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The Pax Axis


It was only the other day, on a visit to Tokyo, that I realized something familiar had disappeared from the Japanese landscape: the blind and maimed veterans of the Japanese Imperial Army, who had fought and lost the war in China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. Until about ten years ago they were still to be seen, in their white kimonos and dark glasses, standing on their crude artificial limbs of wood, steel, and leather, playing melancholy old army tunes on their battered accordions, in the halls of railway stations or in front of Shinto shrines or in public parks, hoping to pick up some spare change. Young people, smartly dressed in the latest Western fashions, mostly passed them by without a glance, as though these broken men didn’t exist, as though they were ghosts visible only to themselves. Older people would sometimes slip them a few coins, a little furtively, like paying an embarrassing relative to stay out of sight. Japan had moved on, was getting rich. The ghostlike figures in their white kimonos brought back memories that nobody wanted.

Officially Japan no longer has an army. Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, a document drawn up under the stern eyes of the American occupying forces in 1946, states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” And in order to accomplish this aim, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Instead, Japan has the so-called Self-Defense Forces. The same Americans—though not always literally the same people—who had wanted the Japanese to be permanently disarmed, as an exemplary nation of peace, changed their minds in 1950, on the eve of the Korean War, and decided that Japan should defend itself after all. A National Police Reserve was created. The Japanese left called this unconstitutional. They were overruled. The first US–Japan Security Treaty was signed. Richard Nixon, on a visit to Japan in 1953, said that Article Nine had been a mistake. Japanese conservatives agreed, but were unable to convince the public. The cold war heated up, business began to boom, and the socialists lost more and more ground. The Self-Defense Forces were legalized, though some still regard them as unconstitutional, and the Americans continued to occupy bases all over Japan.

In fact, Japan never regained its full sovereignty. The US took care of security, while the Japanese took care of business, a cozy deal for the Japanese corporations, and the conservative Liberal Democratic party that represented their interests. The LDP and the equally conservative bureaucracy, staffed by many of the same men who had administered Japan during the war, consolidated their grip on power. The left, which had emerged from the war with great dreams of strong trade unions, social reforms, liberal politics, and unarmed peace—dreams which the Americans had done everything at first to encourage—felt betrayed, and retreated into a pacifism that was anti-American, pro-Chinese, pro–North Korean, pro-anything-socialist-and-non-Western.

The old Axis partner, Germany, followed a similar, but not identical course. There, too, the people had been promised peace for all time, or at least that any future war would be fought “without us.” (Even now, according to regular polls, many Germans dream of Germany being a larger version of Switzerland.) And there, too, the cold war and especially the rearming of the Communist eastern part of Germany, changed the American mind. Germany was to have an army again, which was placed at the disposal of NATO, under an American commander. Rearmament was greeted with no more enthusiasm, especially among Social Democrats, than it had been in Japan. A considerable segment of the German left not only blamed America for making West Germany a military nation again, but also for keeping the two Germanies apart by doing so.

Still, the Germans managed to get a more sensible deal than the Japanese. In return for drumming up an army, with considerable difficulty, the Federal Republic regained much of its sovereignty in 1954. Five years earlier the German Basic Law had been drawn up by German jurists continuing in the tradition of the Weimar Republic, whereas the Japanese constitution was—and still is—closely identified with the postwar American occupation. An emergency law was passed, enabling Germany to take control of its own defense, something Japan cannot legally do to this day. There is nothing in the German constitution to stop Germany from participating in the collective defense of NATO countries, though there is dis-agreement about whether German troops can be deployed outside the NATO region. And by raising an army of conscripts, the German armed forces are more part of mainstream life than that furtive, rather isolated Japanese entity called the Self-Defense Forces. About the quality of German soldiers, opinions differ. An Israeli diplomat called them “chocolate soldiers.” But the air force is highly praised. And most Germans are agreed that their army is “very democratic.” Yet in Germany, as in Japan, there is a lingering feeling of bitterness and frustration: bitterness about being dragged so swiftly back into the wicked world, frustration about the continued presence of the 239,900 “Amis,” on whose power the security of Germany still depends. These feelings sometimes boil over into angry demonstrations when the wicked world refuses to conform to the dreams of universal peace.


The architecture of the defense ministries in Bonn and Tokyo is oddly similar. The buildings not only lack the pompous grandeur of similar institutions in nations which still take pride in the feu sacré of their warriors, but they actually look rather shabby, a little jerry-built, almost as though they shouldn’t really be there at all. The ministry in Tokyo isn’t even called a ministry, but an “agency.” Inside the agency I spoke to Mr. Hagi, a defense policy bureaucrat. On the wall of his office was a pinup photo of a young girl in a bikini. I told Mr. Hagi that I had just arrived from Germany, where I had begun research for an article on the attitudes of the former Axis powers to war in general, and to the Gulf War in particular.

