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Why They Hate Japan


Those who think that the Japanese are a little odd will have been confirmed in their prejudice by the behavior of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro during his June visit to the United States. The social highlight was a trip to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Japanese leader, with his arm around Elvis’s only daughter, Lisa Marie, swiveled his hips and crooned a rendition of “Love Me Tender.” The excursion was President Bush’s gift to Koizumi for his staunch support of the Iraq war and “the close friendship of our people.” This, and a jukebox stocked with Elvis hits. On their way south on the presidential aircraft, the two men listened to more Elvis while consuming grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. “It’s a dream,” exclaimed Koizumi.1

An address to a joint session of Congress was also in the original package, but the Japanese prime minister politely declined without offering an explanation. The reason was a trifle embarrassing. Koizumi, unlike any other postwar Japanese prime minister, has made a habit of visiting Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo where the souls of warriors who died for the imperial cause are honored. His last visit was on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The honored souls include those of war criminals such as General Tojo Hideki. Tojo’s portrait can be seen inside the shrine’s war museum, along with the grim countenances of officers from the notorious Kempeitai (the nearest Japanese equivalent to the SS), and the more wholesome faces of kamikaze pilots.

The Yasukuni museum celebrates the wartime Japanese as peace-loving, benevolent, heroic fighters against Western imperialism in Asia. This is why Congressman Henry Hyde made it clear to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert that if Koizumi were allowed to address Congress, he “would dishonor the place where President Franklin Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”

Yasukuni Shrine is a long way from Graceland. A fondness for both places might seem eccentric, or at least paradoxical. How can a man be such an Americophile while subscribing to an unreconstructed view of Japan’s wartime past? Is it possible to dream of crooning “Love Me Tender” to Lisa Marie while also wishing to pray for General Tojo’s soul? The answer is complicated, but yes, it is indeed possible. Koizumi’s apparent paradox has a history. It has to do not only with Japanese attitudes toward the US, but also toward China and other parts of Asia. If Congressman Hyde finds visits by a postwar Japanese prime minister to a former center of state Shintoism offensive, the Chinese, who suffered so much more than the Americans under Japanese militarism, and the Koreans, who were forced to pray to the Japanese emperor at colonial Shinto shrines in their own country, find it even more so.

Koizumi himself is strangely obtuse when it comes to history that goes further back than the rise of rock-and-roll. His response to criticism from Asians who suffered under Japanese occupation is to tell them to mind their own business. Visiting Yasukuni, in his words, “is a matter of the heart.” He also observed, correctly, that he has apologized on several occasions for the war. In 2005, for example, he clearly stated that Japan “caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” There is no reason to believe that he was lying; nor is there any evidence that he ever dreamed of reviving Japanese militarism. Koizumi’s total compliance with US foreign policy, to the point of sending Japanese troops to Iraq, despite constitutional restraints, may have been misguided, but a warmonger he is not.

And yet relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors have rarely been worse. After one of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine in 2005, the South Koreans even threatened to suspend high-level diplomatic relations. And Prime Minister Roh Moo-hyun refused to meet his Japanese colleagues at all. On North Korea, the Japanese have taken a much harder line than the South Koreans. The Japanese, understandably, are still furious about a spate of North Korean kidnappings of Japanese citizens, and the firing in July of two Scud missiles and a Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. While South Korea made light of this, and continues to “engage” Pyongyang with aid, easy loans, and other economic sweeteners, Japan threatened to cut off all financial traffic, including the not inconsiderable sums of money sent to North Koreans by their relatives living in Japan. A Foreign Ministry bureaucrat (now on suspension for his involvement in a corruption scandal) even called for preemptive strikes, to “teach North Korea a lesson” and demonstrate the “Japanese spirit.”2 The North Korean threat is also the reason, or possibly the excuse, for an even closer Japanese military alliance with the US. Patriot missiles will be deployed against a possible North Korean attack at US bases in Okinawa.

The Chinese have never made US bases in Asia into a serious issue. They prefer to have US missiles pointing at them than Japanese nuclear arms, which would be the only alternative to Pax Americana. Domestically, the Chinese Communist government contrives to turn popular anti-Japanese feelings on and off like a tap. Last year anti-Japanese riots erupted in several major cities. Images of Koizumi were burned; Japanese consulates were besieged by mobs; Japanese cars were smashed; even stores selling Japanese products were the targets of destructive rage. Carefully calibrated mob violence is a way for the Chinese rulers to put pressure on Japan. There are several reasons for doing this: opposition to Japan’s quest for a seat on the UN Security Council, territorial disputes over a few resource-rich specks in the South China Sea, and references to Taiwan in last year’s updated “strategic agreement” between Japan and the US, which are seen as hostile to Beijing.

