Thursday, March 29, 2007

BEING RIGHT MEANS NEVER SAYING SORRY

BANGKOK POST Thursday March 22, 2007

FOCUS / JAPAN

Why Abe will not apologise
Being right-wing means never having to say you're sorry


By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like his nationalistic predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, is popular with women voters, not only for youthful good looks, but for an easygoing charisma and gentlemanly demeanour. Unlike the conspicuously unmarried Mr Koizumi, Mr Abe makes public appearances with his attractive and independent-minded wife, to the delight of a media hungry for colourful human interest angles in the sober and dark-suited political landscape of LDP politics.Mr Abe's courtship of Ms Akie, the now first lady of Japan, has been memorialised in the tabloid press, and a TV re-enactment of the tender first-date moment was widely broadcast. Upon taking seats in a trendy bar, Mr Abe and his date were said to have ordered a whiskey and ginger ale; the bartender detected an odd but pleasing chivalry at work when he saw Mr Abe switch glasses, passing the hard drink to his wife, content to sip the ginger-ale himself.

Thus it is all the more surprising that Mr Abe's political career is careening out of control over a question of chivalry and courtesy to women, albeit a historic one.

The standard explanation for Mr Abe's intransigence on the comfort women question is that he is trying to placate right-wing political forces who helped him get the nod to be prime minister. But Mr Abe is so right-wing himself, and so close to the power centre right-wing causes that such reasoning rings a bit hollow. Mr Abe is not a reformer like Mr Koizumi, who made political deals on things like the Yasukuni shrine with rightist elements who were fundamentally different from him; Mr Abe is an opinion leader, far to the right of the public on questions of textbook revisionism, re-armament and male primogeniture in the Imperial house.

Still, Mr Abe has had the political wisdom to put off the provocative Yasukuni shrine visits that China and Korea found so off-putting in Mr Koizumi. So why does an astute member of the Liberal Democratic Party's old boys' club trip himself up on the historic question of to what degree comfort women were coerced to render sexual services to soldiers?

Mr Abe's domestic critics point out that whitewashing the deeds and records of Japan Imperial Army behaviour is essential to Mr Abe and his coterie of neo-nationalists not only because the unvarnished truth of Japan's unsavoury militarist past makes future re-armament difficult, but because of an all too human desire to buff up one's family history _ his father was an LDP standard bearer, his maternal grandfather a minister, and a convicted war criminal, active in the wartime subjugation of Manchuria.

More generally, to acknowledge past wrongs makes mobilisation of popular opinion on the issue of national greatness difficult, and instruments of nationalism such as the Hinomaru flag and the Kimigayo Imperial anthem continue to be controversial within Japan because they are associated with the political course that led to a terrible, tragic war.

A more repentent politician might be able to neutralise the divisive comfort women issue by solemnly apologising with a deep bow, Japan's cultural equivalent of Willy Brandt on bended knee, atoning for Germany's historic misdeeds. And even an unrepentent but image-savvy politico might at least claim they mispoke or were misquoted or are waiting to see the results of new probes and research into the matter, but Mr Abe's room to manoeuvre is limited, despite some attempts at damage control by his spokesmen.

The reason why Mr Abe comes off not only as not sympathetic to the plight of coerced comfort women, but not even neutral, is because he has painted himself into a corner on the North Korea abductions issue.

Mr Abe, a relatively inexperienced politician despite political blueblood, catapulted himself into the limelight by taking a strong moralistic stance on the inexcusable spate of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents some quarter of a century ago.

Why such heinous acts of abduction are daily fodder for Japan's press so many years after the fact is due in part to the Japan-North Korea thaw during Mr Koizumi's tenure that allowed many of the abductees to return home, followed by Mr Abe's relentless emphasis on the issue.

Although NHK is not technically a state broadcaster, the ruling party has some discretionary control of funding. Mr Abe has unapologetically applied pressure on at least two occasions, once to cut scenes from a comfort women-related bit of programming and more recently by ordering NHK's Radio Japan to step up the volume in its coverage of the North Korea abductions.

The abduction issue, compelling enough in its own right, has served Mr Abe's political purposes so well it has become an indispensible part of his political personna.

The Japan-DPRK thaw initiated by Mr Koizumi is over, given mutual sniping and valid disputes regarding the identity and total number of victims, (perhaps as high as several dozen) echoing the dynamics of the PoW-MiA issue that dogged US-Vietnam ties long after the war ended.

The realpolitik strategies of the US, China and others in the Six-Party Talks on DPRK de-nuclearisation and other pressing issues are being undermined by the inflexibility of Mr Abe's moralistic North Korea stance.

And therein lies the quandary concerning comfort women. If even a single abduction is wrong, and several dozen, as North Korea is fairly accused of, is a heartless repetition of such a wrong, then what can be said about Japan's abduction of tens of thousands of girls and women, especially Korean and Chinese, who were driven from their homes and homelands into a life of enforced sexual servitude to the Japanese military?

Japan's WWII image, however it might be tainted with images of sneak attacks and kamikaze suicide bombers, daredevil invasions and punitive massacres should not be held against the post-war generation now in power, unless they glorify it and claim it as their own, as Mr Abe has assiduously done.

If Mr Abe is being asked, as prime minister, to apologise for a heartbreaking case of state-supported kidnapping and involuntary servitude, he can hardly assume the high moral ground about another heartbreaking case of state-supported abduction and involuntary servitude.

To acknowledge the truth of Japan's past abductions, Mr Abe would have to take his main political plank out from under his own feet.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

LISTEN AND LEARN

LOS ANGELES TIMES, February 20, 2007

Listen, Mr. Cheney

Instead of snubbing critics while in Japan, he should seek out their views on Iraq.

By Philip J. Cunningham

WHEN Shinzo Abe meets Dick Cheney in Japan this week, a special kind of chemistry will be in effect. The hawkish Japanese prime minister and the bellicose U.S. vice president, self-described friends, have more in common than declining poll numbers. They both have war on their minds.

What we have on the one side is Abe, a historical revisionist, glorifying the losers of the last world war to reshape the past. On the other side you have Cheney, a hard-line unilateralist who has been one of the biggest planners and defenders of the American-led war in Iraq.

