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


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.