The world’s second biggest economy is still Japan, yet for all its apparent modernity and embrace of the latest technologies, when it comes to politics the nation remains entangled in a twilight world of ghosts gone by.
Its most recent example is reminiscent of a former age, centering as it does on the late Emperor Hirohito and his disastrous foreign wars; court intrigue and a faded diary; two old loyalists of the imperial past (one now dead); and instead of a fascist assassin wielding a samurai sword, a suspected right-wing nationalist hurling a petrol bomb.
The objective, personal acquisition of national leadership and a role in the world, is as old as electoral politics. In Japan these go back only to the late 19th century, but still today with their male-dominated factionalism and the absence of enlightened ideology in the pursuit of power and privilege, the recent events seem like an emanation of the Victorian era. To complete the scenario, there is a suspected secret plot (secret because political plots usually are).
It begins with an old-fashioned scoop in the Nihon Keizai newspaper, the equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, which published extracts from the diary of an obscure courtier from the household of Hirohito, who died in 1989 at age 87. What the diarist recorded in 1988 has acutely embarrassed both the present prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and his likely successor, Shinzo Abe, 51, the cabinet secretary of their ruling Liberal Democratic (conservative) party, when Koizumi retires in September after a five-year run.
Nikkei, as the newspaper is known, disclosed that Hirohito was displeased at a decision to enshrine 14 Class-A convicted Japanese war criminals — the worst warmongers — at its military holy place, the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. There in 1978 the criminals were sanctified (not interred) as gods in the shinto religion, causing Hirohito to cease his Yasukuni visits thereafter. His successor Emperor Akihito has not set foot in the shrine either.
The diary belonged to an old royal household retainer, the grand steward Tomohiko Tomita, who recorded the daily thoughts of his imperial master and died in 2003. In the 1988 entry, which Nikkei obtained, he wrote that Hirohito regarded the Yasukuni priest who permitted the 14 war criminals’ enshrinement as not a man of peace and wrong in this decision. The emperor added: "That is why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart."
In most countries the remark would amount to a scholarly footnote to history. In Japan this tid-bit of imperial gossip was front page news because it strikes at the heart of the dilemma in which Tokyo finds itself today: How to resolve the still unsettled crimes and atrocities of its imperial warmongering of 1931-45. These events continue to impede its aspirations to national respect and have crippled diplomatic relations with such crucial neighbors as China and South Korea, Japan’s two biggest Asian trading partners.
Nikkei’s scoop, although dismissed by Koizumi in a feeble repetition of the emperor’s words — "It is an issue of the heart" — now thrusts the question of Yasukuni visits by both the prime minister and fellow worshipper Abe, into the center of the new premiership campaign. Already it forces Abe into dubious statements. "I will continue to respect and pray for those who fought for Japan," he said, without adding the crucial point of — where.
Abe is a right-wing hawk with military enthusiasms that could threaten stabililty in the region and are certainly bad for business. Could he therefore be the target of an elaborate plot? Do certain business people wish to harm his chances, and think they can by exploiting Japan’s oldest institution: the throne?
The article’s timing certainly arouses suspicions. Although Japanese newspapers mostly refrained from public speculation, resident foreign historians revealed that the Tomita diary was old news. At Taisho University in Tokyo historian Earl Kinmonth commented that it was an "open secret" and said: "I have to wonder, ‘Why now?’ Have business interests who think that pilgrimages to Yasukuni are bad for the bottom line decided that it’s time to play the imperial card?"
A professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Testsuro Kato, suggested: "It is possible that some in the business world are so worried about ties with the rest of Asia that they released this diary extract to sabotage the election of Koizumi’s expected successor? People will say: ‘The emperor was against visits so how can you go?’ That is very damaging."
Their views explain why the article so embarrasses Koizumi and Abe. In Japan the emperor is still widely respected, but conservatives are associated with a politics in which the tradition is to revere the imperial word as hallowed command. Millions of Japanese fought in the emperor’s name, so if Hirohito actually disapproved of the Yasukuni enshrinements, Koizumi’s much criticised five previous visits since becoming premier now look like blatant disobedience of an imperial command.
As for Abe, the grandson of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi (1957-60), he is hoist on his own patriotic petard. He has said he would continue Yasukuni visits as premier himself, yet in his grandfather’s early political years, when Kishi was an ardent rightist, such a flouting of imperial wishes would have meant disgrace and political ruin.
Then came the bomb. It was filled with petrol and hurled at Nikkei’s entrance in the early hours of the day after the scoop. It did little damage and nobody was hurt, but the perpetrator was reported to be wearing a red cap — to ensure he would not be missed?
There was little Japanese comment, but Reporters Without Borders in Paris immediately published a protest castigating "infuriated ultra-nationalist groups (who) have launched previous attacks on the press, murdering a journalist from the Asahi Shimbun in 1987. We condemn this attack as well as the threats and harassment against journalists accused of sullying Japan’s Imperial past. It is essential that the government ensures the safety of Nikkei and identifies those who carried out this attack."
When it comes to Japan’s right-wing, murder is often part of the story. In the 1930s assassination was a feature of Japanese politics, though mostly carried out by army fascist fanatics. However, provoking their modern counterparts has brought death or attempted murder to public figures in recent years too. The assassination of the Asahi reporter Tomohiro Kojiri in 1987 was never solved, despite claims for the crime by a rightist group called Sekihotai.
It is even privately theorized that some extremist factions in the ruling LDP as well as other forces of "patriotism" in the country, secretly encourage threatening activities by the rightists (uyoku). Visitors to Tokyo may see the uyoku today in black loud-speaker trucks festooned with slogans and the rising sun emblem, shouting at a volume that breaks every decibel law in the land.
The uyoku number only in the tens of thousands. But with the backing of even more thuggishly patriotic gangsters (yakuza) and ultra-rightists in religious sects, there are tens of thousands more. They also wield much more influence in Japan than their total would suggest; certainly more than their equivalents in other nations.
One reason is the frequency of their violence or its threat. This ranges from murder attempts to ugly harassment with the black sound trucks, daily self-censorship in the mainstream media, and the suppression of certain subjects. These include political criticism of the emperor, to any mention of atrocities and mass killings committed by imperial Japanese troops across Asia from 1931-45, for which the nation has still not atoned.
There is also a "new nationalism" (shin-minzokushugi) that shuns the uyoku fanatics. These adherents are more sophisticated and articulate politicians and intellectuals who feel more able to display their views conventionally. Yet they are still incorrigible throwbacks to Japan’s imperial past.
It is a potentially explosive trend in a volatile region where a new Cold War with China or hostilities with North Korea could break out. With his recent talk, in the context of Pyongyang, of the "right" of pre-emptive strike by Japan — despite its officially pacifist constitution — Abe personifies this new nationalist mood.
Meanwhile another old, but different, patriot of imperial times has also emerged to spread more embarrassing disclosures for the new nationalists, and Abe and Koizumi. Hisao Baba, 81, Yasukuni’s former publicist and an official there for 45 years, told the English-language Japan Times that the shrine’s former top priest, Fujimaro Tsukuba, took it upon himelf to "ignore" the postwar international Tokyo war crimes tribunal that sentenced the 14 to death for crimes against humanity.
The next test of this new nationalism will come soon: on August 15. That is the anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender and a date that Koizumi has favored for his final Yasukuni prayer visit. Will Hirohito’s ghost be waiting?
CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist, living in Japan. He can be reached at email@example.com