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The Pax Axis

When the Japanese mission to “enrich the nation and strengthen the army” (as the Meiji slogan had it) got going in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Japan modeled itself on Wilhelminian Germany, with its Prussian constitution, its Kaiser-like emperor, its military zeal, and its mystical view of the nation-state. The rhetoric, however, was not Protestant, but neo-Confucian. Politics was replaced by an ideal of national harmony and reverence for the emperor. Liberalism, with its talk of individual rights, was Western, decadent, coldly rational, materialistic, amoral, divisive, in short, wholly unsuited to the Japanese family state. This view of politics, though not of course its militaristic aims, is shared by some millenarian enemies of liberalism in the Green and peace movements today.

After the Second World War, liberalism had a promising start in Japan: trade unionists, socialists, social democrats, left-wing teachers, and liberal intellectuals wanted a complete break from the militarist past. They, too, had their Stunde Null, so to speak, but by the early 1950s, the trade union movement had been emasculated and the left-wing political parties were pushed to the margins of political life. Their last gasp was in 1960, when large demonstrations failed to prevent the conservative government from ramming through a new security treaty with the United States, which locked Japan into the American strategy for fighting communism in Asia. Marxism survived in a rigid, almost ritualistic form in the universities, the National Teachers’ Union, and some political journals. What happened in those circles was the substitution of one kind of national mission with another. The missionary language had become the rhetoric of pacifist opposition. Although Marxism is hardly a popular creed in Japan, and by no means all Japanese are anti-American, the pacifist rhetoric is nonetheless quite pervasive, even among people who will dutifully vote for the ruling conservatives at every election, because they see no alternative. Moralism in politics is usually a sign of impotence. After all, what else can a Japanese do but preach, so long as he feels unrepresented by a corrupt, one-party government at home, and by Washington abroad?

The situation in Germany was both more and less grim than in Japan; more, because the country was divided for so long, less, because liberalism continued to flourish in the Federal Republic. The Social Democrats have had their turn in power, and because of the German system of coalition government, there has to be a mixture of varying political views, with the small Free Democrat party and its middle-class constituency holding the balance of power. The politics of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the Free Democrat foreign minister, are not the same as Helmut Kohl’s. Conservatives in the Christian Democratic Union, or Defense Ministry officials, criticize Genscher for being a fair-weather politician, promising, as they put it, “peace, cake, and happiness.” He has been criticized for being soft on the Soviets and for dithering too long before offering German support to the multinational forces in the Gulf. He is accused of being a moralist with little understanding of Realpolitik.

These criticisms are perhaps a little unfair. Genscher has tried to reconcile interests which were not always reconcilable: German unification and Ostpolitik with the installation of Pershing missiles on German soil (which he supported); a special relationship with third world countries in the Middle East and solidarity with the Western nations. And if he has stressed the exceptionally peaceful nature of postwar Germany to the point of sounding moralistic about other countries, this is excusable so long as others continue to view Germany with distrust.

Joachim Fest, editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, believes that Germany should do more to keep the peace than talk about it, or pay others to do the dirty work. He has criticized Germany for what he called “its special moralizing role,” for taking for granted all the benefits of an international order, while sitting in moral judgment of the Western countries that have taken steps to protect it. This moralizing attitude, he said, has almost become the raison d’état of the Republik.

Helmut Kohl would seem to agree. His party, the CDU, is in favor of changing the German constitution to enable German armed forces to be integrated in a multinational European alliance and to help resolve conflicts all over the world. Had it not been for the Gulf War, this idea would not have been so urgent. Until recently, German attention was entirely concentrated on the threat from the Soviet Union. But now that the Wall has come down, the cold war is seemingly over and the Soviet Union a spent and disintegrating force, the center of security concerns will shift to other regions. Future conflicts are more likely to occur outside Europe, and the United Nations, or NATO, or some European defense coalition might well be called on to help solve them. Lord Ismay’s famous dictum about NATO’s purpose in Europe being to “Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down” makes little sense any more. A similar point can be made about Japan, the other junior partner that had to be kept down, while the Russians (and Chinese) were kept at bay.

But things are not as simple as Chancellor Kohl might wish. Mr. Genscher has agreed that German troops might take part in future UN or European operations, but the Social Democrats still insist that the German commitment must be confined to UN “blue helmet” peace-keeping missions. Without a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag, there can be no change in the constitution. But without a change it is hard to see how future problems with Germany’s Western partners can be avoided.

