A Question for Asia: Is Japan Back?

May 28, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Japan

A Question for Asia: Is Japan Back?

"Japan’s return to 'normalcy' has been long awaited and welcomed by those of us who have hoped for Japan to step up in the security realm and punch at its real weight. No one, however, is cheering for Japan to throw the first punch."

The title of this article evokes a 2012 campaign promise by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō who declared that he would “take back Japan” (nippon wo torimodosu). Since his election and the triumphant return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the idea that “Japan is back” has become a standard part of discussion about Japan. But the campaign promise and the discussion it engendered beg two important questions: First, where did Japan go? And, second, which Japan are we talking about?

Strictly speaking, Japan did not go anywhere—it stagnated in place. Between 1992 and 2013, Japan’s GDP growth averaged less than a lackluster 1 percent annually. Shockingly, GDP declined in per capita terms in nearly half these twenty-two years despite a falling population. Japan was enmeshed in a vicious circle of contagion—stock and real-estate prices plunged; banks found themselves loaded with bad debt; and deflation gripped the economy. Public debt soared to the highest level in the world. Risk-averse Japanese investors responded by setting up shop abroad, “hollowing” domestic manufacturing. In 2013, after a decade in which Japanese firms abroad tripled their sales and doubled their employees, one third of Japanese industrial production—including more than half of all automobile manufacturing—was done elsewhere. Income inequality at home rose above the OECD average, and the number of Japanese citizens receiving public assistance has approached early postwar levels. Meanwhile, after three decades of remarkable growth, China accelerated past Japan in 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy.

Japan’s economic malaise affected Japan’s international standing in other realms as well. Anime, which had been the avatar of “Cool Japan,” went into what one observer called its “long slide into irrelevance.” Rather than celebrated for blossoming into the epitome of cosmopolitanism, Japan was criticized for its persistent gender gap, its closed door to immigrants, its blind eye to asylum seekers, the reduction in its overseas development assistance (ODA), and what many Japanese themselves disparagingly refer to as its “Galapagos”-like isolation. Alarmist news reports of youth unwilling to study—and of adults unwilling to work—abroad seemed to edge out reports of engaged Japanese NGOs and Tokyo’s global leadership by a wide margin.

The March 2011 triple catastrophe in Tohoku, known simply as “3.11”, riveted global sympathies and stimulated inflated expectations for widespread social, political and economic change. Japan would not only recover, but would be “reborn,” revitalized,” “reset,” and “regenerated.” For some, the silver lining in the dark 3.11 cloud was nothing short of the opportunity for “civilizational transformation.” But three years on, for many Japanese, the disaster evokes government ineptness and citizen lethargy more often than the renovation that was widely promised and expected. A record-ten-million voters stayed home as the remainder of the electorate responded in December 2012 to the promise that a renascent Liberal Democratic Party would bring their nation “back.”

The three arrows of “Abenomics”—monetary, fiscal, and structural reform—were trumpeted as the economic policies that would return and reinvigorate Japan. And for a while, the economic indicators responded, tickling high hopes. In 2013, the Tokyo stock exchange rebounded and inflation targets were met. But by early 2014, the reform package already seemed to be flagging. Markets that had risen by 50 percent in Abe’s first year began falling back to earth when exports did not expand and domestic investment stagnated. The solution, invoked ahead of a consumption tax rise designed to avert the economy’s falling off one of the world’s steepest fiscal cliffs, was additional fiscal stimulus—and hence, a steeper cliff. With growth transparently dependent on state spending—and with public debt commensurately engorged, substantive reform was left cooling its heels. Investors were underwhelmed by “national, strategic special zones,” a transparently feeble attempt at deregulation that would relax floor area restrictions on new construction, provide credit guarantees to farmers, or make it easier for start-ups to hire. Reduced tariffs and membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another pillar of structural reform, remained unrealized. Analyst David Pilling wondered if Abenomics will end in “Abefizzle” or in “Abegeddon,” two equally unattractive possibilities.

But what about “Abepolitics?” Most foreign observers associate the prime minister’s political agenda with identity politics, though rarely in a positive way. Abe, who retains strong popular support, had been applauded for his pragmatism during his first term in 2007 in no small measure, because most observers expected ideology instead. He was born into a brand of conservatism pioneered by his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, once a leading architect of Imperial Japan’s industrial expansion. Whereas more pragmatic conservatives in the LDP followed Kishi’s rival, Yoshida Shigeru, and tilted away from Japan’s militarist past in the 1950s and 1960s to focus on generating wealth and technological autonomy, Kishi’s revisionist agenda—openly embraced by Abe—has had a larger rearview mirror. Since the Japanese left is largely in disarray, this division in the conservative mainstream has enormous consequences for which Japan might be “back”—and where it is headed.

