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Japan: The Heat and the Light

In response to:

The Smooth Path to Pearl Harbor from the May 22, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Rana Mitter’s review of Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy [NYR, May 22] calls for the US to “constrain” as well as protect Japan. He argues that the revival of Japan as it existed during the war “should at all costs be avoided.”

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and many of his associates have a nostalgic attachment to this dreadful chapter of Japanese history. The premier worships his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who played a major part in the “Great East Asia War.” But fears that Japan could return to the “bad old days” are groundless. First, Japanese attitudes toward war have been radically altered since 1945. Today, with a hawkish cabinet, a hostile China, and a dangerous North Korea, Japan devotes a minute fraction of its resources to its Self-Defense Forces (1 percent to 1.5 percent of gdp depending on definition).

Unlike the US, there is no constituency for defense spending, which explains why all Japanese governments have continued to underinvest in the armed forces. Second, the geopolitical environment of the 2010s, where Japan is a willing and junior partner to the United States with little ambition of its own, has nothing in common with that of the 1930s. Third, Japan is in demographic freefall. For the thirty-third year in a row the absolute number of children has declined and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future (only 12.8 percent of Japanese are under fifteen, versus 19.5 percent of Americans). Voters want money for health care and pensions, not for warships and missiles.

For years, Chinese government vessels have intruded into areas nearly all Japanese consider to be their own territorial waters. What would happen if these unfriendly ships engaged in similar activities near American islands? The president would ask the Coast Guard to repel them and if need be order the Navy to sink them. What has Japan done? Nothing.

Prime Minister Abe has unfortunately managed to convince foreigners, and some Japanese, that his nation is now run by war criminal–worshiping men who love conflict. For decades, experts who focus on Japanese defense policy have exaggerated Japan’s desire and potential to morph into a great military power (perhaps as it is hard to study a topic just to report that change is minimal). But regardless of what lies in Abe’s heart, domestic politics, international conditions, and demography ensure that Japan will remain one of the least bellicose states on the planet. If Japan poses a threat to the current international order, it is on account of its deficiencies as a US ally in refusing to put more resources into its military forces to deter potential aggressors.

Robert Dujarric
Director
Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies
Temple University Japan Campus
Tokyo, Japan

Rana Mitter replies:

I am a little puzzled by Mr. Dujarric’s comments, since they seem perfectly reasonable but also in no way incompatible with the substance of my review of Eri Hotta’s fine book. What is in Mr. Abe’s heart is a matter between him and his cardiologist. However, his actions have added heat to a situation that surely needs light.

My point is not that Japan is likely to become a militarist state again; that would be absurd. Rather, the flag-waving, denial of war crimes, and attempts to rehabilitate World War II on the Japanese right run a grave danger of making Chinese rhetoric about Japan’s intentions seem more convincing than it should be. The appearance of belligerence can create dangerous reactions on the other side, even when the reality is very different. On both sides of the East China Sea, leaders need to calm their language and avoid using history as a weapon, rather than a means of illuminating the past.

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