Japan’s PR problem

Francis Fukuyama has written a brief essay called “The Trouble with Japanese Nationalism,” in which he recounts his own encounters with Japanese nationalists — including the translator of The End of History and the Last Man — and wonders whether the US wants a normalized Japan that has yet to resolve its historical issues. (Hat tip: Arts and Letters Daily.)

He concludes:

A number of American strategists are eager to ring China with a NATO-like defensive barrier, building outward from the US-Japan Security Treaty. Since the final days of the Cold War, the US has been pushing Japan to rearm, and has officially supported a proposed revision of Article 9 of the postwar constitution, which bans Japan from having a military or waging war.

But America should be careful about what it wishes for. The legitimacy of the entire American military position in the Far East is built around the US exercising Japan’s sovereign function of self-defense. Japan’s unilateral revision of Article 9, viewed against the backdrop of its new nationalism, would isolate Japan from virtually the whole of Asia.

Revising Article 9 has long been part of Abe’s agenda, but whether he pushes ahead with it will depend in large part on the kind of advice he gets from close friends in the US. President Bush was unwilling to say anything about Japan’s new nationalism to his “good friend Junichiro” out of gratitude for Japanese support in Iraq. Now that Japan has withdrawn its small contingent of troops, perhaps Bush will speak plainly to Abe.

Fukuyama’s argument is largely unexceptional, but it illustrates the real consequences of the reports trickling out of Japan about just how little some senior Japanese politicians have come to terms with Imperial Japan’s crimes. Japanese nationalists may have an easy time dismissing Chinese and Korean complaints about Yasukuni visits and the like, but if the US — the executive branch especially — begins voicing serious complaints about how the Japanese view their wartime history, the alliance will be in serious trouble.

Why? Well, because after urging Japan to do more over the past two decades, the US cannot slam the Pandora’s box of Japanese normalization shut, certainly not without angering Japanese politicians (and perhaps the public at large) — some of whom are demanding that Japan takes a greater role in defending itself even without the US cautioning Japan to slow down. The result could well be the end of the alliance, with the US coming around the Chinese/Korean view of Japan.

So Fukuyama’s essay — coming from an intellectual who is by no means known to be hostile to Japan’s playing a greater role internationally — can be taken as an indicator that the time for the allies to resolve the tensions between them is now. Perhaps the long-awaited 2 + 2 meeting, now scheduled for 30 April, will go some way towards clearing the air, and laying the groundwork for a more durable framework for bilateral cooperation.

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