General Tamogami refuses to fade away

Is Tamogami Toshio a millstone around Aso Taro’s neck?

The now former chief of staff of the Air Self-Defense Forces (ASDF) appeared before the House of Councillors foreign and defense affairs committee and continued his determined campaign to dispel the postwar consensus on Japan’s wartime past.

In his remarks, General Tamogami appeared to play dumb. Asked about the Murayama statement, in which then-Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi made a sincere apology for Japan’s wartime behavior (and argued that “Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism”), the general hid behind his and his fellow airmen’s right to freedom of speech. He noted that his essay said nothing about the Murayama statement and asserted that even JSDF members have the right to freedom of speech.

The essence of civilian control is that the prime minister is the commander-in-chief of the JSDF and the Diet is responsible for “basic administration.” While it is true that General Tamogami did not use the phrase “Murayama statement” in his essay, only a fool would be satisfied with that answer; General Tamogami’s essay was all about the Murayama statement and the worldview that produced it and has sustained it in the thirteen years since it was promulgated. The general certainly knew what he was doing. Say what you will about Japan’s revisionists, but they are not fools (as in the case of the Nanjing massacre: most don’t deny that something happened in Nanjing, but many turn it into a matter of numbers, shifting the discussion from the enormity of what the Imperial Army did in Nanjing to China’s purported manipulation of the figures to make Japan look bad).

Of course, now that he is out of the service General Tamogami did not hesitate to criticize the Murayama statement, describing it as “an instrument for the supression of one’s opinions.” But questioning the fact that ninety-seven members of the JSDF submitted essays to a revisionist essay contest is not the suppression of the freedom of speech — it is the reassertion of civilian control. The SDF ethos encourages SDF personnel to “refrain from taking part in political activities.” While the APA essay contest may not have technically been a “political activity,” the submission of essays by JSDF personnel was effectively political. By questioning the civilian government’s official position on Japan’s wartime history (Mr. Aso reaffirmed the Murayama statement in Diet interpellations in early October, although there are now questions as to whether Mr. Aso has accepted the Murayama statement), General Tamogami was deliberately insubordinate to his commander-in-chief, and given that his essay had the potential to undermine the government’s efforts to build closer relations with China and South Korea, it is hard to see this affair as anything but interference by a senior JSDF officer in political matters. Merely asking the general to surrender his pension is mild, considering that he had been openly calling for historical revisionism for years before this incident.

On balance, I’m not sure whether this hearing was a good thing. I certainly think that it’s better that these views are out in the open, but it seems that all the hearing accomplished was assisting General Tamogami in his transition from ASDF general to right-wing pundit. It won’t be long now before he is a regular contributor to Voice and Will. He is already being treated as a matyr for the cause by his fellow revisionists; for example, Hiranuma Takeo, former LDP member and adviser to Nakagawa Shoichi’s “True Conservative Policy Research Group,” has criticized the defense minister’s request that the general gave up his pension. It may have been better off to let General Tamogami fade away, as another loudmouth general disrespectful of his civilian masters once said of old soldiers. (The general played up his matyrdom, saying, “I think the world is full of examples of dismissal for saying that one’s own country is a bad country, but I don’t think there’s a single example of dismal for saying that one’s own country is a good country.”)

Meanwhile General Tamogami has probably hurt Mr. Aso. In the short term Mr. Aso has won a small victory, for as a quid-pro-quo for the general’s appearance the opposition parties have agreed to bring the bill extending the MSDF refueling mission to a vote in the upper house foreign and defense affairs committee on Tuesday and the whole house on Wednesday, freeing the lower house to pass the bill again on next Thursday. But in the meantime General Tamogami has reinserted history onto the public agenda, which will undoubtedly lead to new questions regarding just what Mr. Aso thinks of these matters. Mr. Aso has categorically rejected the general’s putting his freedom of speech before civilian control, but I suspect for better or worse that Mr. Aso’s comments will not be the last of this issue.

The history issue will not make or break Mr. Aso’s government at home, but it does little to help the prime minister and does serve to distract his government from the gathering economic gloom. (Will the foreign press ask Mr. Aso about this while he visits Washington?) I have yet to see any public opinion polls pertaining to General Tamogami’s remarks, but I expect that the public is generally not sympathetic to this perspective.

I want to conclude with a word about the general’s perspective. In his remarks on Tuesday, General Tamogami raised an argument that has been made in comments on this blog and elsewhere, namely, that Japan has been unfairly singled out for wrongdoing during the war. He further suggested that talk of Japan as a bad country damages JSDF morale.

I have no idea how General Tamogami can prove the latter argument, but I am not totally unsympathetic to his former argument. However, as I argued here, simple moral equivalency between Japan and the European empires does not work. It is a lazy assertion, and when making a legal argument, as the general attempted to do in his essay, it is a baseless assertion. I understand and sympathize with the desire to see one’s country as good, but whitewashing the past, pretending that the sorry moments of history were either not sorry or did not happen is no way to glorify one’s nation. As noted previously, many American suffer from a similar problem, failing to see history through the eyes of other and failing to appreciate the harm caused by Americans in the name of high ideals. I can understand General Tamogami’s frustration. But the answer is not reinventing a glorious past that better serves what the general sees as the needs of the present.

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