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Japan – Return To Fascism?

Japan – Return To Fascism?

The article in the Christchurch Press regarding Japanese war crimes and, more specifically, the photograph of Japanese troops parading on horseback in Manchuria, reminded me of a recent discussion I had with a respected 84-year-old Japanese physician. Acknowledging that he was only a child at the time, this elderly gastroenterologist told me, quite matter-of-factly, that the current state of affairs in Japan resembles what he believes the atmosphere must have been like in 1931 just before the Japanese military used a minor confrontation at a railway in Northern China as an excuse to establish a puppet government in Manchuria. This of course was the start of further Japanese military expansion into Asia and The Pacific.

In itself, quite a radical statement, but for someone that studied under candlelight to gain a medical degree during the war, and who went on Japanese ships as a medical officer to pick up returning POWs from Russia, Dr. Yamamoto’s views are worth paying attention to. Moreover, they are the views of a normal Japanese citizen who lived through wartime Japan, not those of a politician or diplomat.

Japan is not likely to attack China anytime soon and that was not the inference. The point is that Japanese politicians continue to disappoint and, with the economy floundering for over twenty years, the public is looking for someone to take the helm and provide some strong leadership. And, if that means a retreat in Western-style democracy and the suspension of Japan’s US-imposed constitution, it appears to me that some Japanese would be prepared to accept that. In fact, I tried asking a young, well-educated Japanese lady working in Europe this very question: “What do you think about democracy in Japan?”

“We don’t need it,” was the forceful reply. “We need someone we can follow to get us out of this mess. And, we are sick of kowtowing to China and Korea because of historical events.”

I do not believe Japan will revert to an expansionist military dictatorship, but I can see a mild version of fascism taking hold whereby the military installs a popular figure to lead the nation under the banner of delivering on the economic front and protecting Japan’s international borders. One could argue that the poor economic situation, the confused political arena and the yearning for a strong leader are reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany; undeniably, some comparisons would appear justified and this is what my sage, old friend was alluding to.

People are happy when they live in a country with a strong economy that provides them job security. They also expect their political leaders to work in the country’s best interests and create a nation that all citizens can be proud of. To some Japanese, Japan is failing in both regards.

Of course, riding the bullet train or walking around the buzzing streets of Tokyo it is hard to imagine that circumstances are so dire, but the Japanese psyche took a severe hit with the bursting of the late 80’s early 90’s bubble and the lack of any meaningful recovery in over twenty years has politicians floundering and top company executives paralyzed - too scared to take any business risks that could cost them their retirement benefits. Some are tired of the Government’s response to the ongoing economic crisis, which first involved massive bank bailouts with public funds (these funds were for the most part returned, but to the normal guy in the street it seems like the nation’s taxes were spent on arrogant bankers who are never around when you need them) and then massive public works programmes. The latter fed into the murky world of politicians and the construction industry; needless to say, money was flying around but these policies were largely ineffective. Japanese public debt ballooned out of control and is only serviceable thanks to Japan’s high savings rate.

Banks were told to increase lending to small business, but instead lent to large corporations with which they had cosy relationships. In terms of loans advanced, the figures looked good, but the money was not going to where it was needed most.

Frustration at these policies was the main reason the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was ousted, despite being in power for most of the post-war era. The new government was formed by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Most DPJ politicians hailed from the LDP, nonetheless, there was a definite mood of hope and expectation that things would change for the better. People wanted politicians to take the lead, wrestle power from the bureaucrats and make their overall standard of living better. Well, the DPJ is now bogged down in sorting out the money politics of one of its most powerful leaders and there is widespread disappointment: “Maybe we should go back to the other guys?” I have heard this sentiment expressed a number of times.

Lifetime employment, an important tenet of Japanese society, was effectively catapulted out of existence by the economic downturn. People were made redundant with insignificant payouts after expecting to stay with the same company until retirement; hopes of a comfortable retirement allowance faded into thin air. The number of suicides amongst middle-aged men has risen rapidly, while government bureaucrats still enjoy job security and healthy retirement funds. Many ex-mandarins go on to work in companies where they can help smooth things out with their former colleagues, often receiving another round of retirement benefits from their new employer. This has left people pretty fed up as the DPJ was elected to put a stop to this kind of behaviour.

On the international front, as Japan has been floundering, China has been booming. Some Japanese companies are taking advantage of this, but many are suffering as a result of production being moved offshore. This is leading to a certain amount of “China bashing.” On a recent visit, I watched a current affairs programme where small business owners were very upset at both production moving offshore to China and how, when they did bite the bullet and go to China, the Chinese copy their technology and set up companies in competition almost immediately. One cool-headed, young man noted, however: “Aren’t the Chinese just being capitalist? Isn’t that how capitalist companies operate?”

All these factors are festering away and Japan’s relations with its neighbours could suffer as a result.

As one of the so-called victor countries, it is natural that we revisit events from World War Two, like experimental medical Unit 731, and we often despair at the lack of political will in Japan to address these issues. But, to put it plainly, the Japanese public have had enough. They are sick of apologising for historical events and have a strong desire to regain their pride in being Japanese. The Pacific War is an issue with historical scars on both sides, but more relevant to Japanese people today is a belligerent North Korea, the military build up of China and ongoing issues with Russia and its occupation of Japanese islands in the north.

North Korea kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens many years ago, which is still an unresolved issue, and the isolated state has tested missiles in the direction of Japan. Meanwhile, a Chinese “fishing vessel” (largely regarded as being a Chinese spy vessel) recently rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship off the Senkaku Islands which are claimed by Japan. The Senkaku Islands are close to Taiwan and China is intent on strengthening its influence in waters close to home for a number of reasons including natural resources and access to the Pacific for its rapidly expanding naval fleet. A Coast Guard officer released the video showing the Chinese ship’s actions stating that he wanted the Japanese people to be aware of the incident. He was reprimanded for doing so, but this, in itself, points to a change in attitude.

In terms of defence, Japan always defers to the US, as that country effectively protects Japan with its nuclear shield, but I get the feeling that a growing number of Japanese would like to see North Korea’s nose bloodied if it dears to fire missiles toward Japan again, and they would at least like to see Japan’s Self-Defence Force patrolling Japanese territory in disputed areas. That task is the responsibility of the Coast Guard, which of course lacks the military hardware to deal with any significant threat.

So, we see a disgruntled populace, both in terms of their economic situation and how they are represented internationally by ineffectual politicians. Would they get out on the streets and protest if The Japan Self-Defence Force renamed itself “The Army” and placed their man in a position of overall power? I seriously doubt they would.

And, the man to put his hand up and takeover that mantle could easily be Governor Ishihara of Tokyo. The taxi driver test places him in very high regard, he is a clear speaker, has a track record in terms of bashing the banks, and everybody knows his views on communist China. He recently floated the idea of having young people drafted into the Self Defence Force and Fire Brigade.

Be that as it may, the global geo-political situation could also play into the hands of this scenario. With nations on the verge of bankruptcy in Europe and the US struggling, the very efficacy of capitalism is being questioned. A new type of fascism could fill this void with Japan emerging as the first nation to experiment with it. One would hope this would not lead to war, but as Dr.Yamamoto also commented: “People have very short memories and humans seem incapable of living together in peace for any extended period of time.”


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