A contemporary dilemma haunted by history

So Junichiro Koizumi, 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 is going to will have to will have to wait a bit little longer before it gets getting to get its hands on that $3,000bn (€2,428bn, £1,680bn) 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 Rumour has it that he might open his election campaign by making with such a visit on the 60th anniversary of the war’s end next Monday. The Opinion polls show a bare majority thinking think it “wiser” not to go. Mr Koizumi may probably think bravado and talking tough to the insufferable Chinese will ould win more votes than wisdom.

Certainly, the Yasukuni shrine, centre of the oppressive pre-war state Shinto cult of patriotism, is a strange funny 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). It has An attached museum which glories in the patriotic heroism of Japan’s tragic failure. Also – a core theme the constant refrainof 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 now has a real chance of governing. What line might it take? One possibility is to promise a serious debate about the justice of those war crimes trials. Every Japanese party leader has to must take into account a very widespread popular feeling that Japan was not singly to blame for the war. Only a fifth of that bare opinion poll majority which in opinion polls that thought official visits to the shrine unwise thought also that they were “wrong”. But this vague unease is currently at present 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 a lack of that key Confucian virtue, sincerity.

To address this, One idea is to might be to ask an international body, possibly one under the United Nations UNESCO 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 up 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 less than perfect; 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 chief recurrent theme of Chinese protests.

The first point for any revisionist to make is that the “orthodox” thesis – a blameless Japanese people was dragged into the war by a fanatical fascist militarist faction whose leaders were properly hanged – is too easy a cop-out. As an excuse, it is morally available only to the tiny handful of people who passed the war in jail prison and the slightly larger handful who sat the war 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 what the Americans were demanding. They will remember, too, the national euphoria that prevailed in the initial, of the victorious six months of the with which that war.

beganIf 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 result end finally destroying party politics.

The key question, however, is whether the sins of the Japanese nation were so extraordinary as to warrant even the symbolic execution of their its leaders, even as a symbolic act. General Tojo and his crowd who gained control of Japan in the 1930s were certainly racists, but their assertions of Japanese superiority were in partly a reaction response to slights – real and imagined – from the white, western world, like such as the 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 equivalent equal to like the the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of Jews and Gypsies.

They were racists, yes, but all imperialists were racists. Like the previous generations who fought China and Russia to win Taiwan and Korea, (victories acclaimed in many parts of Europe), they were trying to build an empire that could claim equality with the European empires. The racial resentment apart, they had very much the same motives as the original European imperialists: the same mixture of sheer national self-aggrandisement, the self-righteous belief in a civilising mission and the hypocritical cynicism to use the one to justify the other.

An amusing history game: try to match ing the Japanese command leaders with the imposing now-revered characters of nineteenth 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 up with Cecil Rhodes (both eventually founders of educational foundations in Britain.) The dour General Tojo perhaps most resembled the pious General Gordon, the man who sacked Beijing, only 40 years before Tojo’s men sacked Nanjing.

The big difference was that the Japanese came too late. And lost. The winners could declare that the imperial age had ended, reluctantly cede give up their colonies and claim that 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. The speaker of the lower house of the Japanese Diet, the former foreign minister Yohei Kono, 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 downde haut en basto 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.

The writer, an associate of the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, and is author of Stock Market Capitalism, Welfare Capitalism: Japan and Germany vs. the Anglo-Saxons (OUP)

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