Cheney is visiting Japan this week, according to the White House, to thank officials there for "their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan." Japan has sent noncombat troops to Iraq and has supplied logistical support in Afghanistan. But even as backing for the Iraq war continues to slip at home, Cheney will arrive in a Japan roiled by its own debate about rising militarism.

The latest example came when Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma suggested last month that the war in Iraq was a mistake. He was criticized roundly by Abe's people. Now, apparently as a punishment, the Bush administration asked Japan not to schedule a meeting between Cheney and Kyuma during this week's visit.

Thus, Cheney will snub the defense chief, the very person he would be expected to talk to in a visit focusing on defense and security issues. The message seems to be: Friends don't criticize friends. Japan, historically the bully of Asia, instinctively understands such threatening behavior.

There was no rational reason for Japan to get entangled in Iraq, and there's even less reason to become involved in Iran. However, Cheney appears bent on whipping up support for a reluctant Japan to continue to follow the Bush administration's lead in the war-torn Mideast. In refusing to meet with the defense minister, Cheney seems to be saying, in effect, that a silent nod to the wise is sufficient.

But the Japanese can say no, and why shouldn't they? What does the long-term Japan-U.S. relationship get out of this temporary subservience? Is it really in the interest of the Japanese people to bind their fate to the declining fortunes of the Bush-Cheney team?

Or might this be a good time, as opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa belatedly suggested a few weeks ago, to point out the obvious folly of U.S. ways, as a friend would, helping a friend?

Japan has yet to finish apologizing for the mess it made the last time it went to war, so why drag it into a new one?

The U.S. occupation of post-World War II Japan, with the attendant promulgation of a unique "peace constitution," was designed to make a former warrior nation allergic to war, and it largely succeeded. It is not only Japan's neighbors who get upset when Japanese pols visit the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals among the war dead; in fact, more than half of those polled in Japan are against such visits as well. From time to time, veteran U.S. voices, such as former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), remind us that official visits to a shrine that makes a mockery of such events as Pearl Harbor and Nanjing do not serve U.S.-Japan interests either.

Likewise, Japan should listen carefully to what other American statesmen are saying about Tokyo's whitewash of critical history questions. A motion by Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) calling for an apology on the oft-denied issue of Imperial Japan's "sex slaves" and other wartime injustices is not anti-Japan bullying but a nudge, from a friend to a friend, saying we need to agree on basic facts for the relationship to go forward.

The widespread Japanese commitment to peace, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, extends to an understandable abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Yet military analysts say that U.S. ships armed with nuclear weapons routinely pull into Japanese ports such as Yokosuka and Okinawa — making a sham of Japan's "three nonnuclear principles" (not possessing, producing or permitting nuclear weapons into the country).

Cheney is scheduled to have a photo-op aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk during his visit — an insensitive move that might well come to be regretted as a "mission accomplished" moment for the vice president. Tokyo's flamboyant mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, has already primed the public by asserting — without apparent evidence — that the Kitty Hawk is nuclear-equipped.

Instead of posing on the carrier, Cheney should take the time to hear what Kyuma and other Japanese critics of the Iraq war have to say.

PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM is a professor in the social studies department at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

GROUND ZERO OF HUMILIATION

THE BANGKOK POST, February 13, 2007

The ground zero of humiliation

In Japan's taboo-encumbered relations with the United States, valid criticisms are being leaked and then dismissed as misstatements _ a convoluted way to soften the impact of the truth coming out

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

When Japanese Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma recently chided the United States for both the pointless war in Iraq and an arrogant attitude towards negotiations on the US military base in Okinawa, he came under heavy fire from both US officials and members of his own ruling party. Hacks from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suggested that Mr Kyuma's "regrettable" views had been mistranslated and taken out of context, but the man said what he said and deserves credit for trying to break a long-standing taboo of not criticising US foreign policy.

Mr Kyuma's name was bandied about in Japan's sensation-driven press with ambivalence; on the one hand, he had to endure the indignity of being paired with Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa, who recently got himself in hot water for saying women were "child-bearing machines" and that "sound" couples should have two kids.

But the defence chief is no crank, he was iterating a reasonable but inadequately expressed frustration with the way the US chronically mocks Japan's sovereignty, especially on issues regarding the extra-territoriality of US military bases and nuclear-tipped fleets docking in Japanese waters.

If frustrations with this taboo-encumbered bilateral relationship are finally being expressed, it is only tentatively, framed as gaffes by undisciplined allies of the pro-US Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Valid criticisms are leaked and then dismissed as misstatements, a convoluted way to soften the impact of the truth coming out.

Mr Abe may sound like a tough, independent leader, especially when he lashes out at isolated, impoverished and universally-scorned North Korea, and he is candid and unsparing in his criticisms of China, but when it comes to the United States, he is oddly tongue-tied. Part of it is playing to his party's home constituency _ anti-communist posturing helps secure votes and cash from the LDP's rightist political base.

Japanese cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi wields the sharp pen of a self-styled neo-samurai. He questions why the LDP political establishment gives a free pass to the US, which he sees as a source of much of the indignity that Japan must endure. In his regular manga spread in Sapio, a bombastic glossy magazine that focuses on security issues, Mr Kobayashi routinely portrayed former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as "poochie", a craven little pup on a leash, hinting, with more than a touch of artistic malice, that Japan's seemingly independent prime minister was a US lapdog.

This is a sensitive issue, until recently best addressed in below-the-radar low-brow art, because Tokyo has long been dependent on the goodwill of Washington.

But Mr Kyuma's comments, and other dramatically conflicting statements by members of Mr Abe's cabinet suggest the pressure is greater than ever, both to toe the US line and to rebel against it.

The dynamic is not new, but the intensity is. One reason why minor trade spats such as the divisive question of beef imports or US tobacco's penetration of Japan's market tend to generate so much heat is due to a smouldering resentment about important questions relating to national autonomy that cannot be addressed openly.

Mr Koizumi, for all his grandstanding on China and his brazen unwillingness to listen to anyone, including half a dozen former prime ministers who advised him on the political foolishness of ritual prayers for peace at an archaic war shrine, was a push-over when it came to US demands to support an unpopular war whipped up by the White House of George W Bush.

