ask an international body, possibly one under the United
Nations umbrella, to set up a panel - three internationally distinguished
historians, say, with one Japanese, one Chinese and one Korean adviser - to
reassess the trials. In opening the issue, any "revisionist" should make clear
to China and Korea that the debate is not about the scale and nature of
individual atrocities for which the "B" and "C" class war criminals were
punished - many with death sentences. The standards of military justice applied
may well have been wanting; but only the rabid fringe in Japan would deny that
atrocities were committed, or seek to justify them.
It is, instead, about the events leading up to the war itself, and the burden
of guilt of the so-called "A" class war criminals, including the seven who were
hanged, and whose enshrinement in Yasukuni drives Chinese protests.
The first point for any revisionist to make is that the "orthodox" thesis - a
blameless Japanese people dragged into war by a fanatical militarist faction
whose leaders were properly hanged - is too easy a cop-out. As an excuse, it is
morally available only to the relative few who passed the war in prison and the
slightly larger number who sat it out in sullen alienation. Any 70-year-old
Japanese will remember the general feeling, a month before Pearl Harbor, that
war could not honourably be avoided, given US demands. They will remember, too,
the national euphoria that prevailed in the initial, victorious six months of
If by any chance Mr Koizumi adopts this line, he might even mention his
politician grandfather who hounded an "unpatriotic" pacifist out of his party in
the late 1930s, in the end finally destroying party politics.
The key question, however, is whether the sins of the Japanese nation were so
extraordinary as to warrant execution of its leaders, even as a symbolic act.
General Tojo and his crowd were certainly racists, but their assertions of
Japanese superiority were partly a response to slights from the white, western
world, such as the rejection of Japan's proposal for a declaration of racial
equality in the preamble of the Versailles treaty. It was a racial war, but the
Japanese had no genocidal project equal to the Nazis' systematic slaughter of
Jews and Gypsies.
They were racists, yes, but all imperialists were racists. Like earlier
generations who fought China and Russia to win Taiwan and Korea, they were
trying to build an empire that could claim equality with the European empires.
Racial resentment apart, they had similar motives to the European imperialists:
the same sheer national self-aggrandisement, the self-righteous belief in a
civilising mission and the hypocritical cynicism to use the one to justify the
An amusing history game: try to match Japanese leaders with the imposing
figures of 19th-century British history. Matsuoka Yosuke had a bit of the
flamboyant self-assurance of Palmerston, if not the wit. In the freelance
buccaneer class, Sasakawa matches with Cecil Rhodes (both eventually set up
British educational foundations). The dour Tojo perhaps most resembled the pious
General Gordon, who sacked Beijing only 40 years before Tojo's men sacked
The big difference was that the Japanese came too late. And lost. The winners
could declare the imperial age over, cede their colonies and claim they had
saved the world for freedom and democracy. Why would mainstream Japanese
politicians hesitate to talk in these terms? Probably because it would upset too
many powerful Americans. Yohei Kono, speaker of the lower house of Japan's Diet
and a former foreign minister, got to the heart of it when he said last weekend:
"We need an even-handed approach . . . We need to rethink our habit of doffing
our caps to America on the one hand and talking down to the Chinese on the
other." Perhaps he had in mind the Chinese charge that putting Japan on the UN
Security Council would be giving two votes to the US.
This article appeared in Financial Times, August 9, 2005. Ronald Dore is
author of Stock Market Capitalism, Welfare Capitalism: Japan
and Germany vs. the Anglo-Saxons. Posted at Japan Focus August 10, 2005.