Niccolò Machiavelli famously argued that in making real change, reformers should maintain old forms because people are satisfied with appearances and are “more influenced by the things that seem to be than by those that are.” George Orwell updated Machiavelli by pointing out that those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future.
So, we have long understood how the use of history can be selective and strategic. Nor is this peculiar to politics in European states. Nowhere has the political manipulation of history been more embedded in political discourse than Japan , where 19th century reformers “restored” an emperor to legitimate a revolution and 20th century industrialists invented a “traditional” paternalism to thwart the development of trade unions.
Japanese leaders and would be leaders continue to compete for control of history. Their competition to construct a grand narrative of national crisis dominated the discourse in the wake of the triple catastrophe of March 2011. And their competition is just as robust in other domains. Let’s consider the ways in which the Abe administration and its opponents have jockeyed for historical position in Japan’s two most contentious security debates of the past year: the debate about Collective Self Defense (CSD) and the passage of a Designated State Secrets Law (DSSL).
Some on the right—but certainly not all conservatives—have been using history as if they were navigating the future through the rear view mirror. They paint Japan’s mid-twentieth century empire less as aggressive, than as noble. Extolling Tokyo’s intention to liberate Asia from “white colonial rule,” some have called for reintroduction of patriotism to the nation’s schools, deny that the Imperial military trafficked in sex slaves, reject the claim that hundreds of thousands of Chinese were murdered in Nanking in 1937, and resist the demands of Japan’s neighbors for demonstrations of remorse that go beyond payment of reparations and repeated apologies.
There is one past they insist on leaving far behind in the rear view mirror: “the postwar.” Their intention is, in PM Abe’s term: “to escape the postwar regime.” This means coming to terms with “victor’s justice,” ending Japan’s status as subaltern state, and revising an “imposed” constitution. One need not be a revisionist to feel sympathy for each of these concerns. In my view, it would be painful but beneficial for both the United States and Japan to openly confront the postwar settlement. It would also be good if Japan could be less dependent on the United States and, especially, if the Japanese people could write their own constitution for the first time. So the revisionist agenda is not entirely a bad thing; but driving through the rear view mirror is hardly strategic, and indeed may undermine Japan’s larger strategic position regionally and globally.
The Japanese left is not doing any driving, of course—at least not of the national bus. But in its opposition, it does deploy its own characteristic historical metaphor—the “slippery slope.” Some on the left—but certainly not all progressives—frequently point to revisionist claims as evidence that Japan remains dangerously close to reverting to wartime authoritarianism. When the Japanese public embraced the Japanese military (and the U.S. alliance) during the 3.11 crisis, advocates of making Japan more “normal” used the moment to insist that they had been right all along—3.11 proved that the Japanese military is a critically important instrument of national power; and therefore its capabilities should be enhanced further. Critics used it as an occasion to suggest that the military succeeded only because it was using shovels and not guns, and argued that the lesson of 3.11 was that Japan does not need a military; it should become a global Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Agency if Japan is to avoid sliding back to unpleasant wartime repression. The pacifist left invoked the slippery slope in the debates over both collective self-defense and secrecy legislation. Let me take each in turn.
Many vigorously opposed the reinterpretation of the constitution to allow Japan to engage in CSD—the authorization of the Japanese military to assist allied nations that come under attack. Although CSD has been in the works for years and has been de facto national policy ever since Prime Minister Koizumi dispatched the MSDF to fuel U.S. and British fighters flying sorties from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan, opponents insist that it would open the floodgates to a revival of Japanese militarism and undermine constitutional governance. Headlines in Tokyo Shimbun blared that Japan was “On the Road to War.” The Asahi Shimbun editorialized that PM Abe was in a “headlong rush” to empower Japan’s military, and the Mainichi called it “reckless,” adding that “once SDF troops launch operations, there will be no limit to what they can do.”
What these opponents have in common is a lack of confidence in the Japanese military—or at least in the civilian leadership that, they fear, will not be able to control it. For them, Japan still teeters on the edge of a slippery slope toward mid-century militarism. They are wrong. While supporting the SDF in record numbers, the Japanese public forced PM Abe to moderate his preferred reinterpretation of CSD. The way it came out, it is not clear if Japan didn’t simply expand its doctrine of individual self-defense. Abe has even had to proclaim publicly that Japan would not allow itself to become entangled in American wars. So, rather than a “slippery slope,” it seems that the Japanese public found solid footing.