The Iraq war was not in Japan's interest nor did it enjoy support, not for a single day; yet most of the populace, like most of the politicians representing them, instinctively understood that they had to go along with US militarism in that particular instance, in order to continue enjoying the US security umbrella in general.

Japan's Self-Defence Forces were tapped by the Pentagon to put on a show of support for the Bush war in Iraq, and the SDF dutifully put up a Potemkin-style logistics base in the Iraqi desert, all show and no action, wisely located far from the battlefield. But several innocent Japanese civilians strayed into harm's way, trapped in the cauldron of the hatred brewed in "coalition of the willing" occupied Iraq, and paid with their lives, deeply upsetting Japanese public opinion.

When it comes to the US, Mr Abe is following in Mr Koizumi's footsteps, at least in terms of verbal support for Mr Bush and deferentially seeking advice from Washington. In style, if not substance, he is a dutiful subordinate of Uncle Sam.

Japan's leaders know fully well that Washington's interests are not always in Tokyo's interest, especially when the US demands a show of support in imperial folly on the level of Iraq. Mr Kyuma, by addressing these doubts openly, made a contribution to the health of the US-Japan relationship, as did Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who also chimed in. Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, an old school politician adept at political kabuki, shrewdly lent support to the strategic trickle of comments re-evaluating the US-Japan relationship, saying the Iraq war was "absurd".

What's going on here?

Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, followed by a lengthy US occupation which saw the staging of war trials that exonerated some of the most guilty for reasons of political expediency, while imposing heavy censorship on US critics. Six decades later, Japan still tolerates dozens of US military bases and spying outposts on its soil. Tokyo generally does what Washington says, except on trade issues, where the latent nationalism of a country kept too long under wraps is readily apparent.

Increasingly, populist commentators such as manga artist Mr Kobayashi espouse an unseemly neo-nationalism, employing racial stereotypes that pin the blame on foreigners for everything from crime to inter-racial dating. In doing so, they reveal psychological insecurities not unrelated to problems associated with drunken serviceman from US bases in densely populated areas. In foreign policy terms, frustration at the US is irrationally transferred to irritating neighbours who get in the way, such as North Korea, the neighbourhood stray who gets kicked by the boy with the overbearing father.

Revisionism is a reaction, whitewashing history a futile attempt to wash soiled hands clean. Hiroshima was not the ground zero of World War Two as anachronistic victimologists and amnesiac revisionists would have it; the big bomb came after Pearl Harbour, Bataan and Nanking. China and Korea were the main victims of Japan's war, especially the millions of innocent civilians who bore the brunt of Japan's invasion and occupation.

As the US pressed towards the home islands, Japanese troops killed and were killed in large numbers; soldier against soldier, pride battered but not entirely broken, even on infernal Iwo Jima, as Clint Eastwood's twin films on the topic aptly depict.

Then the Enola Gay let go its deadly cargo, invoking terror and incinerating any remnant of pride. Hiroshima, the first city in the history to be instantly erased from the map, effectively ended the war and initiated a long period of subordination to the US.

Mr Kyuma's comments underscore the need for Japan to loosen the straitjacket of the unequal US alliance, hopefully helping Japan to be more responsible and to address the insanity of its own warring past more honestly.

If the systemic humiliation that Japan regularly submits to at the hands of Uncle Sam is not rectified, national frustration will get dangerously bottled up, fuelling reckless foreign policy and further xenophobia.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

DOING NOTHING IS NO OPTION

BANGKOK POST, January 3, 2007
FOCUS / THAI POLITICS

Doing nothing is not an option

The Council for National Security and the government have made little progress in identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to have abrogated a constitution for

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

A coup d'etat is a dangerous and unpredictable thing, even in countries like Thailand, where the sheer frequency of barrel-of-the-gun changes in government since 1932 has taught the populace to keep their heads down and accept the inevitable. The political news team at Thai Rath nominated General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as their Man of the Year in recognition of the considerable courage implicit in staging a coup.

But a full three months after the smoothly-executed and mercifully peaceful coup that removed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office, ostensibly in response to crooked business deals among other things, little progress has been made identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to ditch a constitution for.

Until the concerted bombing attacks on New Year's Eve, Bangkok looked a lot like a city back to business as usual, the usual wheelers and dealers flaunting their wealth, the usual trembling masses of motorised vehicles jamming every major intersection, the usual footpaths cluttered with tenacious street vendors. Hotels were bustling, luxury restaurants, exclusive shops and spas pampered local and visiting rich, while elephantine malls stretching from Siam Square to Sukhumvit Road narrowed the scope of public space, trees and fresh air even as they offered a new virtual reality: a grandly-appointed and air-conditioned fantasy life for the upper middle and lower upper classes.

Until the last day of the old year, it was as if the decisive Sept 19 coup had never happened, not so much a sympton of political apathy as the application of a kind of folk wisdom: going about one's daily life pretending it's business as usual can help get things back to normal. Unfortunately, pretending doesn't make underlying conflicts go away, and Thailand remains divided along dangerous fault lines of the new and old order, rich and poor, city and country, as well as serious ethnic cleavages.

When Mr Thaksin was in power, he dominated the media, both as a celebrity personality and as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. For the sake of free press and the airing of divergent views, it is a good thing that the greedy media impressario no longer dominates the airwaves or the headlines. But Mr Thaksin, given his modern outlook and loads of money, left a legacy of polished production values, rapid-strike reactions and instant, though often unverifiable, answers to pressing issues.

Mr Thaksin was slick enough with public relations to make the current leadership look like media amateurs, though upon closer inspection this may be a good thing if one values truth over spin. It's just that for a populace conditioned by media tricks and manipulative sleight of hand, hearing straight talk and having to face the unvarnished truth may take some getting used to.

For as America's fatal infatuation with the spin of the Bush-Cheney propaganda team in the post 9/11 period suggests, in times of stress people crave firm answers and seemingly decisive policies in preference to complex, ambiguous, even contradictory truths. A fearful and confused populace badly wants immediate action, even if it means going down the wrong road.

Seen in this regard, the no-frills response of both interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin to the New Year's Eve bombings was both reassuring and troubling; reassuring because they tried to level with the public, admitting there was much they didn't know and there were things they couldn't control; and troubling because not knowing the complete truth and not being able to protect the population as much as one would like to, does not inspire hero worship.

