Japan is Becoming the Israel of East Asia

There is a delicious—well, delicious to me, anyway—flavor of Western bewilderment about the neverending parade of Japanese nationalist shenanigans.

The most recent entry was Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s endorsement of the World War II Japanese military brothel system a.k.a. “comfort women”:

“In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives,”

“If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.”

Hashimoto—who seems to have way too much of his mental space occupied by visions of sexually rampaging soldiers– made his remarks in the context of promoting the Okinawan sex worker industry as a legal source of relief for the hard-working American military men based on the island.

Toru Hashimoto…told reporters Monday that he visited with Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s commander last month and told him that servicemembers should make more use of Japan’s legalized sex industry.

“There are places where people can legally release their sexual energy in Japan,” Hashimoto said during a video press conference Monday in Osaka. “Unless they make use of these facilities, it will be difficult to control the sexual energies of the wild Marines.”

Hashimoto said that the commander responded with a bitter smile and told him that brothels are off-limits to U.S. servicemembers.

Bitter smile, indeed.

Perhaps the US government took little comfort from Hashimoto conflating the sexual needs of the US military today with those of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For those who have been following the Okinawan issue—and China’s rather malicious and successful highlighting of particularist sentiments among the Okinawan population as part of its campaign to undermine Japan’s claim to eternal and uncontested sovereignty over the Senkakus—it was noteworthy that there were also Okinawan protests against Hashimoto’s comfort-women remarks.

Since most comfort women on Okinawa during World War II were Korean, Okinawan objections are apparently more along the lines of resentment against the sexual impositions involved in contemporary Tokyo-imposed US basing, rather than the historical revisionism on the comfort women issue that inflamed opinion in China and South Korea.

As China continues to push the Okinawan hot button with its questioning of Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Island chain, expect more media focus on the most loaded question in Okinawa/Japanese history: the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Japanese nationalists have worked assiduously to shape the official narrative—down to the wording of memorial plaques—to depict Okinawa as the frontline of Japanese resistance.  However, many Okinawans consider the battle—which resulted in the death of over 100,000 Okinawan civilians in the Japanese military’s Gotterdammerung defense—as an atrocity in which Okinawa and Okinawans were sacrificed to buy time for the Japanese home islands.  (In the event, fear that the bloody action on Okinawa would be replicated across the four “home islands” reportedly convinced President Truman to cancel the invasion and short-circuit the war by dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.)

A vocal sector of Okinawan public opinion regards Japanese nationalist revisionism as an effort to deny Okinawan suffering and submerge it beneath an untrue narrative of Japanese heroism.

Asia-Japan Focus reported in 2012 on the fracas over a plaque commemorating the Japanese army headquarters on Okinawa (which, interestingly and tragically, was sited at Shuri Castle, the “pre-eminent symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom” according to the translators):

A controversy has arisen over Okinawa governor Nakaima’s deletion of the word “suteishi” (sacrificial stone) [this doesn’t mean “sacrificial stone” in the exalted sense of a “consecrated altar”; it refers to a disposable position and losable game piece in the board game of go–PL]  from the draft that was prepared for the translation of the description for the explanation panel about the 32nd Army HQ Shelter. Hitherto, the word “suteishi” has been used as a key term that directly captures the essence of the Battle of Okinawa. This word also symbolises “postwar” Japan-Okinawa relations, in which Japan regained its sovereignty with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, while abandoning Okiwawa to US military domination, and forcing it to bear the burden of the US bases, even after Japan regained administrative rights over Okinawa.

There is nothing new about Japanese nationalism with a World War II denialist tinge.

Despite efforts to keep it buttoned up (members of the ruling LDP distanced themselves from Hashimoto’s remarks), nationalism keeps bubbling up and its emergence into the Japanese political mainstream is an unpleasant surprise for American pundits.

After all, “peaceful, progressive, and democratic Japan” is more than a useful cliche in the compare-and-contrast framing opposite “assertive, oppressive, and communist China”.

A cooperative, helpful Japan is the linchpin of US efforts to orchestrate a soft containment of China based on US-friendly liberal norms and justified by the idea that the unruly Chinese dragon needs to be kept in its cage by an alliance of the US and Asian democracies.

Japan “going off the res” and behaving like a war-loving dingbat creates obvious problems for the optics of the “pivot to Asia”.

Japanese nationalism also complicates the US narrative with its healthy dose of anti-Americanism (including a sub voce tendency to blame the US-imposed constitution, US-demanded yen appreciation, the US-inflicted global financial crisis, and US blind infatuation with the strategic and economic importance of China for Japan’s long term woes), and a remarkable and embarrassing hostility toward critical US ally South Korea as Japan’s zero-sum rival for economic and diplomatic leadership among the Asian democracies.

The fact that a bona-fide Asian democracy can act so “assertively” also calls into question the lazy liberal assumption that democratization is a panacea which automatically translates into tolerance, transnational amity, de-escalation of tensions, and regional stability.

A less obvious but, I expect, to US diplomatic strategists, more pressing problem is that nationalist ideals are serving as a justification for an independent-minded Japanese foreign policy that plays lip service to US objectives but actually exploits US backing in order to advance Japanese interests at the expense of US goals.

In the US, we call it “The tail wagging the dog”.

