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The Ghosts of Japan’s Past

Some sinister ghosts from Japan’s past haunt today’s politics in Tokyo as neo-nationalist causes and personalities, mostly promoted by the reactionary prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, raise disturbing memories of racism and fascism. These were especially evident in his recent new cabinet choices, described by the Seoul newspaper, Dong-a Ilbo, as “hard-line and rightist.” One of them elevated a racial supremacist.

Meanwhile two more events confirm the sorry state of Japan’s official racial and social views. One involves Amnesty International’s condemnation of the “comfort women” scandal — females forced by the Imperial Army into what Amnesty calls “sexual slavery.”

The other is the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights’ investigator, Doudou Diene’s official complaint about “the insularity of Japan’s peoples” and the nation’s “real racism and xenophobia.” This remark was his preface to a full report he will deliver next year, but it received scant coverage in Japan or none at all — about the same space devoted to the Amnesty report.

Koizumi continues to demonstrate chauvinistic right-wing bias, and indifference to Asian — and world — protests raised over his October prayer visit to the ultra-patriotic Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo. Even although China and South Korea express repeated concerns over his born-again patriarchal patriotism, he insists on not only accommodating neo-nationalism but encouraging it. But is the man awarded the mantle of “modernist” by the corporate media overseas, only appeasing his more backward political cronies? Or is he one of them?

Consider the details. His choice of the racist Taro Aso as foreign secretary snubs his two closest Asian neighbors’ concerns over the refusal of Japan, unlike Germany, to confront openly its legacy of imperial aggression. As a reactionary rightist of many years standing, Aso is another devout supplicant at Yasukuni, where in the Shinto religion convicted war criminals are worshipped as divine spirits. He last prayed there in mid-April at the beginning of the holy sanctuary’s annual spring festival, and has vigorously supported Koizumi’s five annual visits.

Most extraordinary about his choice of the man to negotiate personally with the modern world, is Aso’s open advocacy of the mythical racist superiority theory that propelled Japan’s 1931-45 military hostilities. (Could he have inherited this from his grandfather, Shigeruo Yoshida? He was a diplomat in Imperial Japan, known for his autocratic and arrogant ways, and prime minister in 1946-7 and 1948-54.)

In a formal speech on October 15 opening a national museum in Kyushu, the southern island where he comes from, Aso, then Interior and Communications Minister, proclaimed Japan as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race, the like of which there is no other on this earth.” This echoed a 1986 statement by a previous right-wing premier, Yasuhiro Nakasone, that caused uproar, and of which Aso, 65, must have been aware.

Not only is there nowhere in the world this unique, but Japan does not measure up either. Aso’s asinine speech ignored the indigenous inhabitants of Japan, the Ainu, who live cooped up in the northern island of Hokkaido. It also ignored the different origins of Okinawa’s people and the various Asian strains from which the Japanese themselves emanate.

Coming from the opposite end of the archipelago, Aso’s apparent ignorance of the Ainu might be excused — if he refrained from his master-race remarks. For his information, the ethnic origins of the Ainu are subject of scholarly dispute, but even a casual observer cannot mistake them for Japanese.

The men never shave and have luxuriant beards, the women tattoo their faces, both sexes are taller and broader than Japanese, their language is different (and was banned during Japan’s 19th century Meiji period), and they do not eat raw fish. They feel strongly enough about their rights to independence in Hokkaido to have fought three wars, in 1457, 1669, and 1789, all of which they lost to main island Japanese.

If Aso is ignorant of the Ainu, he is arrogant about Koreans and Chinese. In an extraordinary interview in August in the Japanese monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, he said: “Whatever China and South Korea say, we should behave as if nothing happened [at Yakusuni shrine]. The most ideal way of resolving the Yasukuni dispute is that it works out peacefully after they realise that it is useless for them to complain any more.”

Aso is also guilty of an offensively racist slur of people referred to by the UN’s Diene as the “descendants of outcasts from Japan’s feudal period,” as one newspaper delicately put it. These are the “burakumin” (village people), who live in communities not even noted on maps. They are Japan’s untouchables, whose ancestors were employed to dispose of human waste, but unlike the Ainu, are Japanese [[itals Japanese]], although many choose to disbelieve this.

