Japan's Relationship with its Past and Future

July 18, 2016

Emperor Akihito (then crown prince) & Michiko Shoda at their wedding in 1959. CREDIT: Wikimedia/Public Domain

DEVIN STEWART: I'm here with Alexis Dudden from the University of Connecticut. My name is Devin Stewart from Carnegie Council here in New York City. Today we're talking about Japan's relationship to history. It has actually become an extremely timely topic.

A lot has been talked about in the press since Abe's overwhelming victory in the Diet, the Japanese parliament, recently—he has done very well politically—about a group called Nippon Kaigi, which is probably translated as "Japan Conference."

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Yes, that's good.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot of speculation about what this group means, about its significance in Japanese politics. Alexis has been doing a lot of research about this group and why it matters today. Tell us about Nippon Kaigi.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Thank you very much for including me in the conversation, Devin.

The group, the Japan Conference, came together as a result of several iterations for about the past three decades, finally coalescing in 1997 into a group that calls itself the Japan Conference. At its inception, it was largely center-center-right-leaning academics/intellectuals who wanted really to revisit how Japan's history was being taught and mediated both in national education textbooks, but also more common perceptions.

Why it matters to today's politics is that it has become an increasingly important base for Prime Minister Abe, who himself is a member and has been a member for the entire iteration of this current manifestation of the group. He is a supreme leader of the group. The group has a disproportionate amount of cabinet positions. I know he's going to re-announce his cabinet in several days, so I won't give an exact number right now, but it's upwards of three-quarters.

DEVIN STEWART: So it includes intellectuals and politicians?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Now it includes politicians, and has really since the first administration of Abe in 2007.

DEVIN STEWART: Are the politicians only people from the ruling party or from the opposition as well?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: To the best of my knowledge, it's a preponderance of LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and this particular faction within the LDP.

I think that what matters is the group itself is a very small portion of Japanese society. It counts roughly 38,000 members. Many Japanese have never heard of it, are likely never to hear of it, because of the extreme control this group exercises in media censorship, in media secrecy laws. So their ability to constrain the discourse about them makes them very difficult to learn anything about.

Interestingly, they've increasingly outed themselves as it appears Abe is gaining strength. Just last week, their head gave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo, which I think is what really has generated the recent spate of articles.

DEVIN STEWART: So Abe's victory in the Diet has given him and the group a sense that they can be more forthcoming or transparent?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: I think that they can be—well, I don't know if they'll ever be transparent, because this is a group that intentionally shrouds itself in the kind of secrecy of Japanese mysticism, of Japanese State Shinto, that it very much supports. That's why even a whiff of their activities alarms people who see it as a revision.

But again, we're really not talking about a revision of principles. We're talking about a negation of what makes Japan the upstanding member of the international community that it has been. We are talking about a group that advocates returning the emperor to the center of power, both religious and political power. We're talking about a group that openly advocates eradicating egalitarian laws between the sexes.

But we're also talking about a group that sees Japan as unique. We've had this kind of Japan essentialism before. But what it does very specifically is say that the long history that Japan has enjoyed has created a place unique unto the Japanese islands that only Japanese people can enjoy. Their strategic insertion of the word "Japanese, Japanese, Japanese" into everything they publish makes it very clear that this is an exclusive—foreigners be out, especially resident foreigners; immigrants not welcome. So it's a really pure blood, pure understanding of the Japanese society that is totally out of step with the reality that Japan has become today.

So it's a very unusual development at precisely a juncture in which Japan is at a crossroads. Its population is in decline. Economically it needs new blood; it needs fresh ideas. This group is predicated on the belief that Japan is for Japanese only; others may visit and help, but they will not be considered active members of society because they do not share these deep bonds which make the place essentially Japan.

DEVIN STEWART: So they're sort of a reaction against Western thought, Western civilization. What are some of the things they think? What is their philosophy? What types of policies would they implement?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: There's actually a legal scholar at Keio University named Keigo Komamuro, who doesn't study this group per se but he studies the effect of this group on the proposed LDP constitution.

