What is the Meaning of Japan Today?

Photo by Luke,Ma | CC BY 2.0

Japan has been the canary in the capitalist coal mine for some time now. If you want to know the toxicity of advanced capitalism: take a look at Japan. It’s a warning. It’s a cloud. But one with a silver lining. Japan is much deeper than capitalism.

According to the Financial Times (the Japanese owned global newspaper) Japan is hemorrhaging life. It’s “greying” indigenous population – “government data reveal” – is shrinking by 1000 a day. And so capitalists are fretting. The fact that 25% of Japan’s population is above the age of 65, suggests that the growth of the Japanese market is facing a dead end.

Japan however is an export led economy. It’s main markets are abroad. Global demand though isn’t inspiring much hope either. The post-2008 environment is still “sluggish”, “volatile”, “cautious”, “crisis ridden” and “stagnant”. The talk is now about “world wars” and “trade wars” rather than “globalization”. Growth rates of 1% or 2% or even 3% across the capitalist world aren’t enough to avoid the prospect of another dead end market.

For Japanese capitalism this all means recession in the here and now. Indeed since the 2008 economic crash some say that Japan is trapped inside an “epic recession” (a “quadruple dip recession”). The air is toxic. Japan today – the world’s third biggest economy – is experiencing before everyone else the limits of capital. It’s in the unenvious position of leading the world into the strong head winds of history.

Ever since it industrialized in the late 19th century (the Meiji restoration) Japan has been at the forefront of history – in both the negative and positive sense. It first jumped onto the imperialist bandwagon. And quickly surpassed the militarism of the West. Japan’s World War Two, for example, began almost ten years before Germany’s World War Two – when it invaded Manchuria in 1931.

“Hiroshima” was the price Japan paid for this warmongering. And the Japanese workers learnt the lesson well. Pacifism became a key part of their postwar consciousness. Article 9 in the 1947 constitution banned war from Japanese politics. Even though the warmongering USA (ironically) guided this progressive document – Japan had apparently reinvented itself for the better.

Japan’s “existentialism” – it’s postwar culture – expressed this new and hopeful direction. It’s cinema and it’s protests led the world in the questioning of militarism. And so Japan – in a way – kick started the 1960s (see Masaki Kobayashi’s movie The Human Condition and the ANPO protests of 1960). However, at the same time, Japan’s postwar economy led the way into the Golden Age of Capitalism (1945-1973).

As Japan’s US guardian descended into CIA madness – Japan’s rationality seemingly blossomed. The success of it’s “jobs-for-life” social model and it’s “just in time” production model: persuaded the world to put Japan on a pedestal. In the 1980s it was even ready to “takeover” America. Overall during the Cold War against Communism the triumph of corporate Japan won hearts and minds the world over.

And that’s the suspicious point: corporate Japan rode the Cold War wave to perfection. So much so that it was lost without it. Because once that wave collapsed – so did corporate Japan. The fall of the Berlin Wall coincided with the fall of all that accumulated capital in Tokyo. The value of Japan’s banks, property and stock hit a wall in 1990 and never recovered.

The greatest capitalist success story in the postwar world unraveled alongside the collapse of communism. That begs the question: was it’s success real to begin with? Was there something fake about Japan’s healthy capitalism? Was it breathing in toxic air all along and hiding the effects? In the capitalist coal mine – was Japan deceiving the world so as to block the communist exit? Was it all right wing politics instead of cutting edge economics? Does Japan itself represent a dead end?

The fact is that the rise of modern Japan in the last 150 years has depended on the logic of imperialism. Homegrown imperialism and foreign imperialism have determined both prewar and postwar Japan. The Japanese Emperor and the US Empire have something in common. And that something happily merged after all the blood and gore of World War Two. Indeed, this merger was so smooth  it suggests that all the blood and gore was a waste of time.

The ugly truth is that the imperialism that’s responsible for the Rape of Nanking (1937), is also responsible for the success of corporate Japan in the decades after that rape. In other words: the imperial rapist was never punished. On the contrary: he was protected and allowed to prosper.

Japan’s postwar protector was the US Empire. And the rise of corporate Japan was based on this protection rather than on the magic of Japanese capitalism. To keep Japan from turning towards socialism or communism, the USA had to block the progress of Japanese history. It had to maintain imperial Japan and lock it into the straight jacket that was US imperialism. A quadruple knot was required to bind Japan’s progressive tendencies to the imperial status quo.

