The cross currents of history are notorious. And we are experiencing them in spades just now in relation to Japanese leadership, Japan’s role in the world and Japanese-U.S. relations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe descends from an historic line of Japanese politicians and industrialists – on his mother’s side. Nobusuke Kishi, one time “unindicted war criminal” as the military’s chief clerk and bottle washer during Japan’s evil days, and a Kyushu industrialist family with a sorry record of using POWs for slave labor. But he is also, obviously, the most popular and effective prime minister in two decades, maybe No. 2 after the iconic Shigeru Yoshida of the American Occupation and the establishment of what has come to be called the 1955 regime that brought stability and phenomenal growth and prosperity to Japan..
Now Abe is attempting an enormous goal. He wants to reestablish Japan – as they have said, alas! with faltering results in Russia – as “a normal country” The American Occupation attempted to reform Japanese society, to drag it back from the dominance of a fanatical military which brought it into World War II after its long “Pacific War” to conquer China.
One part of his mission, and the most dangerous, is to strike a balance between the numbness — and the apologetics on the minuscule far right – that came out of the war. That has to include recognition that Japan has a deep and important heritage that must be preserved for Japan and the rest of the world. Sometimes, that means either glossing over past horrors – or at least explaining them. [Japan’s military came out of a revolutionary background, many if not most, from an expropriated peasantry that paid the price for Japan’s rapid industrialization in pre-WWII. And it was true that part of their ethos was the belief that, having set the pattern for modernization as the only non-European society to make it, they were “crusading” to eliminate European – and American – colonialism in Asia.]
That leaves Abe vulnerable to the clichéd attacks, both by the Japanese left – some of it, ironically, installed by the Occupation including the still Communist-loyal teachers’ unions – and oldtime American Japan-haters with their memory of atrocities in a bitter, painful war. [But do they remember the devastating American firebombings of Japanese cities and, alas!, the perhaps necessary but horrendous two nuclear bombings!] Walking that tightrope is going to be more and more, not less difficult.
For Abe is also pushing for Japan to take its place in the real world, a place consistent with the world’s still second largest economy. That means, for example, amending – or stretching even more – the MacArthur Constitution which forbade military forces altogether, long since breached but certain mutuality in the U.S.-Japan defense alliance which has been only a one-sided nuclear chield protecting Japan.
If all this were not enough, Abe is doing this at a time when Japan is undergoing a demographic catastrophe – with its population like most of the industrial countries [and, interesting enough, Iran and some other “underdeveloped” Arab societies] at a precipitous rate. He also is trying to drag the economy out of two decades of torpor.
His only crutches in all this are his continuing popularity; the Japanese electorate seems ready to have an activitst prime minister. Haviong just completed a low-jey but very successful visit to the U.S., he moves on to the broader world platform now. And he needs the fullfleged cooperation of the U.S. In this, as in so many issues, the Obama Administration isn’t always putting his Foreign Service Officers where its mouth is. It could not be more important at this moment for the U.S. to grab every tool – including the proposed Pacific free trade pact – to further the Japanese prime minister’s objectives.