The State of the Japanese State: Contested Identity, Direction and Role

The State of the Japanese State: Contested Identity, Direction and Role

by GavanMcCormack
Renaissance Books (2018)
ISBN-13: 978-1898823711

Review by Arthur Stockwin

Gavan McCormack is an Australian scholar well known for his critical analyses of Japanese politics and government, author of The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996 ); Client State, Japan in the American Embrace (2007), and several major works on Okinawa, as well as extensive writings on Korea. He is quintessentially a scholar engagé, who also has unrivalled knowledge of relevant sources in both English and vernacular languages.

The present work brings his scholarship to bear on the successive governments of Abe Shinzo (2006-7 and 2012 to the present). McCormack divides Abe’s career into “Abe 1” (1993 – when he first entered the National Diet – to 1997, (when he stepped down after a year as prime minister); “Abe 2” (2012-2016), and Abe 3 (2017-2018). He regards the rise to power of Abe both in 2006 and in 2012 as substantially based on two right wing nationalist organisations, the Nihon Kaigi (Japan Association) and the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Political Association). Nearly all members of his cabinets have belonged to one or both of these bodies, as have many back bench members of the Liberal Democratic Party. Their members in general are illiberal, sceptical about human rights, intent on revising the “Peace Constitution”, and coloured by nostalgia for the pre-war regime.

He discerns a break early in 2017 (Abe 2 to Abe 3) with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. This leads him to identify Abe as strengthening Japan’s “servile” relationship with the US. He was the first major world leader to meet Trump after his inauguration, and has been on close terms with him ever since. McCormack points to a “paradox” (his term) that the most “nationalist” Japanese prime ministers have also been the most “servile” (p. 47). This suggests that any contemporary Japanese nationalist faces the dilemma of how to promote Japanese interests and prestige while requiring American military support, leading to accusations of subordination to American priorities. McCormack favours the kind of Japanese autonomy that might follow a radical reorientation of foreign policy towards engagement with Asian powers, including China. He sees Hatoyama Yukio (Prime Minister under a non-LDP administration in late 2009 and early 2010) as attempting but failing to implement such a policy. He argues that the failure of the Obama administration to cooperate with the aim of the Hatoyama Government to remove the US marine base out of Okinawa was the main reason for his fall (though Hatoyama’s failure to provide himself with a fall-back position was also important).

There is much argument in this book with which it is easy to agree. Successive (mainly LDP) governments have been illiberal, both domestically and internationally. This has worsened since the 1980s (ever since Nakasone, Prime Minister 1982 to 1987). For many years Japan has been run by a power elite comprising the political leadership, government bureaucracy, big business, other interest groups including agriculture, and not least from the government of the United States. Successive governments have given lip-service to liberalism and democracy, particularly the Abe administrations. Freedom of speech and human rights are under attack at the present time.

A striking feature of the present book is the large amount of space devoted to the vexed issues of Okinawa and its US bases. I know of no other work on recent Japanese politics and government giving Okinawa so great an emphasis. McCormack should be regarded as the world expert on the detail of Okinawan politics and local struggles against American military bases. Okinawans have had a raw deal over many decades, and from a Tokyo perspective they seem remote, for some nationalists not properly Japanese, and essentially expendable. Okinawa island is also small (a minor fraction of the size of Yorkshire), yet some 20 per cent of its land is used for US bases. And this after the sanguinary battle for control of the island towards the end of the war, in which a staggering proportion of its population was slaughtered, or ordered to commit suicide. The struggles over the proposed relocation of the US Marine base from a densely populated urban area to an area of outstanding environmental importance on the coast has taken over 22 years to resolve, but the opponents of the move appear now to face defeat.

Some of the book’s arguments are contestable. Japan may be a client state of the United States, but during the 1980s Japanese economic boom Detroit auto-workers were smashing up Toyotas in protest against a Japanese “economic threat”. “Client state” phenomena have emerged during more recent economic stagnation and now demographic decline.

It is not entirely clear what alternative there might be to the Japan-US Security Treaty. An American general famously stated that the Security Treaty is the “cork in the bottle”, having the ulterior motive of blocking independent Japanese defence policies under a nationalist government. It is at least arguable that if Japanese defence policy were detached from that of the United States, this might disturb regional stability.

Whereas McCormack tends to emphasise political continuity, structural change over the past twenty years has been striking. The system of factions within the LDP created pluralism within it up to the 1990s. Leaders such as Miyazawa Kiichi, a supporter of the 1997 Constitution and Minister of Finance for long periods, were highly influential, while the non-LDP opposition parties had some blocking power. Today, after the 1994 reform of the lower house electoral system, a much more monolithic LDP, weakened opposition parties, weakened LDP factionalism, weakened LDP committees, much more power to the executive (after the Hashimoto reforms of the late 1990s), Abe can do more or less what he wants, though he is putting his power at risk through scandals where he is accused of cronyism. To some extent factions are coming back, but essentially as organisational support groups for rival LDP leadership candidates.

The book does not sufficiently acknowledge that since 1945 Japan has been essentially at peace, by contrast with the period 1868-1945 which Japan was at war on average every 10 years. This was brought about by a combination of the Constitution’s “peace clause” and the Security Treaty, and is surely a magnificent achievement. But this may be breaking down to some extent, in the context of a resurgent imperialist China and a still unresolved situation in Korea, not to speak of nationalist attitudes within Japan.

McCormack has unearthed fascinating material about the role of the Showa Emperor in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, though the conclusions he draws from this may perhaps be exaggerated. But he says little about that Emperor’s refusal (and that of the present, liberal-minded, Emperor) to visit the Yasukuni Shrine since 1978 when the souls of 14 alleged war criminals were enshrined there.

In conclusion, the present work focuses on some extremely unhealthy aspects of Japanese politics, not least in the area of human rights and freedom of speech. But in anatomising governments under Abe, he perhaps underestimates the very real problems Japan has with China, not to speak of the fluid situation in the Korean peninsula.

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