And again, it's important to understand that what we're talking about is a group that wields such power in authoring policy and informing policy that we can really see their imprint on this August 2012 proposed draft constitution.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, is that proposed draft public?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: That proposed draft is public. It also has been translated very well by an activist group in Japan deeply alarmed by the fact that many Japanese didn't really understand what was at stake in this discussion about constitutional revision, because, again, there has been so much focus on Article 9, all Article 9, all the time, the famous war-renouncing clause of the Japanese constitution, which honestly from its inception has really been eviscerated or moot, in the sense that, for starters, Japan always has had the right to self-defense. But the fact is that from the beginning, with American backing, Japan has built one of the world's greatest armies, navies, air forces. So it's not a question of Japan not having it, obviously. But that has been the sort of distracting element to the discussion of constitutional revision, that all of a sudden Japan is going to have a military.

What the Nippon Kaigi forces and others that have preceded them have done has created a sense that the constitution in its entirety is such a Western imposition, particularly an American imposition from the occupation, that essential core Japanese beliefs are lost to the Japanese people. Yet, this constitution, which has been in place since 1947, is now very much part and parcel of Japanese national identity.

And it's not simply Article 9. We're talking about the right for women to vote. We're talking about Japan upholding its rejection of the militarism of what preceded adoption of this constitution and building itself as an upstanding member of international society.

This new version, the Nippon Kaigi group, would do away most noticeably with the old preamble and explain that this constitution that Japan will henceforth build itself on is Japanese-only. Its Japan has this constitution based "on its long history," which is against the concept of modern constitutionalism writ large.

And, as Professor Komamuro points out, what is particularly dangerous about this approach towards constitutional debate and discussion is that it's precisely if we look at Northeast Asian regional security issues, for example, Northeast Asian economic issues, let alone the issue of open society, it's precisely Japan's ability to claim a universalistic base for its own self that enables it to have the authority to speak to China, to speak to North Korea, to advocate for open society, to advocate for moving forward based on these universalistic principles, which the Nippon Kaigi very clearly says it rejects because it rejects Western human rights values.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting. So it's a debate about norms.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: Universalistic versus particularistic.

Can you give some more examples of what are the particulars that go against the universal in this case of Japan? What are some things that they believe are different from Western values, and is there any truth to their claims?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Well, I think, since this is in light of thinking about this in terms of modern Japanese history, this group, as embodied in its constitutionally backed understanding, would reject that the war was wrong. It regards any vision of Japan's behavior in both its empire and war behavior—if there's criticism of it, this group holds that that's a "masochistic" understanding of Japanese history, which is a beautiful, glorious past.

Prime Minister Abe himself has now written two books that exonerate the actions of the 3 million Japanese who died in war action, saying that it's their sacrifice—and he made this clear during his 70th anniversary speech last year—it was their actions, those who fought in the war, that built the peace that followed. Interestingly, the emperor himself very clearly rejected that the following day by saying actually it's the action and behavior and hard work of the post-fighting Japan, the post-1945 Japan, that has engendered the success and peace that Japanese enjoy today. So it's this playing with the notion of how the peace came about; it's playing with this notion that Japan committed no crimes during the war, that only those crimes that others did to Japan should be remembered.

And we got into that huge debate right before President Obama visited Hiroshima over how that visit was going to be used. Very much Prime Minister Abe wanted to use President Obama's visit in ways that would sustain this notion that the Americans committed an act of criminality against the unsuspecting Japanese. To his credit, I think, President Obama rose above that very well. He did that in that wonderful unscripted embrace of a survivor, whereby he simply dignified the sheer act of living through this history. So Abe wasn't able to capitalize on that as much as he had hoped, I believe. [Editor's note: For more on Obama's visit to Hiroshima, check out Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal's article.]

DEVIN STEWART: What is going to be the effect of this debate on the public? They can meet, they can discuss these things, they can have a proposed constitution, but what is the real impact in society?

Another thing is, are there other points of contention that this group holds up in sort of revising history?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Absolutely. I think the one that's really clearest is how they would redefine family. Currently, the constitution has a very specific statement about the equality of the sexes and how a marriage is a contract, essentially very basic Western human rights/equal rights language. The proposed draft constitution begins with "the family is the natural unit of society."

DEVIN STEWART: That seems fairly universal actually, no?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: It seems fairly universal, until you figure out what their definition of a family is, which is the heterosexual, normative man controlling the woman, and that there is very little wiggle room around that. The notion that a single woman could be head of the household is not naturally defined.

So all of these things that—for example, you've got Prime Minister Abe loudly declaring that it's time for women to become far more important in Japanese society, and he's setting these enormous goals, which he then undercuts very quietly—you know, his goal of 30 percent in the workforce is now quietly redefined at 15 percent in the workforce. And still there's no daycare, and so there's no possibility for this to be a reality, let alone an economy on which to build.

