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.
The debate over the DSSL that took effect late last year centered on the proper balance between national security and policy transparency. It animated the same adversaries along the same battle lines, and generated many of the same dynamics—including many of the same historical metaphors. The Law extends the power to classify documents beyond the Ministry of Defense, and stipulates designation of secrets in four areas: defense, diplomacy, espionage, and terrorism. The period of designation for a state secret can be up to 60 years—or even longer. Now any minister can designate a state secret—and can refuse to divulge them to legislators if they believe a leaked secret might damage national security.
Some opponents to the law resorted immediately to the “slippery slope” argument. The Mainichi reminded its readers that although the government promised in the 1940s that the Military Secrets Protection Law would not affect the daily lives of citizens, even photography clubs were raided and weather forecasts were suspended for four years. Its editors then said that PM Abe’s reassurances of protecting freedom of the press and whistleblowers were merely an echo of the imperial military’s, suggesting that Japan was now on that same path. Legal scholars declared that the law aims to silence pacifists by returning to nasty wartime practices of mutual surveillance and intimidation.
Interestingly, however, there were a great many other objections to the Law beyond the slippery slope—including concerns about press freedom, independent monitoring, whistleblower protection, arbitrary classification, and privacy. As in the case of CSD, Japan was engaged in a very vigorous national security debate. And, in the event, the “slippery slope” argument not only failed to win the day with DSSL, but was actually rejected as excessive even by many opponents of the law. Some of the most prominent opponents of the law dismissed comparisons to the prewar as irrelevant to contemporary Japan, where civil society and democratic values have sunk deep roots. Their view was that the legislation can be improved, and one opponent—the head of the Federation of Bar Associations—even joined the Cabinet Advisory Council to do just that. Another, a leader of the Freedom of Information movement, helped craft procedures for the uniform release of state secrets.
No one would suggest that the new law is ideal—no country’s practices come up to the Tshwane bar. In Japan’s case, the Diet oversight committee that was pressed upon the government by public pressure will not get started until more than year after the law is in effect, and whistleblower protection is thin. But it is worth noting how—much as in the case of CSD—the final legislation and implementing regulations were shaped by extensive dialogue with civil society actors. The Japanese public accepted the need for a stronger state secret regime but did not respond well to strong arm tactics in the Diet or end runs around the Constitution. Prime Minister Abe was forced to lower his ambitions for both the DSSL and CSD when his support dropped sharply after both were rammed through Diet.
This likely is because there is a large, moderate, unpoliticized and persuadable middle in Japan and, because like citizens elsewhere, Japanese individuals and groups identify with a shifting range of appeals. As Patrick Boyd has noted, 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, among others. Japanese national identity itself seems to be a construction that undergoes constant reconstruction, and therefore takes many forms—often simultaneously. And the shifting of these forms and identities is further evidence of the healthy discourse of a robust democracy.
In the case of these two major debates over national security, it has been a discourse that seems to be migrating from a particularistic focus on Japan’s unhappy past to a more universalistic engagement with its democratic present. The large Japanese center hears extreme views, but seems more comfortable taking the edge off each. Now when it comes to the once taboo subject of national security, the national debate is vigorous, future oriented, and is increasingly being contested on universal grounds by a public that is more independent and less ideological than in the past.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge how the struggle to use history effectively is particularly consequential for the future of Sino-Japanese relations. China benefits both from the Japanese left’s fear of militarism and by the right’s loathing of defeat. Slippery slope arguments on the left are fully consistent with Chinese preferences, while revisionism by the right allows China to depict Japan as “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” This hardly seems smart strategically.
Nor is either productive for relations with the United States. Each, in fact, alienates Japan’s major ally. Revisionism reminds Americans that China, not Japan, was its ally in “The Good War,” while the slippery slope reminds Americans how unequal its alliance is with Japan and makes some question Japan’s commitment to it. There are obvious security costs if the United State is alienated. One need not advocate America playing global cop to understand that Washington continues to have a positive role to play in the region—especially vis-à-vis Sino-Japanese relations, relations which more than ever before are being battered about by competing historical narratives.
Meanwhile, for their (far more important) part, China and Japan each need leaders who will use history strategically to craft a productive future, not just flick at an unpleasant past for domestic political advantage.
Richard J. Samuels is the Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book, 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, was published by Cornell University Press in 2013.