In China (and Japan), the relevant proverb is “The fox pretending to the tiger’s might”.  (In the Chinese proverb, the fox claims that people respect him more than the tiger.  “Just walk behind me, and you’ll see how people fear me.”  The gullible tiger follows the fox and is chagrined to see all the other animals fleeing, apparently, before the fox.)

My personal shorthand for the situation is “Japan as the Israel of East Asia”.

I think this is a metaphor that troubles the US government as well.

After all, one of the attractions of pivoting to Asia and away from the Middle East was that the United States would be leaving a region in which its freedom of movement was constrained at enormous financial, military, and diplomatic cost by Israel’s ability to substitute its own security narrative (existential threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons) for the US priority, at least for the Obama administration (normalizing relations with Iran and resolution of the Palestinian issue).

Instead, I have a feeling that Japan under nationalist rule will be more interested in encouraging polarization between pro-China and pro-US blocs in Asia—thereby providing Japan with a favored and decisive role—than it will be in behaving like the good, obedient ally assisting the United States as it manages its relationship with China– soon going to be the world’s largest economy–at the expense of the interests and anxieties of an increasingly marginalized Japan.

By this reading, the Senkaku crisis—which forces the United States to line up with Japan against China over some Taiwanese rocks the Obama administration cares nothing about—is like money in the bank for the Abe government.

Therefore I’m not expecting that crisis to go anywhere soon.

US anxieties about Japan are creeping into the news sections and editorial pages, albeit with continued allegiance to the old tropes of the “China rising” menace and the “loyal Japanese ally”.

In a stern Gray Lady editorial which read like an exercise in US imperial nostalgia that does not translate well into a 21st century reality of increasingly assertive Asian nations, the NY Times acknowledged the inconvenience of provocative Japanese nationalism while presuming to lecture both sides on where their real interests lie:

The right-wing nationalists who took power in December may be equally unwilling to put Japan’s past behind it, although the government of the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took a positive step on Tuesday when it said it would abide by official apologies that the country made two decades ago to victims of World War II. China and Japan have strong economic ties and are critical to regional stability. Both will lose if they stumble into war or otherwise cannot resolve this escalating dispute.

And, via Sinocism, Ian Burama wrote in the same oblivious vein in Wall Street Journal:

Things, in short, are back to square one: Pax Americana containing China, with Japan as Washington’s loyal vassal. This might seem a stable, even comfortable, position from the U.S. point of view. In fact, it isn’t. For a long time, the Chinese put up with the U.S. being the policeman of East Asia, because the prospect of a more independent, fully rearmed, even nuclear Japan would be worse. But Japan’s role as a kind of cat’s paw of American dominance, with Japanese nationalists compensating for their subservience by indulging in bellicose talk, will be the source of ever greater tensions, which are bad for everyone, including the U.S.

I think public-arena US pundits are a little bit behind the curve here.  We’re now drifting away from the comfy post-World War II narrative of “Japan is completely dependent on us” and “everybody wants to club together to contain the Chinese” to the brave new world of eroding US dominance, the emergence of China as an economic linchpin, and “US objectives are hostage to Japan’s forward Asian policy”.

China seems to sense an opportunity here.

Global Times, the Chinese populist/conservative mouthpiece, unloaded on Abe in an editorial (not an op-ed, please note) whose true audience is probably the US government, rather than bewildered Western observers:

But set against the background of Japan’s economic depression, Japan’s national political ambitions which Abe represents are full of loss, resentment and urgency.

In the few months since taking office, Abe impressed Japanese public by his hatred of Japan’s defeat in place of a normal hard-line diplomacy. He hates the result of World War II instead of hating those who started the war. He does not accept China’s rise through peace and hard work and rails against the general trend of East Asia’s development.

China cannot change Abe’s value nor influence his strategic choice. China should lower its expectations toward the bilateral relationship.

As for Abe himself, we should have no expectation. We believe that there is no need for Chinese leaders to meet him during his term. That would not alleviate the bilateral relationship but will undermine our own image. China should maintain its current indifferent interactions with Japan and try to reduce chances of crisis.

The next chance for China to improve the bilateral relationship will come after Abe’s term. Before this, China should show Japan its confidence through indifference.

The message here, other than the Chinese government is righteously pissed off at Japan, is that the US pivot—with its hope of modulated pressure leading to more desirable Chinese behavior—is on life support.

China, using the excuse as well as the reality of Japanese nationalism, is digging in for a period of confrontation, not conciliation or concession.

The key question is whether the PRC will be mollified by some self-serving olive-branch extension by the Abe government.

I think not.  I think the PRC is hunting for bigger game.

Global Times is urging the PRC leadership to write off Japan for the duration of Abe’s prime ministership.

It sees Japan’s nationalist preoccupations as the chance to deepen the wedge between Japan and the United States, and push the US to a more “G2” (i.e. US + China) Asian regime.

If the US desires a good working relationship with China, it will have to do so at the expense of distancing itself from Japan and undermining the basic premise of the pivot—that the Asian democracies and the United States are not driven by vulgar and diverse national interests and instead, indivisibly and completely, share the noblest multilateral values and goals and interests in confronting China.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Big Bang Theory in North Korea, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.