A journey to the center of Mr. Abe

I mentioned earlier that I was in the process of reading Prime Minister Abe’s Utsukushii Kuni e [Towards a beautiful country], the book he published in advance of last autumn’s LDP presidential election and that was a popular seller after his inauguration as the Japanese people tried to figure out just who their new prime minister is.

Well, I’ve finished my slog through it, and I cannot deny that for all the interminably boring bits — and there were plenty — it was an incredibly useful book to read.

This books reads like the prime minister’s stream-of-consciousness. He jumps from topic to topic, draws on memories at random, and refers to recent Hollywood movies (Terminal, Million Dollar Baby) and American and British politicians and political events (Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Arthur Greenwood, Ronald Reagan, the Iran hostage crisis, among others) to make his points. There are chapter and section headings, but they tend to be of a general nature, giving Mr. Abe’s mind plenty of room to wander. One might argue that referencing Hollywood movies was an attempt by the prime minister to seem more a man of the people, but the references (and plot summaries) are labored and don’t add anything to the text — they certainly struck me as strange. All of this makes for a bizarre book, certainly not the kind of book one would expect from a man on the brink of being chosen as the leader of a world power (the same probably goes for Foreign Minister Aso’s new book).

Having said that, I want to make a couple more serious points about the content of the book, to add to those I’ve made on previous occasions.

First, Abe’s view of the state is deeply unsettling. He references Hobbes’s Leviathan to make the case for a strong state that is capable of securing the lives and property of its citizens. But aside from a offhand remark about Kant to dismiss his ideas, his view of the state stops with Hobbes. It’s almost as if he was in a class on political theory, paid close attention at the start (“this Hobbes guy is great”), missed a couple weeks, poked his nose in for Kant, didn’t like him, and decided to cut the rest of the semester. No Locke, nothing about the American founders except to praise them for building a strong state via the constitution and note the importance of the Declaration of Independence to Americans, no Rousseau, no French Revolution, no Mill — you get the idea.

It’s one thing to not bother paying tribute to Western political theory, but to cherry pick from the Western political tradition, borrowing from a seventeenth century thinker whose society was actually in dire need of a leviathan around the time he was writing, is revealing. To Abe, the state’s duty to protect its citizens is all-important. To him, the central dilemma of modern Western political philosophy — the search for a balance between liberty and security — does not exist. What matters is security. And so there is no compromising over North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. And there is little tolerance for dissenting opinions. Abe seems to have little tolerance or understanding for those who view the world differently than him (and his grandfather), castigating journalists and liberal academics at one point or another for their views. While he claims that to defend Japan is to defend “liberty and democracy,” he does not spend all that much time talking about what those mean to him and to Japan.

In all honesty, Abe would probably fit right in at the Bush-Cheney White House.

Take this line, for example: “The state and the people should not have a conflictual relationship, they should have a complementary relationship.” I find this line revealing not only concerning Abe’s political views (he takes the idea of the emperor as the symbol of this relationship seriously), but also concerning the political development of Japan. This idea strikes my American ears as unusual, and I think it would find a mixed reception throughout the West, even in relatively more statist continental Europe. While the US probably goes too far in the direction of anti-statism, the basic idea of the state and its agents and representatives serving the people and being held accountable by the people (necessarily conflictual, no?) is fundamental to American (and liberal) political thought.

Abe rejects that, however. The divide is not a divide — not governed and government, but state and people living in dynamic unity. There is nothing about how democracy squares with this vision of the state, but I can imagine based on what Abe has said and done since becoming prime minister. Just yesterday LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao provided the perfect expression to illustrate Abe’s political thought:

President Ozawa says, “We will bring about the reversal of government and opposition parties and a two-major-party system, and establish democracy in Japan.” Whichever country, whatever era is he talking about? He probably bears a grudge to the LDP. The goal of politics is not the reversal of government and opposition parties and a two-major-party system. What kind of Japan to build is most important. Democracy is not established? Democracy is established in Japan.

I wrote back in January, after the prime minister’s speech to open the new Diet session, that Prime Minister Abe fancies himself some kind of twenty-first century genro, a statesman rising above low, democratic politics and plotting the course of the ship of state for the next 50 to 100 years. There is nothing in his book to dispel that impression.