One suspects that Mr Thaksin, and his media flacks, facing a similar crisis, would have been less deferential to the truth, claiming he knew who did it, or had things totally under control, which was his standard reaction to previous incidents of violence, even when not backed by the facts.

No one, not even a strong-armed elected official with a rich war chest and marked dictatorial tendencies like Mr Thaksin, ever has things completely under control. Mr Thaksin came close to controlling the media maybe, but reality always eluded his grasp.

There is perhaps poetic justice in the role switch for the wily politician who once so excelled at buying the news: Mr Thaksin is now a tabloid caricature, a shadow puppet of his former self. The restless man of unbound ambition impatiently tests the limits of his tentative exile, knowing the ticking of the clock daily reduces his importance to little more than last year's news.

Until the shocking New Year's Eve blasts, Thais of all walks of life had been cheerfully converging on Rajprasong intersection to enjoy the company of other people under the brilliant lights of glittering holiday displays. In a quintessentially Thai tableau just days before the blasts, throngs of street vendors plied freshly cooked treats to curbside diners, creating a fragrant obstacle course to tourists who joined luck-challenged locals offering candles and incense to the restored four-faced Brahma at Erawan Shrine, while Christmas decorations and New Year lights shimmered, the tinkle of ancient court tunes were counter-pointed by school kids singing Christmas carols.

If the perpetrators of the bombing spree are not identified and apprehended, such cosmpolitan moments will become rare and public space, already cramped due to over-development in the Thaksin-era building spree, will become sterile and impoverished.

Pressed to choose between an upstart billionaire premier and an august and long-tenured King, the Thai people chose their beloved King. And so boundless is the general admiration of the monarch and so auspicious the anniversary year that the coup-makers were graciously given time to get their act together by otherwise frustrated people hungry for positive change.

But even with the silkiest of coups, the honeymoon can only last so long, and the bomb blasts put an abrupt end to whatever grace period the new government enjoyed. The news from the provinces continues to be troubling, whether it be the intolerable provocations of an intractable Islamist insurgency in the South, or the troubling spate of school burnings in the North and Northeast, or the withdrawal symptoms of the Thaksin populism-intoxicated poor hooked on handouts, easy cash and grand gestures.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud has shown considerable dignity, humility and civic-mindedness in his first few months on the job, a restorative to a population recovering from the loud and brash ways of his megalomaniac predecessor. But remnants of the old order and advocates for a return to electoral politics will be quick to discredit the new government if it stumbles economically or plays too heavy a hand in dealing with terror and other deliberate provocations.

On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option; gaping social wounds will not heal as long as long as ill-begotten fortunes are left entirely intact and fundamental wrongs are not righted.

To be effective, one has to hew a fine line between unwarranted intervention and criminal neglect, between going too far and not going far enough. It's a tall order for anyone, even a wise old soldier, but Gen Surayud, with his track record of using a humanitarian approach to end the civil war with the Thai communists a generation before, may just turn out to be the right man at the right time to lead Thailand away from bitter social divisiveness back on the path to social harmony.

Though tourism and business may suffer short-term reversals due to the blasts and underlying political insecurities, the example of New York and London and other terror-hit cities suggests that things will rebound, even improve, with time. The indomitable spirit of New Yorkers and Londoners is part of what attracts visitors today, just as the courage and resilience of the Thai people and foreign friends in the face of the terrible tsunami demonstrates that a return to normalcy, or even something better than normalcy, is possible.

Two years after unimaginable devastation, Thailand's beach resorts welcome huge numbers of tourists, interested not only in sea and sand but moved by and intrigued by the newly fortified cosmopolitan spirit that grew in response to the tsunami. Pleasure-seeking is now paired with a deeper appreciation for the preciousness of life.

The trials and tribulations that the people of Bangkok, local and foreign, must endure in the days to come, can likewise help forge a new cosmopolitan spirit. While terror can also lead to a closing of the mind and an upswing in petty prejudices, it is also an opportunity for a recognition of shared human vulnerabilities, and it can further allow for an opening of the mind and finding strength in diversity.

For the worst of times contain the seeds for the best of times; squarely facing the fears of the present can help promote a newfound courage, a newfound concern for fellow men and women, a newfound discovery of the things that really matter. That's a bit how it feels now, talking to friends, chatting with vendors, shopping and eating out in a vibrant neighbourhood not far from two of the bomb sites, hours after a series of coordinated blasts intended to instil fear and confusion.

If the people of Bangkok can continue to press forward, as they have been doing already, with both courage and appropriate caution, with concern for others and a cultivated lack of attachment to the distortions of power and greed that fuel most battles, then Bangkok will become a better place to live.

Tourists and businessmen will continue to vote for Thailand with their feet if Thailand's fabled tolerance for diversity and appreciation for different cultures, religions and races continues apace. Whatever hardships must be faced will be shared hardships, and the joining of many hands will make the necessary hard work lighter.

Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based freelance writer and political commentator.

THE SPIRIT OF DEMOCRACY

BANGKOK POST, September 6, 2006

FOCUS / THAILAND

The unstoppable spirit of democracy

In times of injustice, the spirit of democracy can suddenly emerge with the force of typhoon winds and should not be underestimated

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Given the strident polarisation of Thai society as it faces the abyss of political disintegration, partisan violence - and, in the deep South at least, something tragically akin to civil war - politics as usual is part of the problem.

To leave the levers of power in the hands of the incumbent administration, an unusually wealthy coalition driven by greed and a winner-takes-all mentality, not only undermines a sense of fair play, but is hastening the collapse of civil society. In its current fragile, tottering state, Thailand can ill afford business as usual, if business as usual means more of the usual cronyism injurious to society as a whole.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra prudently stepped down in April in the wake of political outrage potent enough to invite mass demonstrations and the collapse of parliament, sparked by his two-billion-dollar tax-free Temasek deal. The embattled tycoon, suddenly out of power but not a penny poorer, took a "luxury vacation" whining about his self-proclaimed unemployment after the government he had been at the helm of instantly dissolved with no reconstitution in sight. To keep himself occupied in the ambiguous interim - was he fired or did he quit? Was he a prime minister without a country, or was the country without a prime minister? - Mr Thaksin started writing obsequious letters to foreign leaders begging for personal support, casting himself as the defender of democracy and tamer of terror, hoping the outside world might yet be willing to see things in his own peculiar way.

