Aso’s beautiful country

MTC has a must-read post on a New York Times editorial rebuking Aso Taro for his “pugnacious” nationalism.

Mr. Aso, MTC argues, differs from his fellow conservatives in his patriotism. Aso, he writes, “is infatuated with Japan, with what it is, whatever it might become. His is not the defensive possessiveness of an insecure man. He wants to share with everyone his enthusiasm. He hopes that everyone in the world can come to see his country the way he sees it: as flawed, yes, but for the most part wonderful, kind, quirky, appealing and charming. Like a lover, he underplays the faults of the object of his desire.”

This is an absolutely critical point in understanding Japan’s new prime minister.

He is not merely the ideological twin of Abe Shinzo.

Recall that Mr. Abe’s book is entitled Towards a beautiful country. That “towards,” in Japanese a simple へ, carries decades worth of baggage. Mr. Abe does not particularly like Japan as it exists today. Why else would he be so eager to cast off the postwar system, as he promised over and over again? His love is for the Japan that could be if only the country would follow his ideas. In some way the postwar system is a cul-de-sac for Mr. Abe, an extended detour from the path Japan ought to follow. Mr. Abe’s nationalism is about reclaiming the past to provide a guide to the future. [It’s possible that the へ in the title is “To,” as in a dedication “To a beautiful country,” but I think that in light of Mr. Abe’s slogan “building a beautiful country” and various statements over the course of his government, “towards” is accurate.]

By contrast, Mr. Aso freely embraces the products of the postwar system. Indeed, Mr. Aso thinks that the products of the postwar system make Japan one of the best countries in the world. In his 2006 book Aso Taro no genten – Yoshida Shigeru no ryugi (Aso Taro’s origin — the way of Yoshida Shigeru), he is full of praise for Mr. Abe’s “postwar system.” He praises Japan and its citizens for mottainai, energy conservation, the education system, cleaniness, industriousness, health, middle-class consciousness, and non-ideological thinking (this last is slightly ironic). This is the essence of Mr. Aso’s (and Mr. Yoshida’s) use of the phrase “latent power”: the essential qualities of the Japanese people — some examples he gives are an aethestic sense and sensitivity — are a source of strength, and by implication, if only the government can use its power to ease the insecurities of the people and enable them to tap this latent power, Japan will once again retake its rightful position as a world leader. He does not appear to accept the argument made by various conservatives that the virtues of the Japanese people have been corroded by peace, prosperity, and the influence of American culture. His is not a cowering conservatism with a worldview full of bogeymen, whether the United States, China, or the Japanese left (Nakayama Nariaki’s sneering at Nikkyoso, the left-wing Japanese teachers’ union, is an example of this last point). As such, pride is different for Mr. Aso. He is proud of Japan as it is. Not Japan as a platonic ideal that the Japanese people can reach if only they listen to their (conservative) leaders. Not Japan as it was. Japan as it is today.

The result is, as MTC observes, a certain lightness in Mr. Aso’s treatment of history. Unlike his comrades, he is not obsessed with the past. He respects the contributions made by Japan’s war dead (as he makes clear in this speech on Yasukuni) but he appears more interested in reclaiming what one might call the Japanese dream than in refighting Japan’s culture war.

Back in the Abe days, I linked to a review of Nicholas Sarkozy’s Testimony by Bernard-Henri Levy, in which BHL speaks of M. Sarkozy’s desire to overlook the blackest moments of the French twentieth century and look to a brighter, more glorious future. I suggested that M. Sarkozy shared this desire with Mr. Abe. But I may have been mistaken — Mr. Abe is obsessed with the blackest moments of Japan’s twentieth century, if only to cast them in a different light, relativize them, or otherwise make them seem not quite as black. Mr. Aso is less interested in revising than in moving on, much like President Sarkozy. Now, as I wrote in the aforementioned post, I disagree with this desire to move on, but it must be said, as MTC notes, that there is a big difference between wanting to move on and wanting to revise the past.

I have plenty of areas of disagreement with Mr. Aso — notably absent from his list of Japan’s accomplishments is its peacefulness (at least in part a product of his grandfather’s and successors’ decisions to institutionalize Japan’s free- or cheap-riding on the US) — but I will not criticize him for his nationalism, which is at least rooted in Japan as it is.

Meanwhile I wonder if the differences between Mr. Aso’s nationalism and Mr. Abe’s nationalism are a result of the legacies of their prime minister grandfathers. Yoshida Shigeru virtually built the postwar system that Mr. Abe so despises. He laid the foundation for Japan’s becoming the country of which Mr. Aso is so proud. Kishi Nobusuke raged against the Yoshida regime and the constitution that undergirded it (although he made his own contributions to the postwar system).

Mr. Aso may ultimately represent an attempt to merge these two traditions, an unabashed constitutional revisionist who is also unambiguously proud of the postwar system.

One thought on “Aso’s beautiful country

  1. Tobias, thank you for your series of posts concerning Taro Aso, Japan\’s new Prime Minister. I agree with your assertions that Taro Aso is not your average LDP politician, but rather an interesting and dynamic man who seems keen on restoring Japan\’s position. I particularly enjoyed your comparison of Taro Aso\’s vision for Japan with that of former Prime Minister Abe. You state that in Abe\’s vision, Japan\’s postwar system was, \”an extended detour from the path Japan ought to follow.\” I am curious to in what ways that system does not fit into Abe\’s vision for Japan, and really what kind of vision did Abe hold for Japan? I agree with your assessment that Taro Aso holds the post-war Japanese system in esteem and essentially see reform as turning Japan back towards the ideals held by that system. Notably in his recent speech to the Diet, Aso was very clear the he believes that the LDP has been systematically failing the Japanese public through its inaction and lax attitude towards their well-being. Do you think that this speech has the opportunity to produce real change in the current political situation in Japan, either by spurring the LDP to take action or serve as starting point for the end of their political dominance in the upcoming election? I believe that Taro Aso seems to have the energy to make a real difference to the current political landscape, either through solving a few of the current policy issues or fail to do so and in the process mar the LDP beyond repair. I am more inclined it will be the latter, not because the issues facing Japan seem particularly grave (at least compared to those facing the U.S. at the moment), but rather since Aso seems to be setting himself up for failure. His cabinet appointments seem to be designed to produce the most dysfunctional cabinet possible. Finally, I think his first proposal smacks of typical LDP economic policy: spend until economic recovery comes. I am not quite sure those are quite the right set of policy tools to the table to \”repair\” Japan\’s economy or solve future pension issues. I do not believe that a simple return to the LDP of the past will be enough to solve Japan\’s problems, although I believe many of those value such as egalitarianism and frugality are importance in determining Japan\’s new direction. Japan\’s future problems are quite different than those of the past, and it will require new government solutions and real reform to solve them.


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