Meanwhile something he wrote about the LDP caught my eye, because it pertains to Japan’s alliance with the US. He suggests that the two reasons for the union between the Liberal and Democratic parties to form the LDP, a union engineered by his grandfather, were to achieve high economic growth rates and to restore Japan’s independence, with revising the occupation-era constitution and education law being key aims for the restoration of Japan’s independence. To Prime Minister Abe, Japan is only de jure independent because it still is governed by a constitution drafted by foreign, by American hands. In other words, the occupation never ended.

He later gets around to dedicating a whole chapter to the “Composition of the US-Japan alliance,” but spends a good chunk of it talking about the drafting of the constitution by SCAP, and then talking about how Japan should be able to act more assertively abroad — but not necessarily in cooperation with the US. Here’s what the prime minister has to see about his country’s relationship with the US:

While it goes without saying that the utmost self-help effort for the security of the homeland, the fight to “defend one’s own country oneself,” is essential, if one thinks about nuclear deterrence and the stability of the Far Eastern region, the alliance with the US is indispensable, and if one takes into account US influence in international society, its economic power, and its unsurpassed military power, the US-Japan alliance is the best choice.

Moreover, I must clarify the point that today, the US and Japan share the basic viewpoint of liberty and democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and freely competitive market economics. This is a common understanding among the world’s liberal countries.

While that statement seems fairly innocuous as rhetoric about the US-Japan alliance goes, it needs to be unpacked, because what seems like a fairly confident statement of support of the alliance with the US is actually quite brittle. The key is the idea of the alliance as a “choice.” Obviously in mundane legal terms, the alliance is the product of the 1960 treaty, approved by both countries’ legislatures without coercion, whatever the controversy in Japan surrounding the treaty. But in practical terms, it is not often that one hears Japanese or American statesmen speak about the alliance as a “choice,” subject to prevailing conditions — if those conditions change, a different choice could be made. One wonders what would happen if the US no longer appears to be the best choice, as it may already be becoming (see Nakanishi Terumasa in the July issue of Voice). What happens if the US can no longer be relied upon the provide nuclear deterrence and/or stability in the Far East (note that stability is a flexible term that could mean very different things to Washington and Tokyo)?

The second paragraph, meanwhile, contradicts the first in a way. If the alliance is a choice — the product of US predominance that makes alliance profitable for Japan — then why even bother talking about shared values? The first paragraph makes clear that the alliance is not, in fact, indispensable; it is indispensable only in prevailing conditions. Talking about shared values suggests something enduring, like, say, the US-UK relationship, which, whatever the vacillations from administration to administration and cabinet to cabinet, is about as enduring a feature of international relations as one can find. A British prime minister might discuss his government’s priorities (Brussels vs. Washington), but to talk about the alliance with the US as a “choice” suited to the circumstances would sound ridiculous.

No, Abe’s clarification about shared values of “liberty and democracy” — a phrase that Abe seems to use frequently in lists without ever bothering to define, as if the definitions of these concepts are crystal clear — seems to me more like window dressing than a new basis for the alliance, as the subsequent paragraph makes clear:

Then, what should we defend? It goes without saying, the independence of the state, namely the sovereignty of the state and the peace that we enjoy. Practically speaking, our lives and property, and our liberty and human rights. Of course, the culture, tradition, and history of we Japanese can be included among these things that should be protected…

At no point in this paragraph is it clear that he is talking about “we” as the US and Japan. The first “we” could be the alliance, the second just “we Japanese,” — or else both could be applying to “we Japanese,” with the second used for emphasis. Whatever the case, it strikes me as ambiguous, and this list of security interests does not necessarily seem dependent on the alliance, depending on who or what is threatening a given interest.

Now, mind you, I have no problem with Japan acting more independently to secure its interests, within the alliance if possible, without if absolutely necessary. What I reject is achieving more independence by subterfuge and deception. Instead of pretending to be the good ally while using closer alliance ties as a way to prep Japan for a more independent role, the Japanese government, if it in fact desires a new arrangement, ought to be more forthright about it.

Those are my most important responses to Mr. Abe’s little book. If you have the time and the inclination, it’s worth a read, even with his premiership on the ropes. (Indeed, the prime minister might not be in power by the time the English translation appears in the fall.)

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