The tycoon-in-chief jetted around the world, downgrading himself to mere first class on commerical flights when the national executive jet was not available, arranging photo ops with the rich and famous to show he was still in the game. Then, sensing no serious resistance in the warm afterglow of celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King's accession to the throne, just as the nation was coming together, united in its respect for a singularly enlightened constitutional monarch, just as the nation was at last showing signs of reconciliation and healing, the divisive tycoon tiptoed back into the ring, with the sorry results we see today, upping tensions, stoking violence and further dividing a badly divided electorate.

Democratic protocol has its uses, but the rules of the 1997 Constitution, imperfectly drafted and wilfully misinterpreted as it has been from the start, do not provide easily agreed-upon answers.

If democracy is now looking a bit tattered, that is less serious to the fate of the nation than losing the spirit of democracy.

This spirit is not something dainty that can be wrapped up, tied in a bow and bestowed upon the people like a present; it is a powerful, passionate force that sweeps the land in times of injustice, seeking a better way. If democracy is not allowed to thrive in the halls of government, it makes itself manifest on the streets. Think of the spirit of Oct 14, 1973, think of the spirit of Black May 1992. In the Philippines, they call it "people power", in France they made a revolution of it. In the US, democracy made its appearance at the Boston tea party and culminated in an anti-colonial war of independence. In Germany, it tore down a wall and melted away the divisions of the Cold War.

In times of stress and injustice, the spirit of democracy can suddenly emerge with the force of typhoon winds and should not be underestimated.

Nor should the power of peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience be dismissed as undemocratic noise. People who put their lives on the line facing possible prison, thuggery or worse, usually have something important to say, and their right to say it should be protected and respected. Of course, in having their say, they have to make room for others to have their say, too.

Slipping down the slippery slope of undemocratic democracy is something Thailand should avoid at all costs, but the danger signals mount. There are strong indications that the formal mechanisms of democracy in Thailand have so hollowed out as to become a tool of the ruling party, the free press so regularly intimidated that some timid editors and journalists reduce themselves to scribes for the powers-that-be, the legal system corrupted by the absolute power that corrupts absolutely.

In the course of unravelling events, running a nation on autopilot while clinging to a corrupt status quo is a formula for disaster; in times such as these the well-being of the nation requires focused attention, flexibility and forebearance on all sides. If the day dawns when Thai democracy is but a dried-out, empty vessel, a shell of its former self, democratic in name, a kleptocracy in practice, then Thailand will be well on its way to being a failed state.

In the chaos of eventual collapse, untold numbers of people will be hurt in addition to those being hurt now. The list of regimes born of formal democratic mechanisms that got derailed and became undemocratic in spirit is a rogue's gallery that includes the Germany of Adolf Hitler, the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos and the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe.

That's why it is imperative to cut through the democratic detritus of a corrupt electoral system that is blocking meaningful change and find a better way. Democracy in Thailand needs to re-invent itself, drawing on both the hot, unbridled passion of the masses and the cool, restrained wisdom of the elders.

For better or worse, national leaders set the tone for national discourse and the country's image abroad. If a prime minister, whether elected directly, indirectly, appointed or otherwise, reflects the collective wisdom and best practices of a nation, this will resonate at home and abroad.

What Thailand needs now is not the helping hand of the world's democracy extraordinaire, embodied by President George W Bush, whose arrogance and partisan intolerance provides a case study of US democratic power gone awry, but a modest home-grown solution suitable to meet local challenges.

One Thai political tradition, not strictly democratic but tried and tested and generally compatible with the development of Thai democracy, is the notion of a neutral interim prime minister appointed by the King.

There is no need to fear a leadership vacuum if Mr Thaksin shows his love of nation by graciously taking a bow and exiting the political stage.

Some of Thailand's most fair and effective recent leaders were appointed prime ministers. The key is to find someone who is not only willing to serve but uninterested in power, someone willing to step down as soon as meaningful elections can reasonably be held. The ideal candidate is a public servant in the best sense of the word, a servant of the people and the nation, responsive to dissenting opinion and respectful of differences.

Perhaps a bipartisan interim government can be put together that includes some of Mr Thaksin's more meritorious appointees, creating a coalition dedicated to keeping the peace until a level-playing field can be established for truly democratic political competition.

It is important that the military be subordinate but supportive of such a civilian government, and it is critical that free press and legal protections remain intact for the sake of justice, social harmony and fair play.

It's a tall order. Any interim government would have to be both wise and untiring in its efforts to reduce domestic turmoil, courageous and uncorrupt, cohesive and confident in the face of the dangerous political cleavages that threaten the nation today.

Thailand has no shortage of talented individuals who are ready and willing to dedicate themselves to the betterment of the people, of all the people, but a bit of experience would help in the interim.

Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based free-lance writer and political commentator.

BANGKOK: MAKING POLITICAL SPACE

BANGKOK POST, March 3, 2006
FOCUS / RALLY VENUES

Making political space, out in the open

In times of political conflict, urban gathering places become coveted political space

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

A plaza under open sky surrounded by historical monuments is all it takes to turn political fortunes; something inviting to the eye and accessible on foot, central and suggestive of inclusiveness. In recent days, Bangkok has seen large peaceful crowds gather in historic open spaces, a thousand barefoot monks gliding peacefully down broad boulevards, the waving of banners, staging of political skits and the candle-lit vigils. All this has helped alter the mood of a nervous nation; an inspiration to those who want to change an inequitable status quo, a warning to those who cling to it. The makings of a saffron revolution are well under way.


Bangkok's Royal Plaza and Sanam Luang are both appealing and effective venues for political demonstration; at once at safe remove from congested commercial areas, while evocative of the history of popular uprising. Inter-connected as they are by Rajdamnern, a broad ceremonial royal way suitable for marching, the twin demonstration sites each invite movement, back and forth, from one to the other, like twin poles of a magnet.


Close to the river, open to the elements, pleasantly rimmed with tamarind trees and distant Buddhist spires, Sanam Luang is inviting because of its central emptiness.