Ah,” he said with a gentle smile, “I like the Germans very much, but they can also be a dangerous people, just like us Japanese. We swing from one extreme to another. We are disciplined and hard-working, and when our energies are pointed in the right direction, we are capable of great things. But when we go the wrong way, well….” Here he paused. “And besides, we are racists.”

A week before seeing Mr. Hagi, I was in the Bonn office of Norbert Gansel, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats. On his wall was a photograph of Kiel, Mr. Gansel’s native city, in ruins after the Allied bombings in 1945. Mr. Gansel is about fifty. His plum-colored suit, steel-framed Schubert glasses, and general demeanor speak of a man who came of age in the 1960s. He poured us both some Japanese rice wine. “Goes down like oil,” he said. He then swiftly came to the point: “My personal political philosophy, and maybe even my ambition, are based on an element of distrust in the people I represent, people whose parents and grandparents made Hitler and the persecution of Jews possible.”

Distrust. It is a common sentiment in Germany and Japan, especially in leftist circles. Distrust of their own people. Would they be able to restrain themselves if faced again with the heady temptations of military power? As the former SPD chief Oskar Lafontaine put it recently in response to calls for more German participation in the Gulf War: “Don’t these foreigners understand that you can’t offer brandy chocolates to a former alcoholic who has finally managed to stay on the wagon?” Opinion polls in Germany and Japan showed that while the majority in both countries favored allied efforts to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, few people wanted their own troops to help do the job. So money—$9 billion by Japan, $11 billion by Germany—was pledged instead.

The German Social Democrats seem to be having second thoughts about this huge donation now that the fighting is over. Unlike the British, who rather enjoyed their war, which reminded them of their finest hour, Germans were depressed about the war from the beginning. Their mood was so somber that they decided not to celebrate this year’s Karneval. And the fact that West Germans are having to pay more and more to keep a bankrupted East from collapse injected a sense of panic into the general gloom. There are now more unemployed in Berlin than in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Some Social Democrats have suggested that the money meant for the Gulf War would be better spent on relieving German problems.

The Japanese donation, too, was not without complications. It came with the proviso that not one yen was to be spent on military activity itself. To many Japanese this seemed entirely consistent with the postwar deal: the US would do the soldiering and the Japanese content themselves with business. One Japanese commentator, Kase Hideaki, a well-known critic of the deal, likes to provoke foreign visitors by calling the Americans “our white mercenaries.”

Distrust is the reason why the leftwing parties in both former Axis powers see it as their duty to act as watchdogs against any hint of resurgent militarism or fascism. It is why neo-Nazi movements are explicitly unconstitutional in Germany. Distrust, as well as that still-smarting sense of betrayal, is why the anti-American left in Japan clings to the American-made constitution, to block attempts to rewrite it by conservatives, who are, if not pro-American in sentiment, usually pro-American in practice. Distrust set the tone in many German TV programs, broadcast during the Gulf conflict, in which older people remembered how they suffered during the war, and younger people asked how Germans could possibly fight in another war, after what they had done in the last one. A recent poll found that 43 percent of young Germans thought their armed forces were “superfluous,” and 11 percent actually “harmful.” Young doctors in Hesse agonized whether their conscience allowed them to treat soldiers wounded in the Gulf, for wouldn’t this be an indirect way of participating in the war? Pastors discussed what Martin Luther said about killing one’s fellow man. There are 100,000 conscientious objectors in Germany today, doing some kind of alternative service, a duty from which only clergymen are freed.

It is a pleasing thought that the pacifism of postwar Germans and Japanese should be a sign of wisdom, of lessons learned the hard way. This thought, a common one in Germany and Japan, was nicely summed up recently in a reader’s letter to the left-leaning Asahi newspaper in Tokyo: “Now, of all times, we Japanese have the right, as well as the duty, to oppose war and to tell the world about our own experiences, how our innocent civilians were sacrificed by terrible bombings.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki have given the Japanese an urgent sense of mission to bring peace to the world. Which is not to say that pacifism is universal in Japan, or that no one recognizes the limitations of appeasement. During the Gulf War there was a great deal of hand-wringing about Japan’s “shameful” passivity in such right-of-center newspapers as the Yomiuri and the Sankei (which recently ran a full-page ad, paid for by sixty-five Japanese intellectuals, thanking America for destroying Saddam). And parallels between Saddam Hussein’s military ambitions and the adventures of the Japanese Imperial Army on the Chinese continent were drawn, not, as one might have expected, by people of the left, but by conservatives, who do not normally dwell on Japan’s military sins. The critic Saeki Shoichi, for example, wrote in the conservative monthly Bungei Shunju, that “Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial methods, and his ruthless way of storming ahead with complete disregard for international rules, was very much like our country before and during the war.” But on balance, memories of Japanese suffering carried more weight than those of Japanese aggression.

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