The first knot was the US protection given to the supreme war criminal: Emperor Hirohito. The second knot was a CIA creation: the Liberal Democratic Party. The third knot were the keys to economic success: free access to the US market. And the fourth was the military alliance between Japan and the USA.

War may have been banned in postwar Japan but warmongers remained in charge. And they were hiding behind the greatest warmonger in the postwar world: the USA. If the military industrial complex drove the US economy. Then the military industrial mindset drove the Japanese economy (think of MITI – the Ministry of International Trade and Industry). An army of Japanese bureaucrats pursued growth with the same fanatical spirit they had displayed during the World War.

And the USA gave this Japan not just a market but also a sub-empire in which to vent it’s extremism – once again. According to Noam Chomsky: “Washington intended to provide Japan [after World War Two] with ‘some sort of empire toward the south’….something like the New Order [which Japan tried to create during the war] but within the US-dominated global system.”

If this is the case then the US wars in Korea and Indochina – together with the infamous massacre of communists in Indonesia – were gifts to corporate Japan. The same corporations (old zaibatsu, like Mitsubishi and Nissan) that used slave labor during World War Two got a free ticket after the war. Markets, resources and cheap labor – for Japan – were cracked open or protected by the American killing machine. And Tokyo’s kamikaze salary-men did the rest.

Such are the nuts and bolts of the great capitalist success story that is postwar Japan. Behind the mystique there is in truth a mine field. A mine field built by fascism and it’s organized criminals (the CIA, the Yamato Dynasty and the Yakuza) – in a word: postwar imperialism.

The critic Alex Kerr writes about a Japan that “tends to take things to extremes”. In Japan he sees “an unstoppable extremism”. “Total dedication” is a problem. If so, then what we are witnessing today in Japan are the extreme limits of capitalism. This is what Japan is trying to tell us. It is revealing to us the limits of the system that dominates not just Japan but the world.

Japan’s extremists were the first to push postwar capitalism to breaking point (1990). The Japanese bubble burst because the canary could only hold it’s breath and fake it for so long. Pumped up by US markets, US dollars and US imperialism – capitalist / imperial Japan binged and blew it. Inflation turned to deflation. And that was it.

“Jobs for life” vanished and suppressed demons emerged. US bases, shrines honoring fascists and addiction to nuclear energy – always in the background – became live existential problems. As Japanese society began to fragment at the start of the new century the Liberal Democratic Party (CIA) wanted to make “Japan great again” by openly recalling and defending prewar imperialist Japan.

The Japanese however were fed up with this regurgitated death wish. And so they decisively voted out of power the LDP in 2009. What happened next though is classic covert US imperialism.

According to R. Taggart Murphy (see his book Japan and the Shackles of the Past) the hope of a new Japan was given the cold shoulder by the then US President, Barack Obama. And was given the knife by the CIA controlled Japanese establishment (media and bureaucrats). The deep empire discredited Japan’s new ruling Democratic Party of Japan and “the LDP death wish” regained power in 2012.

Japanese democracy had crashed into the limits of the imperial system. An ominous impasse had been reached. The Postwar arrangement had run its course but change was blocked. The USA and the LDP sat, and remain sitting, like two comatose sumo wrestlers on the backs of the Japanese workers.

And these two brain dead capitalist entities can only press the replay button. All of which is suicidal because it can only mean more financial illusions (Abenomics) and more wars (confrontations with China, Russia, etc.). Indeed the LDP’s key strategy is to revoke article 9 of the Japanese constitution. In this “LDP sense” Japan today does represent a dead end.

The title of Gavan McCormack’s book on Japan – Client State – says it all. Homegrown imperialists and US imperialists have Japan in chains. The canary can’t breathe. And if the Japanese workers can’t breathe neither can we. It’s time for a fresh future.

It’s a cliche to say that Japan is resource poor. Nothing however could be further from the truth. The Japanese workers are arguably the most dignified in the world. To say the least: the Japanese working class are extremely culture rich. And arm in arm with other working nations – near and far – they can break the capitalist stranglehold.

R. Taggart Murphy looks to the Japan of the 1950s for inspiration. That was a time of working class consciousness and existential questioning. All of which peaked in the impressive 1960 ANPO protests against the military alliance between Japan and the USA. This key moment must be relived if a meaningful future for Japan is to emerge. This battle against US bases and LDP treason must be refought and this time won. Because this historic confrontation signifies the only way out of the Empire – not only for Japanese workers but for workers everywhere.

Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.