The grassy oval-shaped field once hosted Bangkok's best food and fruit stalls as the premier weekend market in pre-Chatuchak days, and even today it has a user-friendly aroma. People like to stroll there, know exactly how to get there, and still change buses there. Important for its political evolution is of course its proximity to Thammasat University, where the Pridi Banomyong spirit of activism is kept flickering by politically astute faculty and students.


Frustrated by the sophisticated and unrelented media domination of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, maverick publisher Sondhi Limthongkul launched a viable low-tech media response, speaking on stage, creating a viable political space in the Royal Plaza, building on the experience of open-air seminars at Lumpini Park.


The Royal Plaza, though not as prominent as Sanam Luang, has a significant tradition of being a place to seek inspiration and vent grievances, centred as it is on the shrine-like equestrian statue of an undisputed national hero, backed by buildings of parliament, old and new.


Though a very different city from Beijing, Bangkok has its semi-sacred political sites where the masses, in times of duress, can invoke the mandate of heaven just as Chinese protesters habitually seek to do at Tiananmen Square. In times of political conflict, urban gathering places become coveted political space; both those who rebel and those who rally to the status quo desperately want to demonstrate to the population at large that what they do is true to the tradition of the people, and to do that, they seek association with revered political geography. Washingon DC has its grassy mall, New York its Central Park. Rome offers some sweeping urban vistas and Paris its broad boulevards. London has its Squares like Tokyo its palace front.


China's Tiananmen is an especially powerful political stage because of its stark emptiness, it sits there defiantly empty, waiting to be filled, surrounded by iconic symbols nominally celebrating the power of the people. It is huge but minimalistic, a giant chessboard that draws attention to the people rather than the paving stones. It has few of the joyful distractions of a good garden or public park _ no trees, no ponds, no meadows and no trysting spots; it invites the public to dispute its space, a space so compelling, so hungry for people that the idea was floated after June 4, 1989 to fill it in to avoid a repeat performance.


Today, under the sharp eye of police and undercover operatives, an uneasy compromise reigns. The Chinese people still have access to the people's square, but it is fenced in, heavily surveilled, accessible only at a few choke-points and completely closed during times of political stress. When the good times of boomtown Beijing roll, gala events are held in the Great Hall of the People and Tiananmen Square doubles as a giant parking lot.


Bangkok's earthy Sanam Luang is considerably more graceful than Tiananmen, rounded instead of angular, rimmed with trees instead of fences, but it is not devoid of political symbolism and some hard-nosed development schemes seek to drain it of its remaining vitality.


Not surprisingly, it continues to evoke a romantic resonance for rebels and revolutionaries; after the Oct 6, 1976 crackdown at Thammasat, students going underground to uncertain, risky fates parted hopefully, saying, ''See you at Sanam Luang.''


It is often said that the political shape-shifting demonstration of Oct 14, 1973 started under an old bodhi tree on campus, but without proximity to the bustling downtown environment just outside the gates of campus, such a gathering would have gone nowhere.


That's why the Thaksinista scheme of relocating Thammasat to make room for a Singapore-style waterfront, stripped and sanitised in order to profit from short-term tourism, and the pet plan of former governor Samak Sundaravej to make Sanam Luang the roof of a giant underground parking lot, are not just aesthetically craven projects but politically suspect.


Thaksin's peculiar CEO model of politics is primarily profit-driven, but to ensure survival it goes beyond paving what's left of paradise and putting up more parking lots; it also seeks to bury democratic political space. Controlling public access is one way of containing political expression.


By daring to reclaim such public space, by daring to reclaim the airwaves and print press by criticising a difficult-to-criticise premier, media magnate Sondhi rose from the amoral world of business politics to become a moralistic catalyst for change, not unlike former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, the courageous crowd leader of May 1992 who has now joined forces with Mr Sondhi.


Both men know a thing or two about leading a crowd; their followers have been disciplined, moderate and well-behaved. Every gentle footstep of the peaceable crowd has helped beat a path to increased political participation for all, punching out some badly needed political breathing space, significantly increasing room to manoeuvre in strait-jacketed Bangkok.


Open space creates a place for people to show their love of country in a physical but peaceful way. By asserting the right to gather and speak freely in the face of thuggish threats and juristic injunctions, Thai democratic protesters remind us all of a basic truth all too often ignored.


If there is a mandate of heaven, it is this: sovereignty rests with people who care about their country, not with self-serving leaders, elected or otherwise, who profit from rule and rule for profit.


Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

FOR THE PEOPLE, ALWAYS

BANGKOK POST, FRIDAY JUNE 9, 2006
COMMENT / DIAMOND JUBILEE


For the people, always

A good king makes possible a self-identification, not in the abstract as in the people or the state, but in the easily perceived and palpable form of an extraordinary national representative, the constitutional monarch

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

The first and only time I set eyes on His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was in July 1971. My Thai host family had briefed me well for the occasion. They held the King in the highest esteem and proudly displayed photographs of graduation ceremonies and charitable donations that had momentarily brought them together with their beloved king, the people's king.

One day, without much advance warning other than to be told to shower and dress neatly, I was taken to Wat Boworn, which had been, my Thai mother and sisters explained, the home of another heralded member of the Chakri Dynasty, King Mongkut.

After pondering the fate of the monk-turned-monarch and trying to digest the gist of Buddhism from a pamphlet intriguingly titled, ''Why are we born?'' I was directed to stand with a thickening throng of people just outside the temple gate.

''The King is coming! The King is coming!''

Soon a creamy yellow limo marked with the royal insignia pulled up and a hush went over the expectant crowd.

Being young, American, and thus a little bit foolish, I waved excitedly at the king in contravention of more demure Thai behaviour. His Majesty waved back. I was thrilled.

Looking back 35 years to that distant fleeting moment, and the strong after-image that endures to this day, it is hard to believe that King Bhumibol had already reigned for a quarter of a century at that point.

The extraordinary length of His Majesty's popular reign has meant, in effect, that almost no one in Thailand (excepting those well into their sixties or above) has even a remote idea of what Thailand was like without him.

Thus an identification with King Bhumibol, by stature of the exalted office but more especially by the individual merit of a lifetime of good works, is an indelible part of what it means to be a modern Thai.

Even a foreigner like myself who has maintained a regular engagement with Thailand over several decades cannot escape the feeling of having grown up with the King.

