Reminder of belligerent past
Updated: 2012-09-24 08:07
By Yu Bin (China Daily)
Japan's aggressive attitude toward neighboring countries is a throwback to its bellicose history of the early 20th century
Sino-Japanese relations have nosedived since hawkish Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara unveiled his plan to "purchase" Diaoyu Islands from their "private owner" five months ago. For Beijing, the highly charged "privatization-nationalization" political soup Ishihara and the Japanese central government have cooked is eerily reminiscent of the early 1930s when right-wing extremists hijacked Japan's foreign policy as a restless Japan drifted toward wars, one more treacherous than the other.
One wonders how a local politician - who is 80 years old and should have been overwhelmed by the administrative burden of the one of the world's largest metropolitan areas - gets the time to maneuver himself into the driver's seat of Japan's foreign policy. While behind-the-scene deals between Ishihara and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cannot be ruled out, the "change" in the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands and its devastating impact on the 40-year tacit understanding between China and Japan to maintain status quo on the islands' issue, raises a vital question: Who actually controls Japan's foreign policy?
Such a question may seem absurd for a culture that values hierarchy, obedience and discipline.
A quick glimpse into Japan's modern history, however, reveals that the country also revels in the opposite values. A look at the most important events of the 20th century that Japan instigated shows that many of them were actually triggered by rebellious lower-level functionaries without explicit orders from their civilian or military superiors, paving the way for Japan's fateful plunge into larger conflicts.
Officers of the Japanese Guandong army in China's northeast region, for example, were responsible for the murder of Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928. Although Japan had been pursuing an expansionist policy in China, the Japanese army's plot still took Tokyo by surprise. Tanaka Giichi, then prime minister and retired general of the Japanese army and former two-time war minister, insisted that the responsible officers be court-martialed. The Japanese army, however, openly defied the order, and under growing criticism from the Diet and even Emperor Hirohito, Tanaka resigned in July 1929. That was the first time, but by no means the last, when lower-ranking Japanese military officers had staged a coup de force against the civilian government. On Sept 18, 1931, the Japanese Guandong army went into action again with a mysterious "Manchuria incident" that started Japan's 14-year violent occupation of China's territories.
The Japanese navy was full of radical young officers then who opposed Japan's signing of the London Naval Treaty that limited the buildup of the signatory countries' navies. In October 1930, a right-wing youth shot at and seriously wounded Osachi Hamaguchi, then prime minister, for supporting the treaty. Hamaguchi died 10 months later. This was followed by the killing of another prime minister, Inukai Tsuoshi, by 11 navy officers in May 1932. On Feb 26-28, 1936, 1,483 troops of the Japanese Imperial Army led by young officers occupied downtown Tokyo, killing several cabinet members, including two former prime ministers.
Though the rebellion failed, it accelerated Japan's race toward fascism. In November 1936, Tokyo and Berlin signed a defense pact, which was joined by Italy the following year when Japan launched an all-out war on China. The world knows what followed.
In 1945, the combined forces of the United States, the erstwhile Soviet Union and China ended Japan's half a century of militarism. Since then, Japan has changed so much, yet so little. The US-imposed "peace constitution", though widely seen as proof of a pacifist Japan, was never really accepted by post-war Japanese elites.
Perhaps, this is logical, because most of Japan's wartime elements, unlike their German counterparts, escaped punishment, thanks to the "reversal" of the occupation policy in 1947, the year that also saw the start of the Cold War. Emperor Hirohito, for example, was a cheerleader for almost all of Japan's wartime policies, but the occupation authorities in Japan extolled him as a "cute" marine scientist.
Japan's ultra-nationalists, the main social force during the rebellious 1930s, were down (without power temporarily) but never out. Though a minority in today's Japan, they are still the most vocal, active, determined and persistent elements defending Japan's wartime policies. They deny the atrocities that Japan committed on other countries before and during World War II, and take on anyone who dares to expose Japan's ugly past.
Ishihara's aggressive move on the Diaoyu Islands is the most recent act of the Japanese right wing, both in and outside the Noda government, to bury Japan's pacifist post-war constitution. This comes after Japanese right-wingers forced the revision of textbooks and Unit 731 cover-up, justified the visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and denied the inhuman exploitation of comfort women and the killings and rape in Nanjing.
In her penetrating analysis of Japan's national character (Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 1946), Ruth Benedict points out the sharply contrasting behavioral codes of the Japanese: " both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways." Ishihara's move clearly shows the aggressive, militaristic, insolent and treacherous side of Japan.
Every culture has two sides to it. But few, if any, are as contradictory as Japan's. Had she been alive to see today's Japan, even Benedict would have been surprised by the country's radical switch from reluctant pacifist to the aggressive, but familiar, Japan reminiscent of the 1930s.
Perhaps the only difference between Japan's restlessness today and the 1930s is that it is on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons, which may well be the main reason for its current bellicosity. The stronger the reaction of Japan's neighbors, the louder the right wing cries for nuclear weapons. Sooner or later, the world will face a menacing Japan with its finger on the nuclear trigger, given its past record of extremism, inability to moderate its actions and the amnesia of its past. Hopefully, those who dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't suffer from the same disease.
The author is a senior fellow at the Shanghai Association of American Studies.
(China Daily 09/24/2012 page8)