In Tokyo, no one, apart from a small and vociferous group of right-wingers, challenges the peace constitution. As far as Japan’s future role is concerned, Prime Minister Kaifu has suggested that Japan might use its $9 million foreign aid budget to spread pacifism. Japan would ban any aid to countries that export arms. A former government official called Sawa Eiji offered the idea that “if America is going to be the world’s policeman, maybe Japan can be the world’s social worker.” The idea of Japan entering the world’s slums ladling out soup to the deserving poor at least takes Japan’s new wealth into account, but it is still a variation on the postwar arrangement.

3.

This January, Norbert Gansel gave a speech to the Bundestag in which he said that the German constitution was “a lesson drawn from the fact that our neighbors were twice the victims of German armies. To know whether we have learned our lesson sufficiently during the last forty years for our newly unified country to fulfill its new duties in the United Nations, we will need some serious self-examination.”

Self-examination is precisely what a growing number of conservatives, ranging from historians such as Michael Stürmer to politicians like Alfred Dregger, and even Helmut Kohl, are growing tired of. It was in 1987 that the late Franz-Josef Strauss, then the minister-president of Bavaria, said it was time for Germany to “emerge from the shadow of the Third Reich.” It was time for Germany “to become a normal nation again.”

One comes across this phrase “normal nation” often among conservative commentators and politicians in Germany, as often as one hears terms like “self-examination” among liberals. A “normal” nation, it is implied, would not continually be examining its past. Indeed, the conservative idea of normality can be seen as a direct challenge to the postwar role of the nation in sackcloth and ashes, the reformed alcoholic being closely guarded by the moral watchdogs of the left.

There is, of course, no such thing as a normal nation, only ideas of what normality should be. On this there can be no complete consensus. But if there is a clear link between such disparate figures as Helmut Kohl, Alfred Dregger, Michael Stürmer, the historian Andreas Hillgruber, or Joachim Fest, it is this: a normal Germany is a nation which can take its rightful place among Western democratic states, defend its national interests, as well as those of the democratic world, with force if need be, without feeling burdened by its unfortunate past. None of these men advocates a return to militarism, but all want to doff the sackcloth and ashes. The past, in their view, has been mastered. Too much self-examination becomes a form of self-destruction.

Because the self-imposed duty of liberals to act as moral guardians is now being challenged from the right, history has become highly politicized. It is why an academic dispute such as the Historikerstreit became so heated. When Andreas Hillgruber claims that Germans should feel empathy with the patriotism of German soldiers who fought the Russians on the eastern front, or that Hitler himself, and not the German people, was to blame for the Holocaust, he might simply be trying to foster a healthy pride in being German and counter morbid introspection, which obstructs his view of normality. But his liberal opponents are right to say that history is distorted to make a political point.

An outsider to these debates may wonder whether both sides are not looking at the German problem from the same rather skewed angle. Should a debate about national defense policy—the old question, that is, whether Germany can be trusted with military power without running amok—really be about attitudes to history and the national identity, whatever that may be? Should it not be more about political checks on the army, than about guilt and self-examination? Perhaps this is a matter of emphasis, since these matters cannot be kept entirely separate. But so far as the checks and balances are concerned, the Federal Republic has little to worry about. It is a fully sovereign nation with a normally functioning democracy, which is more than can be said for Japan.

Japanese conservatives have also challenged the postwar order. Former prime minister Nakasone, for example, often expressed his frustration with what he called the “unfinished business” of the postwar era, by which he meant the unfortunate legacy of the American occupation: the peace constitution, the purely symbolic position of the emperor, the lack of patriotism in modern education, and the guilty attitude to the war, for which the Japanese carry too much blame. Like Stürmer, Hillgruber, and other German conservatives, Nakasone stresses the importance of a healthy national identity, unencumbered by guilt: “What is most required in Japan today is patriotism in the right sense based on idealism.” To show the way, Nakasone, in his official capacity, decided to visit Yasukuni Jinja, where the spirits of such class-A war criminals as Tojo Hideki are enshrined—the first postwar prime minister to do so. (He was immediately accused by leftists of “bringing militarism a step closer again.”) But above all, he is concerned about the question of national sovereignty. Defense and politics, he has argued, must “be based on self-determination of the Japanese race.” (Nakasone usually prefers the word “race” to “people.”)