Aso’s racist reference came in September 2003 at the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic party’s last meeting attended by Hiromu Nonaka, a Diet (parliament) member for 20 years and a brilliant politician, who some thought had the makings of a prime minister. Nonaka was from burakumin origins, something he never concealed.

At the meeting he confronted Aso with a remark the minister had made that “Burakumin like him cannot be prime minister.” The comment came in Nonaka’s absence, but was confirmed by three witnesses and was something, Nonaka said, that he would “never, never forget.” Aso did not deny the remark but reddened.

This man now represents Japan in its dealing with foreign countries — one of which is North Korea, with whom talks recently resumed after a year’s interruption. Top of Japan’s agenda is the North Korean abduction of at least 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s in order to use them for training spies. The return and survival of these people remains in deadlocked dispute, and whatever the full truth, it was outrageous behavior by Pyongyang.

Yet does it compare with the Japanese invasion of the Korean peninsula in 1910, and its colonial occupation until 1945 (during which it banned the Korean language)? This is not just old history, because although South Korea signed a treaty with Japan in 1965, its reparations concerned only matters known at that time. (Such a treaty has yet to be signed with North Korea.)

One nasty revelation emerging since 1965, is the international scandal of “comfort women.” This is the cruel Japanese euphemism for an estimated 200,000 Asian women, and some Dutch, forced into sexual slavery for Japanese Imperial army soldiers during their 14 years of Asian conquests.

Another cabinet member, who with Aso is one of three favorites to succeed Koizumu to the premiership next year, is Shinzo Abe, 51, now made chief cabinet secretary and therefore its spokesman. He has sought to minimise the comfort women scandal and is another forceful conservative, a Yasukuni ritist, and defender of old Japan — in which his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was an imprisoned wartime criminal and a post-war prime minister (1957-60).

Japan has never fully accepted its responsibilities for the sex slavery and in 2001, when the national broadcast network NHK made a television documentary about the women, Abe, then deputy chief cabinet secretary, pressured the producers to moderate it.

In a painful coincidence, Koizumi’s cabinet appointments came immediatly after the Amnesty report, ‘Still Waiting After 60 Years: Justice for Survivors of Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery System’, about Japan’s failure to compensate the prostituted women. Yet the October 28 report has been almost totally ignored by the Japanese media.

There are more examples of Japan’s reactionary refusal to deal with the aftermath of its wartime aggression, its evasion of honesty or frankness in recalling its cruelties, and its lack of educating its young about that history. Perhaps ghosts are difficult to deal with rationally…

One is the idolatrous homage offered by Japan’s politicians at Yasukuni to 14 notorious Class A war criminals who were enshrined there only in 1978. I dealt with this in detail previously (CounterPunch October 19). But other specters waft in.

The most recent example of Japan’s newly flexed nationalism is its arrogance over exiled Peruvian president-dictator Alberto “I-am-not-a-crook” Fujimori, a fugitive from justice in Japan since fleeing Lima in 2000. Fujimori, who presided over death squads, disappearances, and other human rights outrages during his 10-year regime, left Japan in early November for Chile, to attempt a come-back in Peru, but was promptly arrested. He now fights deportation.

Meanwhile Lima has withdrawn its ambassador from Tokyo over its continual refusal to hand over Fujimori because he is a Japanese citizen. But of what kind? He was born in Peru, educated in Peru, the US, and France, hardly spoke any Japanese, and is wanted on grave accusations. But he has a Japanese name — and again Tokyo flouts Amnesty, which in 2003 called for his extradition.

By refusing to do so, Amnesty said, Japan’s action “can only lead to further human rights violations by showing that those responsible are not held to account.” Not holding people, or events, to account, is a Japanese specialty.

Today, it is significant that of Koizumi’s cabinet, no less than six, including himself, are sons and/or grandsons of senior politicians, some ministers, who were active during the war period or immediately thereafter. The Japanese people have been poorly educated in their nation’s former militarism, but Koizumi’s cabinet and the premier himself have no such excuse.

CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist living in Japan. He can be reached at:




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