But emotionally, rhetorically, and symbolically, the Sino-Japanese and Korean-Japanese conflicts still fall under the shadow of Japan’s belligerent past, beginning with the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and only ending with Japan’s defeat in 1945. (Some Koreans might go back further, to Hideyoshi’s brutal wars in the 1590s, when Japanese samurai armies laid much of Korea to waste in a futile mission to conquer China.) All this makes the status quo in East Asia different from that of Europe, where the cold war is over, and no one is seriously afraid of Germany anymore. In East Asia the cold war still simmers, with the North Koreans firing missiles, and China throwing its increasing weight around. And the specter of unrepentant Japanese militarism has not disappeared, at least in Chinese and Korean eyes. Which is why Japanese school textbooks that minimize Japanese war guilt still cause serious diplomatic confrontations and riots in the streets; so do the visits of a stubborn prime minister to an imperialist Shinto shrine.

In Japan Koizumi, who steps down as prime minister at the end of September, has shown a sophisticated awareness of symbolism and imagery. From his luxuriant hairdo to his much-publicized love of rock-and-roll, this scion of an established conservative political family has manufactured a highly telegenic image of a tough-talking maverick who goes by the nickname of “Lionheart.” The question is whether in the case of Yasukuni he knew what he is doing. Was his provocation of China and Korea (and many Japanese liberals) a personal eccentricity, a gratuitous gesture to right-wing nostalgia, or a sign of a more serious rift between Japan and its neighbors, a rift with a very bloody history?

To claim that visiting Yasukuni is merely “a matter of the heart” is nonsense. Yasukuni was politically loaded from the moment it was built in 1869 as a Shinto shrine to commemorate the Japanese who fought on the emperor’s side in the civil war between the Meiji revolutionaries and the ancien rĂŠgime of the Tokugawa shogun. Since then it has become the official place of remembrance of soldiers and civilians (including Koreans and Taiwanese) who died for the Japanese empire. State Shintoism is a modern creed that turned obedience to the imperial rulers and sacrifice in war into religious duties. Authoritarian since its inception, it was a source of extremism from the 1930s until the end of the Pacific war. One of the first acts under General MacArthur’s occupation was to cut the link between religion and the Japanese state. Few Japanese minded this at the time; in fact, most welcomed it. But a vocal minority of rightwingers, some of them with close connections to organized crime (always a conservative institution), have been longing to restore the link ever since.

Koizumi must know all this. But his behavior as prime minister probably had less to do with a hankering after state Shintoism than with a new mood of populism that plays well with a younger generation. Many people are tired of hearing sermons about Japanese war guilt, especially from Chinese and Koreans, whose recent economic success is already shaking Japanese feelings of supremacy. Populism is in the air in much of the democratic world. In Italy and Thailand it swept media tycoons to power. In Japan it is related to increasing demands to revise the postwar pacifist constitution, and this, inevitably, affects Japan’s relations with its neighbors, and the way people choose to remember the Asian and Pacific wars.

Comic books, or manga, are always a good gauge of the popular mood in Japan. A recent sensation in the Japanese manga world, entitled Introduction to China, not only denies Japanese atrocities during the war in China, but shows friendly Japanese troops being sprayed with cyanide by wicked Chinese guerrillas. Chinese today are depicted as AIDS-infected prostitutes and gangsters menacing Japan. The comic has already sold about 180,000 copies. Another, called Hating the Korean Wave, has done even better, selling more than 400,000 copies.3 The Korean Wave refers to a current fashion in Japan for Korean films, songs, and TV soap operas. More young Japanese are learning Korean, as well as Chinese, than ever before, and more visit China and South Korea as tourists. The comic, however, depicts the Koreans as uncivilized whining cheats who should be grateful for the blessings bestowed by Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.

The mainstream newspapers refused to advertise the chauvinistic comics in their pages, but these hateful entertainments clearly hit a nerve, just as the comics by Kobayashi Yoshinori have done since the late 1990s. Kobayashi’s manga, bearing titles such as On War, On Taiwan, and Manifesto for a New Pride, promote the view that postwar pacifism has robbed the Japanese of character and pride. The Japanese war, Kobayashi argues, was a righteous struggle against white racist imperialism. Born in 1953, the modishly dressed Kobayashi, who share the prime minister’s enthusiasm for slick hairdos, is too young to have experienced Japanese militarism. He claims that such atrocities as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the kidnapping of Asian women for sexual slavery to Japanese troops are Chinese fabrications. On War alone sold more than 600,000 copies. Kobayashi has been a member of various prominent pressure groups to revise school textbooks to make them more “patriotic.”

  1. 1

    Associated Press, June 30, 2006.

  2. 2

    Sato Masaru, writing in Sapio, July 26, 2006.

  3. 3

    Mainichi Daily News, July 8, 2006.

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