Ishihara Shintaro, LDP politician, novelist, hawk-about-town, and, like Nakasone, a former drinking companion of the author Mishima Yukio, coined the famous phrase that Japan must say No—No to Big Brother USA. What motivates Nakasone, Ishihara, and various other intellectuals, such as Kase Hideaki, who support their cause, is not nostalgia for militarism, or fascism. Nor are they necessarily anti-Western. But they are all deeply dissatisfied with the postwar deal. A normal Japan, in their view, must be able to take care of itself, without guilt, and without having to defer to Washington every time there is an international crisis.

There are rational arguments to be made for this view. Indeed, I think it is the right one. The problem with the Japanese right is, however, that their views of a normal Japanese identity can be rather alarming. When a perfectly reasonable man like Kase Hideaki writes about emperor worship, he sounds like a religious fundamentalist: “The emperor is someone close to the gods. No, better still, he is a god.” When Nakasone extols the virtues of the monoracial state, he sounds like a blood and soil philosopher. In August 1983, on the anniversary of the A-bomb attack, he gave a speech in Hiroshima, stating that “our same Yamato race has been living on these islands hand in hand for at least two thousand years, unmixed with other ethnic groups.” This was not only patently untrue, but it offended the Korean A-bomb survivors present on that occasion. And when Fujio Masayuki, a former minister of education, says that Japan did nothing to be ashamed of during the Greater East Asian war, one begins to understand why Japanese liberals, leftists, Christians, and others concerned with peace cling to the constitution, for the country’s defense can surely not be entrusted to men who hold such reactionary opinions. That is why even to mention constitutional revision, outside right-wing circles, is virtually taboo. And so defense continues to be entrusted to the Americans, and Japan continues to get richer, which takes us back to the core of the problem.

The rather bizarre rhetoric of the nationalist right, like the pan-Asian pacifism of the left, is but another example of political blockage, of impotence. Because Japan has become a de facto one-party state, run by bureaucrats and, so far as security is concerned, subservient to Washington, political debates about national interests hardly take place. Instead you have pseudo-debates about national identity, the nature of Japaneseness, the role of the emperor, and so on. It is, in effect, all there is to talk about.

Take, for instance, Kamei Shizuka, a youngish former police official and well-known hawk in the ruling Liberal Democratic party. He has often been outspoken in his views on the need for emperor worship, the lack of patriotism in schools, the misplaced guilt about Japan’s war, in short, the national identity issue. I spoke to Kamei in his office, near the Diet building. In the slightly gangsterish tone of voice often adopted by right-wing Japanese MPs, he put forth his view on the Gulf War. He would be perfectly frank with me, he said. Publicly, he agreed that Saddam Hussein did wrong to invade Kuwait, and Japan should help to oust him. Privately, however, I should not get the impression that anyone could pull wool over Japanese eyes. The Japanese could see perfectly well that the war was fought by the US for Jewish interests. Why, only the other day, the Jew Henry Kissinger was on television propagating the war. And besides—and here Kamei looked distinctly peeved—Japan was not even consulted by Washington.

I changed the subject a bit and told him that some German conservatives I had spoken to also wanted their country to play a more active military role, but that they all wanted Germany to be in the Western camp. Yes, he said, he could understand that, Germans were after all Europeans. But the Japanese were of a different race. It was most important to remember that.

Did this mean, I asked, that if Japan revised its constitution and became less dependent on the US, it would break away from the West, and form a regional alliance, based on cultural and racial affinities? He thought this over, growled for a moment or two, and said: “We will form alliances with some countries in Asia, of course, but ultimately our interests are with the industrialized Western democracies.” This sounded reassuring. Then he went on: “But of course our constitution will never be revised.”

Oh,” I said, “why do you think that?”

America will never allow it.”

For a moment I felt as though I were in Manila, that capital of postcolonial hangups. Then I realized that in a sense I was. What is blocking a political debate in Japan on its constitution, on its defense policy, on its relationship with the US, is not really the chauvinism of the right, or the pacifism of the left: it is the postwar deal itself. As long as this persists, Prime Minister Kaifu can hardly be blamed for not sending Japanese troops to the Gulf. He is only abiding by the constitution. And so long as the constitution stands as it is, so he should.

Yet blamed he is, especially in Washington. And Japan will be collectively blamed in the US for not being a good ally, for shirking its duty, for not standing up to be counted. Such blame will come in handy for trade protectionists and others who wish to stop Japan in its economic tracks. Japanese will then blame Americans for being jealous, imperious, even racist, and an already fragile relationship will be damaged even more. So what might have made sense in 1945, after the Japanese failed to bring the entire world under their imperial roof, has become an obstacle to the very things it was meant to achieve: a more open, democratic, responsible Japan, which would be America’s best friend forever after.

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