Both pragmatists and revisionists are conservatives who embrace the alliance with Washington. But each has a different view of what Japan has been and of what a “normal nation” should be. The Abe wing seasons its pursuit of normalcy with a view of history that paints Japan’s mid-twentieth century empire as more noble and as less aggressive than the pragmatists (or Washington) would accept. Some of its leading lights—and occasionally Abe himself—have extolled Tokyo’s intention to liberate Asia from ‘white colonial rule,’ called for reintroduction of patriotism to the nation’s schools, denied that the Imperial military trafficked in sex slavery, rejected the claim that hundreds of thousands of Chinese were murdered in Nanjing in 1937, and have resisted the demands of Japan’s neighbors for demonstrations of remorse that go beyond payment of reparations and repeated apologies.

The pragmatists, on the other hand, are realists who would prefer to be normal without being provocative. While revisionists have been dedicated to revising Article 9 of the postwar constitution imposed by U.S. Occupation forces, pragmatists have found the constitution useful as a way to pacify Japan’s neighbors and to justify mercantile policies without excessive defense spending. This division, born in the 1950s, remains part of the political landscape. This spring we witnessed an intra-LDP struggle between the scions of the Yoshida school—what is left of the Kōchikai—and the Abe-Kishi normal nationalists on the important issue of collective self-defense. Abe seems likely to prevail in this effort to reinterpret the constitution, but the larger revisionist project to revise the “imposed” constitution will be far more difficult—and likely beyond Abe’s reach.

This is because these divisions are broader than just those within the conservative camp. Despite their fabled homogeneity, the Japanese clearly are not all on the same page when it comes to national identity. The majority of Japanese are not highly politicized; as elsewhere in the world, Japanese citizens and groups identify with a shifting range of national identities. At different times and to varying extents they have embraced notions of postwar Japan as a peace state, as a democratic state, as a technology-based nation, as a modern state, as a small-island trading nation, and as a divine nation, inter alia. Japanese national identity is better understood as the product of the political agenda of one or another political group than as an organic essence. It is a construction that undergoes constant reconstruction, and therefore takes many forms. Its engineers are ambitious political entrepreneurs with a range of preferences and a variety of mobilizing tools at their disposal.

Today the Japan that in some sense is “coming back” is being engineered by Mr. Abe and his allies who want to put a punctuation mark at the end of the postwar era and, in the prime minister’s words, “to escape the postwar regime.” To do so, they would endeavor to build a more attractive, but also more muscular nation—one that is respected for its power—both hard and soft—at home and abroad. In an Abe locution laden with ambiguities, Japan would practice “proactive pacifism.” Japan’s return to “normalcy” has been long awaited—and indeed has been welcomed by those of us who have hoped for Japan to step up in the security realm and punch at its real weight. No one, however, is cheering for Japan to throw the first punch. And many fear that the Abe program is likely to invite unnecessary, preemptive ones.

Renewed attention to national security and hopes for a Japan that can provide security for its citizens is tempered by an appreciation of how Japan’s history of bad behavior in Asia earned it a damaged reputation as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Despite seventy years of nonaggression and multiple, self-imposed restraints on its military, history and memory remain boulders in Japan’s road to renewed prestige. The image of the wolf is more useful to leaders in Seoul and Beijing than that of the sheep; both find reports of Japanese revisionism useful and therefore carefully monitor Japan’s national discourse to document how Japan’s identity is being reengineered and, in their view, repurposed.

Efforts to renew Japanese pride and to “bring Japan back” can play directly into this. Whereas some Japanese argue that “bringing Japan back” is merely a matter of regaining national prestige, the question of whether and which Japan is “back” has ominous overtones for their continental neighbors. Watching Japanese narratives collide and morph, Seoul and Beijing are ever alert to the reelevation of prewar signifiers, particularly those that deny history and evoke erstwhile militarist appeals. Occasionally, as in the case of Prime Minister Abe’s December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, their vigilance is rewarded and their own nationalist canteens are refilled. Not that they really need more fuel for their fiery anti-Japanese campaigns. Patriotic education in China has been relentlessly (and excessively) critical of Japan for decades and, however much they are attracted to popular Japanese culture, many South Koreans have long harbored notions of an unreconstructed militarist Japan. In one particularly provocative initiative, Beijing and Seoul jointly memorialized Ito Hirobumi’s assassin, Ahn Jung-Geon, by building a museum to honor him in Harbin. They were characteristically quick to use the Yasukuni visit to feed their own national-identity narratives and to deploy it as an instrument of their public diplomacy. And they were further rewarded when several senior executives from NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, denied the rape of Nanjing, defended the use of sex slaves to “comfort” Japanese troops abroad, and insisted that the United States fabricated Japanese war crimes in order to cover up American atrocities. Even without that last highly offensive flourish, the revisionist brush was broadened and extended to alienate Japan’s allies in Canberra and Washington as well. The problem, it seems, is that one nation’s return to “normalcy” can be its neighbor’s (and ally’s) return to “militarism.” This does not have to be.