When I returned to the New York suburbs after my exchange student experience in Thailand, I brought with me treasured gifts from Thai friends that helped me keep alive the wonderful memories of my time there. Along with a gold chain, Buddha amulets, teak elephants, silk shirts, hilltribe shoulder bags, temple incense and the like, I had in my Marco Polo suitcase a calendar portrait of Thailand's first family. I put it up in my room during my freshman year at Cornell University, in part because it reminded me of things I did not want to fade from memory, but also in anticipation that my Thai roommate would feel more at home. Alas, the portrait came down at his insistence, for his journey was a parallel but reverse image of mine; he wanted to be more American as much as I wanted to be more Thai. Still, we were both thrilled when the King judiciously interceded in the political upheaval of Oct 14, 1973 and his magical status in my eyes remained intact.

As an intermediate student of Thai, I grew interested in the complexities of Rachasap until I read somewhere that the King, when meeting foreigners, preferred speaking English or French, and even with fellow Thais, he preferred straight talk to elaborate linguistic protocol.

There was a period after Oct 6, 1976, when the possibility of Thailand going communist was on many minds, and as a student of Southeast Asian studies, I read assiduously literature and essays that might shed some light on why this was happening. I read Jit Phumisak, Kukrit Pramoj, Suwat Woradilok, Sulak Srivaraksa, Seni Saowapong, Buddhadhasa Bhikku and even some fragmentary, politicised literature that was coming out of the jungle under the stamp of the Thai communist party.

Despite shared worries for the future, my Thai friends, almost to a person, assured me that no matter what should happen, the King would be part of the solution. The merit of this view seemed to hold forth during the generally agreeable rule of General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was reportedly close to the King and also shared some of the popular royal attributes of graciousness, earnestness and humility.

Any doubts about His Majesty's merits as the people's king were washed away with the brilliant and judicious royal intervention in mid-May 1992 that ended a violent jostle for power and set Thai democracy back on course, with people power winning the day.

Since the 1950s, the Thai monarchy, as has been researched and documented by scholars at Cornell and elsewhere, served as a stabilising role during the ideological tug-of-war as the so-called West and the so-called communist bloc vied for global dominance.

After the dislocation caused by US losses in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia followed by the demand for the withdrawal of US troops from Thailand, there followed the bloody reactionary violence of Oct 6, 1976.

During that deeply troubling juncture, it seemed for a while that the east wind would prevail over the west wind.

A number of Thai friends, normally proud and sometimes borderline xenophobic, were suddenly desperately interested in acquiring green cards to the US or moving investments abroad or even going into exile.

Yet somehow the centre held, and Thailand muddled through this difficult period. The mean-spirited Sino-Soviet split as played out in Indochina and in the rear bases of the Communist Party of Thailand conspired to neutralise the guerilla movement and in the best tradition of Thai political flexibility, former communist enemies of the state were welcomed back into the fold of mainstream Thai society without recrimination, under an amnesty programme sponsored by Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan with the support of US President Jimmy Carter.

If the Thai monarchy performed as expected in the minds of cold warriors worried about the rising wind from the east, it also performed, and continues to perform, a valuable unifying function in the post-Cold War world in which religion has replaced ideology as the organising principle for contested political space.

Given the cultural saturation of Theravada Buddhism in much of Thailand, it is tempting, though inaccurate, for tourist and traditionalist alike, to see Thailand and Buddhism as part and parcel of the same national essence. This was memorialised in the traditional slogan Chart, Satsana, Mahakasat (Nation, Religion, Monarchy).

One way in which the monarchy can help the centre hold during an age of alleged civilisation clash is to offer a non-religious allegiance to the idea of being Thai.

A good king makes possible a self-identification, not in the abstract as in the people or the state, but in the easily perceived, emotionally satisfying and palpable form of an extraordinary national representative, the constitutional monarch.

Although my farang world is far removed from the isolated villages of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, and there is a significant difference between a sometime resident and a born citizen, I think I share with many Thai Muslims the sense that a wise and benevolent king is in a real sense my ultimate protector in Thailand. Much of the King's outreach has been cast in this role, as the protector of minorities and outsiders, just as the great kings in ages past were protectors of those marginal to mainstream society, whether it be the Yuan emperor taking Marco Polo under his wing, or the Japanese emperors whose Kyoto imperial palace even today is ringed with now more-or-less socially integrated descendants of the former Burakumin outcaste community.

As such, a shared respect for an extraordinary monarch may provide the best way to mend the torn social fabric of Thailand's deep South. A successful reconciliation requires finding common ground and common identity outside the confines of religion and the coercive aspect of the state.

During the past year, when excessive greed on the part of a few individuals again seemed to threaten the generally tightly-knit fabric of Thai society, the King quietly pleaded for reason and justice to prevail.

As an American of Irish descent, I was brought up as a republican and democrat, well-versed in the perils of British monarchy, the plainspoken rejection of which has shaped both American and Irish political ideology.

But as a sometime resident of Thailand, I have been privileged to see a wise and benevolent king bring justice, identity and pride to a people struggling with an imperfect import of America's imperfect democracy.

Long Live the King!

NO ISLAND IS AN ISLAND


Meanwhile: No island is an island


Philip J. Cunningham

Published in the International Herald Tribune
August 4, 2006

KYOTO, Japan

Japan is often described, with just a hint of defensiveness, as an island country, as if that somehow underscores uniqueness or excuses exceptions to being a good neighbor. Yet sailing from Japan to China offers ample evidence that no island in today's world is truly an island; far-flung points of land are what they are today due to long-standing liquid links.

Taking the ferry from Kobe to Tianjin, a leisurely two-day, two-night journey through the peaceful but contested waters where Japan's Japan Sea, Korea's East Sea and China's Yellow Sea swirl and overlap is an eye-opener for the harried, jet-age traveler. There's a lot of time to think, with daily activity reduced to the simple, older rhythms of no-frills boat travel. Three meals a day and a book, plus walking the deck and staring at the sea is about all there is on the menu. No Internet, no satellite television, no news.

