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Is Japan Moving to the Right?

Monday, December 18, 2006 Posted: 12:55 PM JST

Last week Japan's Upper House enacted a law to teach patriotism at Japanese schools, and another one to upgrade the defense agency to a full ministry. As a lower ranked 'agency' it had less influence. The two measures are widely interpreted as an attack on Japan's strongly felt postwar pacifism. Especially because pre-war education played such an important role in preparing Japanese to sacrifice themselves for the state. A large number of media reports both in Japan and abroad sounded clearly worried.

The Taipei Times reported that "Opponents on Friday voiced fears that the changes could lead to schools grading students on their patriotic fervor -- possibly as a prelude to making Japan an aggressive nation once again." It quoted a Communist Party lawmaker as saying that the "government is putting the future of Japanese children at risk and turning Japan into a country that wages war abroad.''

The New York Times wrote that to critics the laws "move Japan away from its postwar ideals and hark vaguely back to the expansionist imperial Japan of the 1930ís."

Japan's Mainichi Daily News reported that critics "have attacked the move as smacking of Japan's war-era education system, in which children were instructed to sacrifice themselves for the Emperor and nation."

Not all news reports were this alarmist, though. The Washington Post published a fairly neutral article, although it did mention "harsh criticism from Japanese pacifists, who have argued that the law echoes the state-sponsored indoctrination of children practiced by Japan's past military leaders."

It especially warned that it may "dramatically increase the number of schools using revisionist textbooks that have been heralded by conservatives here but decried by Japan's wartime victims -- particularly China and South Korea -- as whitewashing its past aggression. Such books, for instance, omit reference to "comfort women," a euphemism for the thousands of Asian women forced into sexual bondage by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s."

The International Herald Tribune published a very alarmist article by Norimitsu Onishi though, about "nationalist politicians and groups that pound on the abduction issue." "The abduction issue," Onishi writes, "is so delicate that the media do not report on the right-wing groups behind the movement, and most Japanese remain unaware of it."

According to Onishi, "the highly emotional issue has contributed to silencing more moderate voices who expose themselves to physical harm or verbal threats from the right wing."

"'The abduction issue is something that everyone, even schoolchildren, can understand,' said Yoneyuki Sugita, a historian at Osaka University. 'Prime Minister Abe is using this issue to try to carry out certain political goals. North Korea is evil, and to respond against it, he is effectively saying that Japan must revise its Constitution and promote patriotism in its schools. This is the direction in which he is pushing this country. This has been very successful.'

'But it's also very dangerous,' said Mr. Sugita, who received threats from the right wing after publishing an essay on this subject. 'It's become such an emotional issue, and fanned nationalism in such a way, that it has already encroached on freedom of speech.'

Impressions that Japan is turning nationalist weren't helped by news that the government had planted people to ask the questions or make statements at "town meetings" discussing education reform. In as many as 105 of 174 such meetings people were planted the Japan Times reported. The media and the public sounded surprised and shocked, but this is a very old tactic that the Japanese government used with great effect during the peak of the environmental protest movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although clearly undemocratic manipulation, it does not really represent any change in the way things are done in Japan. If anything, the fact that it was officially publicized, widely reported on and condemned shows that Japan has moved forward during the past few decades.

Some of these articles give the impression that nationalists are taking over the country. There is definitely a greater influence of right-wing politicians and the potential for mis-use of the many new laws that have been enacted over the past few years, exists.

But Japan is also the country with the second largest economy in the world, with a neighbor that is quickly growing as an economic challenger with vast military reserves. It is naive to assume that Japan will continue its quiet subservient role of the past 60 years. It outgrew that role many years ago, and is now finally trying to catch up to a new and fast-changing reality. Whether its neighbors, and its WWII enemies, like it or not, it will play an increasingly important role on the world stage, as evidenced by Japan's continuing attempts to reform the U.N. Security Council.

The world, and Japan, has changed a lot since the 1930s and 1940s and the country is today far more economically developed and therefore more integrated into the world that it was in those days. Although, the new-found nationalism in Japan is worrisome (as it is in the rest of the world), as long as the world at large remains stable I don't think it will cause any serious problems.

Keywords: opinion_item national_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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