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,…

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