DEVIN STEWART: Is he being disingenuous? I mean which is the real Abe then?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Well, it's interesting, because this group at Keio, this group of law scholars, says that he's outright just—they're not accusing him of lying; they're saying that he's just talking about one thing to please an electorate but openly doing the other.

I think the most recent election is the best example. He campaigned on economy, economy, economy, which is what Japan needs and what Japanese voters believed they're voting for. So then you get called deeply suspicious and paranoid when you say, "No, no, no, no, that's all a ruse. He's campaigning to change the constitution." Immediately after his victory, the first thing he said was, "We're going to change the constitution. That was a mandate to change the constitution." It was not a mandate to change the constitution at all.

And so, it's in this gap also that I think Washington continues to find itself at cross-purposes with an ally they would very much like. But it's an ally in Prime Minister Abe, who keeps not telling the truth.

Collective self-defense is a great example. That went through. Washington wanted it. John McCain greeted news of Japan's passage of these new security laws by saying, "Great. When are we going to get Japanese troops in the Middle East?" I think the Asahi had done a poll that showed that, I believe, it's 92 percent of Japanese had no thought at all of Japanese troops going to the Middle East.

So this gap in terms of what Abe keeps promising versus what the reality of his policies is is laid bare in the whole history mess, because the history mess is really where his deep beliefs are. We keep seeing that over and over and over, that to him he talks economics but the focus is on rewriting Japan in a way that would glorify ancestors, his personal ancestors, but also dead soldiers.

DEVIN STEWART: Now let's take the next step. What do you anticipate? Even changing the constitution would require a referendum to the public; greater than 50 percent would have to be in favor of it, which in my understanding is quite unlikely.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Highly unlikely.

DEVIN STEWART: Highly unlikely. So does all this even matter if he can't get anything done?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Well, actually I think it's kind of exciting. It can be either really, really depressing and you can want to bang your head against the wall; or you can step back and say, "It's actually the most exciting time in recent history to look at Japanese society."

I think it's always a gross detriment to anyone who underestimates the strength of what open society means in Japan. I mean this is Asia's leading open society. It may not be out on the streets as much as everybody wishes it would be at times, because you say, "Well, who's this silent majority of 67–70 percent opposed to constitutional change? We don't see them on the streets." But we did see 100,000 people last year, for the first time since 1960. We saw that many people because there is a gradual awakening. Again, it may be too slow if we're comparing it always to a European model. But it's there. And, impressively, it's an increasingly younger crowd that is taking ownership of the future of their country.

I think it is really fair to say that Japan is in this moment of deep divide and that it's through the constitutional debate that we are going to see very serious differences of how to move the country forward. The historian in me really hasn't seen anything like this since the 1850s. People say, "1850s?" I'm talking that big a divide exists over what sort of Japan will be regionally and globally in the 21st century and beyond.

I don't just take what Abe says and the 38,000 members of the Nippon Kaigi as the future. I think the more they out themselves, the greater shock there will be over this future that is so grossly out of step with what Japan is today.

DEVIN STEWART: We began this very interesting conversation with your phrase "Japan at a crossroads." I think we should wrap up with maybe some final thoughts.

You talked about a kind of reawakening of civil society, the public getting engaged with the country's future and current politics. What should people look out for when they're trying to understand the situation, and what do you anticipate might be the next phase?

ALEXIS DUDDEN: I think that to understand not so much not just opposition candidates' voices as this alternative view of Japan, but really to take seriously that there is a strong national identity felt with what Article 9 states for Japan in the world because this is an alternate future.

There is a really interesting Upper House parliamentarian who just was reelected, named Konishi Hiroyuki. He's young, and he has an entirely different plan for what Japan's self-defense forces could be used for. It's not that he's against—he understands Japan has a first-rank military. His question, which I think is actually a global question, is: "Okay, well what should we use this military for? What is the purpose?"

It's in his proposals, in proposals of people like him in Japan, that I really think it behooves Washington especially to understand that this is not just a question of who's going to deliver what America wants. It's a question of how can Japan move forward in a way that is really productive for Asia and the world in ways that work with what Washington hopes to achieve.

DEVIN STEWART: With that, I really thank you, Alexis, for coming in and visiting us at Carnegie Council and explaining how you see the current state of Japanese politics and history and its future. Thank you so much.

ALEXIS DUDDEN: Thank you.

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