Albert Einstein was on board such a ship en route to Japan when he learned, very belatedly, the news of his Nobel Prize. Einstein commenced his long trip back to Europe by boarding a boat in Kobe and sailing to Shanghai, disembarking on the Bund. Making a voyage more than half a century later, it was not only possible to follow a similar sea route, but to disembark on the Bund and check into the crumbling but ornate Pujiang Hotel where a sign announced that Einstein was once a guest, back when it was called the Astor.

Nowadays, nobody takes the boat, at least nobody in the Washington or Hollywood sense of the word. The slow boat to China is as slow as ever, chugging along at an unhurried pace, but it's clean and comfortable, and the stretched out sense of time it engenders brings to mind a largely forgotten way of doing things.

And therein lies some of the charm, especially to anyone tired of the long lines, repeated security checks and tense, hermetically-sealed environments of modern airports. The ferry aficionado of today keeps company with fellow travelers content with simplicity - exchange students, retirees, war orphans and ethnic Chinese with Japan-acculturated kids, seeking an inexpensive holiday back in the motherland.

As the Yanjing pulls out of the port of Kobe, it sweeps past giant naval shipyards where a large submarine is being constructed in plain view, then traverses the Seto Inland Sea, hugging barren rocky outcroppings and islets that appear to be isolated but are tightly linked by magnificent bridges, rail infrastructure and soaring power lines, not to mention the invisible television and telecommunication links to Tokyo.

Physical and political isolation have been further reduced by the speed and scope of air travel, of course, but the older paradigm of linkage - that of seaborne traffic - continues to shore up age-old patterns of politics and trade, linked by a web of shipping lanes largely out of view to the landlocked.

Sea routes may not figure high in contemporary consciousness, but they are vital and pulsing with traffic; upon the entrance to critical narrow straits like Shimonoseki, giant electric signboards blink instructions as boats line up in single file like jets on a runway, rocking gently in the wake of the long line of boats passing as they plow in the opposite direction.

Once passing beyond the breath- taking natural gateway formed by the rock fortress extremities of Honshu and Kyushu, the ferry overtakes a number of the heavily laden cargo ships that dominate the waters off Japan. Off the south coast of Korea, numerous fishing boats work close to the coastline.

Standing on deck and watching the sea go by, one is reminded not only of the vastness of our planet's watery surface but its vulnerability. The restless waves are littered with paper, plastic bottles, and bobbing bits of Styrofoam, so much so that a skilled captain could probably navigate from port to port by following the undulating trail of rubbish.

The sheer volume and seemingly endless flow of traffic on this busy water road linking Asian neighbors offers a fresh perspective on the sporadic stream of anti-Japan protests on the streets of Shanghai or Seoul. It will take a lot more than childish displays of nationalism to sink the buoyant business of burgeoning trade.

There is something deeply reassuring about the sea doing what it always has done, offering dependable links from one shore to another, offering a sense of a shared fate on a shared planet, even as it appears to divide.

(Philip J. Cunningham is a professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.)

LAND OF THE RISING SHUN

from the February 22, 2007 edition of the Christian Science Monitor

Land of the rising shun

Japan and the US are friends, and they must listen to each other's criticism.

By Philip J. Cunningham

KYOTO, JAPAN - When Shinzo Abe met Dick Cheney in Japan this week, a special kind of chemistry was probably in effect. The hawkish Japanese prime minister and the bellicose US vice president, self-described friends, have more in common than declining poll numbers. They both have war on their minds.

What we have on the one side is Mr. Abe, a historical revisionist, glorifying the losers of the last world war to reshape the past. On the other side you have Mr. Cheney, a hard-line unilateralist who has been one of the biggest planners and defenders of the American-led war in Iraq.

Cheney visited Japan this week, according to the White House, to thank officials there for "their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan." Japan has sent noncombat troops to Iraq and has supplied logistical support in Afghanistan. But even as backing for the Iraq war continues to slip at home, Cheney arrived in a Japan roiled by its own debate about rising militarism.

The latest example came when Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma suggested last month that the war in Iraq was a mistake. He was criticized roundly by Abe's people, and Cheney then snubbed the defense chief. The message: Friends don't criticize friends.

There was no rational reason for Japan to get entangled in Iraq, and there's even less reason to become involved in Iran. However, Cheney appears bent on whipping up support for a reluctant Japan to continue to follow the Bush administration's lead in the war-torn Middle East. In refusing to meet with the defense minister, Cheney seemed to be saying that a silent nod to the wise is sufficient.

But the Japanese can say no, and why shouldn't they? Is it really in the interest of the Japanese people to bind their fate to the declining fortunes of the Bush-Cheney team? Or might this be a good time, as opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa belatedly suggested a few weeks ago, to point out the obvious folly of US ways, as a friend would, helping a friend? Japan has yet to finish apologizing for the mess it made the last time it went to war, so why drag it into a new one?

The US occupation of post-World War II Japan, along with a unique "peace constitution," was designed to make a former warrior nation allergic to war, and it largely succeeded. It is not only Japan's neighbors who get upset when Japanese pols visit the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals among the war dead; in fact, more than half of those polled in Japan are against such visits as well. From time to time, US voices, such as former Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, remind us that official visits to a shrine that makes a mockery of Pearl Harbor and Nanjing do not serve US-Japan interests, either.

Likewise, Japan should listen carefully to what other American statesmen have been saying. A motion by Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California calling for an apology on the oft-denied issue of Imperial Japan's "sex slaves" and other wartime injustices, is not bullying but a nudge – from a friend to a friend – saying we need to agree on basic facts for the relationship to go forward.

The widespread Japanese commitment to peace, after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, extends to an understandable abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Yet military analysts say that US ships armed with nuclear weapons routinely pull into Japanese ports such as Yokosuka and Okinawa – making a sham of Japan's "three nonnuclear principles" (not possessing, producing, or permitting nuclear weapons into the country).

Cheney took part in a photo-op aboard the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk during his visit – an insensitive move that might well come to be regretted as a "mission accomplished" moment for the vice president. Tokyo's flamboyant mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, had primed the public by asserting – without apparent evidence – that the Kitty Hawk is nuclear-equipped.

Instead of posing on the carrier, Cheney should have taken the time to hear what Mr. Kyuma and other Japanese critics of the Iraq war had to say.

• Philip J. Cunningham is a professor in the social studies department at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. ©2007 The Los Angeles Times Syndicate.