The Guardian August 15, 2001


Japan: New leader, but old values hold

by Kenny Coyle

New Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has courted controversy over 
his government's acceptance of a history textbook that whitewashes his 
country's crimes in its aggressive Asian war in the 1930s and '40s. On top 
of this, he plans to visit a Shinto shrine that commemorates Japan's war 
dead, including many convicted "class A" war criminals.

The bouffant-haired Koizumi will be only the second serving premier to 
visit the Yasukuni Shrine since Yasuhiro Nakasoni visited it in 1985, which 
was the 40th anniversary of Japan's defeat.

Koizumi is riding a wave of popularity, with Koizumi dolls being snapped up 
in Japanese department stores.

He presents himself as a man outside the normal power blocks of the ruling 
right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and as a politician who is 
willing to listen to popular moods and take on vested interests.

His economic policies, which are still vague and unimplemented, are likely 
to be less popular in practice. Massive cuts in public expenditure and 
privatisation are the main planks so far.

However, the textbook row and his proposed visit to the shrine takes place 
at a time when Japan's neighbours, particularly China and both Korean 
states, who were victims of a brutal colonial expansion in the first half 
of the 20th century, have vigorously protested at what they regard as a 
glossing-over of Japanese imperialist crimes.

Japan's great east Asia war, which cost the lives of 3.5 million Japanese 
and perhaps 15-20 million other Asian victims, remains a fiercely 
controversial issue at home and to its Asian neighbours.

During the '30s and '40s, the Japanese militarists were able to deceive 
some Asian independence fighters such as Aung San in Burma, India's Subhas 
Chandra Rose and Indonesia's Sukarno into colluding with them by presenting 
their colonial expansion as a liberating counterweight to the existing 
white European empires in Asia.

In most cases, the sheer brutality of Japanese occupation was such that 
these illusions did not last long.

Koizumi's comments on the reasons for his participation in the performances 
of rites at the shrine, which he had already visited before becoming 
premier, are instructive.

"I need to make a visit as Prime Minister because Japan's return to 
prosperity was helped by the sacrifices of our soldiers", he said, 
displaying the arrogant disregard for the suffering of millions of Asians 
that has characterised the Japanese political right since 1945.

The linking of Japan's economic power with its history of aggression cannot 
but send shivers down the spines of its regional neighbours.

Today's mainstream Japanese right-wing wants to revise Japan's post-war 
settlement which formally prohibits Japan's possession of military forces.

In fact, Japan has a well-equipped self-defence force (SDF)  an army, 
navy and air force in all but name.

The right seeks to remove all restrictions on the SDF to enable Japan to 
further fully assert its economic muscle, which is backed by military 
might.

Koizumi has declared his intention to press for Japan to become a permanent 
member of the UN Security Council.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has lodged formal protests over the shrine 
visit and is outraged that soldiers who murdered thousands of Chinese 
during Japan's 1937-1945 war should be honoured in such an official manner.

It has also pointed out eight major uncorrected inaccuracies in the text 
relating to China.

In South Korea, anti-Japanese sentiment is reaching fever pitch, with 
regular demonstrations against the new history textbook.

Particular anger has been directed at the textbook's omission of references 
to the so-called "comfort women"  the tens of thousands of enslaved women 
in Japanese military brothels.

South Korea is suspending military links, while trade and cultural ties 
with Japan are also being reviewed.

Ironically, of course, one war criminal who never faced trial was Emperor 
Hirohito himself.

His guilt in Japanese crimes was left uninvestigated after the war, as the 
US occupation forces in Japan, under General Douglas MacArthur, sought to 
bolster traditional Japanese institutions for fear of encouraging radical 
republicanism and communism.

Of the three main defeated World War II powers, Japan has been the last 
nation to come to terms with its past.

It signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany in 1936 and Italy added 
its name the following year.

The pact was not merely an anti-communist program, it also formalised 
spheres of influence among the fascist powers, giving Japan a free hand in 
Manchuria in northern China.

Now, more than half a century after the end of the World War II, Japanese 
nationalism is becoming more strident.

As with the German far-right, historical revisionism now asserts that the 
defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific allowed for the spread of communism.

Koizumi may present himself as cut from a different cloth, but his views 
are increasingly common among the mainstream right.

Sections of the LDP have long flirted with emperor-worshipping militarist 
associations on the extreme right.

They are also linked by corrupt ties to the underworld, which is a source 
of finance for the fascist fringe and lucrative bribes and kickbacks for 
the politicians.

Koizumi's predecessor as Prime Minister, the gaffe-prone Yoshiro Mori, 
likewise courted nationalist and historical revisionist sentiments.

In a speech to LDP supporters in his native Ishikawa prefecture in June 
2000, Mori called for "jugo", literally "behind the guns", support.

The term was used by Japanese militarists during World War II to encourage 
women to support the war effort of soldiers fighting overseas by taking 
care of the children and family on the home front.

This followed an earlier remark that caused deeper and more widespread 
outrage, even from partners in his coalition government.

Speaking to a gathering of parliamentarians belonging to Shinto Seiji 
Renmei, a political group of the Association of Shinto Shrines, Mori said: 
"We have made efforts to make the public realise that Japan is a divine 
nation centring on the emperor".

"It's been 30 years since we started our activities based on this thought."

The similarity to the widely used war-time term that exalted the Japanese 
as a "divine race" was not lost on observers at home or abroad.

However, peace forces in Japan have not been fooled by the Koizumi effect.

A recent Japanese Communist Party (JCP) statement showed no illusions of 
who Koizumi is or the dangerous trend that he represents.

The JCP warned: "No sooner had Prime Minister Koizumi taken office than his 
hawkish stance stood out in conjunction with his failure to reflect on 
Japan's war of colonial aggression.

"For example, he publicly stated his intention to visit Yasukuni Shrine as 
the Prime Minister in defiance of the constitutional principle or 
separation of politics and religion."

All of this happens as Asian economies lurch deeper into recession and 
fears are growing of a repeat of the crisis of 1997-98 that engulfed the 
Asia Pacific.

It is against this background that the rising regional tensions and the 
attempts to rehabilitate Japanese militarism must be seen.

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