A Masterpiece of Sycophancy: Kishida Goes to Washington

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s April 10 speech to the US Congress, following the American custom, began with a joke. The speaker introduced him, the audience gave him a friendly applause, and he said, “Thank you. I never get such nice applause from the Japanese Diet.” The joke was a success: it got a big laugh, and introduced one of the main themes of his talk: I have a special relationship with America.

He devoted the first part of his talk to explaining that special relationship. In 1963 he came with his family to Queens, New York, so that his first three years of schooling took place in New York public schools. (Interestingly, that got him a huge ovation.)  He went on to describe the very “American” things he and his family did: eat hot dogs at Coney Island, root for the Yankees and the Mets, watch “The Flintstones” on TV (“I still miss that program”) (Again, ovation). He stated that he and his family were treated entirely with kindness both in school and in the town generally, and that he wanted to thank “the good people of Queens”.  It may be true that he and his family were treated nicely, and I would be glad to learn that it is. But it is also true that in 1964, while the Kishidas were living there, there was a race riot in Queens, and that “The Flintstones” contained what we now recognize as racist content, including ugly stereotypes of “Japanese” characters. It is understandable that an elementary schoolchild, living in a foreign country, might not have noticed America’s well-known racism.  But what does it mean for that child, now grown to adulthood and representing Japan as prime minister, to say such things to the US Congress?  What is the message?  The message I hear (tacit of course) is, I stand before you as a member of a colored people, and I declare that I find no discriminatory tendencies in your culture, and will make no such accusations.  A model of obsequiousness (In the US called Uncle Tom-ism), carried off with skill, and with great success.  It was at this point that Kishida received his first of sixteen standing ovations.

But this was not his main message.  After delivering his negative message (I will not make the obvious criticism) he shifted to his positive message, taking the form of wildly exaggerated praise, repeated over and over: America is the bastion of freedom, democracy and rule of law; America is the one country we can depend on; America is opposed to all forms of tyranny and dictatorship; America should not fall into self-doubt – the legislators gave themselves a nice workout, standing up and sitting down again and again.

Then the theme shifted to “threats we face”, listed as North Korea, Russia, China, the Global South (not exactly a threat, but a “problem” as it steadily grows stronger), AI, Covid, and climate change. Significantly the word “Gaza” was never mentioned.

Having gone over this well-known list, he shifted to what I believe was to him the most important message: Japan has changed. Understandably he avoided using the words “Constitution”, “Article 9”, or “Right of Belligerency”, and instead depended on euphemism. But the meaning is clear: “Japan has changed from a reticent ally to strong ally looking abroad to the world”; “We have changed our national security strategy”; “We have changed our mindset”; “We are doubling our military budget”; “We now have a counterstrike capability”; “We are working with NATO on the opposite side of the world”; “We have changed from a local ally to a global ally”, etc.  In short: “America!  I have come here to tell you that you can stop fretting about Japan’s War-Renouncing Constitution.  We have finally made the decision to ignore it, and to grant to our Self Defense Forces the full right of belligerency: the right to kill people in war.  We have, that is, finally become the Japan you wanted us to be.

And he went on to assure the Congress that Japan’s military, armed with the full right of belligerency for the first time since 1945, is at your service. Of course he spoke euphemistically, but he made up for the vagueness by repeating the point over and over: “Ladies and gentlemen, the people of Japan are with you to assure the survival of liberty”; “On the spaceship ‘Liberty’, we are on deck, on task, ready to do what is necessary”; “You are not alone, we are with you;” “I pledge to you Japan’s firm alliance and enduring friendship;” on and on. Given Kishida’s approval rating hovering around 20%, he is on shaky ground when he makes such grandiose promises in the name of the people.  As for the friendship, I think most Japanese people would agree with that, but as for “alliance” people understand that to mean the military alliance, which is ”firm” in the sense that it has the Japanese Self Defense Force firmly under US control, and reduces Japan to what Philippine scholar Walden Bello calls a “semi-sovereign state.”

Kishida’s government is now busily making preparations for war with China. Surely the main purpose of his visit to the US was to assure the American Government that, this time, the Japanese military will be a full participant in that war.  These preparations are being authorized by cabinet directives, without consulting the National Diet.  We can understand the nature of this “equal partnership” from Kishida’s judgment that protocol required that the first formal announcement of this major change in Japan’s defense policy be made not to the Japanese Diet, but to the US Congress.

This originally appeared in the Okinawa Times.