Their Own Worst Enemies
By Michael Penn
SNA (Tokyo) — It is apparent that early 2014 has already been an exhilarating period for the Japanese hard right. They have one of their own as the nation’s prime minister, his popularity has been enduring, his coterie filled with fellow travelers, and the liberal opposition beset by a degree of disarray that has probably never been seen before in postwar Japan.
To listen to their arguments, there is a kind of surface plausibility that remarkably many ordinary Japanese citizens seem to either subscribe to or have become tolerant of.
The Japanese hard right argues that they’ve been insulted and threatened by China and Korea for decades, and that all they want is to hold their heads high and believe in themselves. This is all the more important now that they face a growing military threat from their neighbors. They say that the victorious allies in 1945 forced a fabricated version of history upon them which distorted the actual record and unfairly shamed their noble ancestors. They say that prevailing international perceptions are based on misinformation and all they want to do is to clarify the facts and to speak the truth.
And yet, as almost anyone outside of their immediate circles who examines the historical facts can attest, the view of the Japanese hard right can only stand if one is willing, as they are, to trust no one’s testimony but their own and to dismiss all of the inconvenient information that doesn’t fit in with their earnest narrative of victimization and the pure hearts of the Japanese.
Indeed, what almost anyone outside of their immediate circles readily understands (because much the same qualities can be seen in the rightwing movements of many nations) is that what they call “fact” and “truth” is little more than the ideological fantasies of a fringe unwilling or unable to deal with the messiness of the real world. Their “certainties” are largely a product of bouncing each member’s self-righteousness off of the other until their world emerges into a comforting black and white in which all the remains is to have the courage to stand up and to defend one’s own.
In a world of so many doubts, uncertainties, and moral grey areas, those who are fired with their own brand of confidence and conviction can wield, for a time, a charm over the minds of many of those who are more confused and unsure of themselves. If one happens to be Japanese and a fiery group of people comes along saying that you, your brothers and your sisters, are a good, honest people who need to show your pride to the world, it is, at the minimum, a not uncomfortable message to consider. Everyone wants to believe the best of themselves and the people who are in some way like themselves.
Historians, however (meaning those historians who build from facts toward conceptions rather than start with their conceptions and then hunt for the corroborating facts), usually feel alarm bells go off in their heads when such political movements appear.
At many times in the past, the human experience has produced such movements, and they always end in grief. Sometimes that grief is limited to the disillusioned members of the movement themselves, but on certain runaway occasions, it has led to death and torture for millions of people. Japan’s own experience in the early 20th century is often cited as one such prominent example of the dangers of runaway nationalism and collective self-righteousness.
Returning to the present, the evidence is already mountainous that Japanese hard right’s attempts to deny the horrible experience of the comfort women, to propound the narrative that they were the true victims of the Pacific War, to suggest that Japanese colonialism was the best thing that ever happened to East Asia, to glorify the deaths of the kamikaze pilots as the saving of the nation, and all of the rest of their deluded ideology, are appreciated by literally no major constituency anywhere else — anywhere — beyond their own narrow circles.
The more tightly they grasp for this ideology, the more isolated and friendless Japan will become.
And that, of course, is the biggest irony of all. Their movement is born largely of the idea that Japan’s honorable name has been sullied by the lies of foreigners and Japanese leftists. But it is through their own inflexible, humorless desperation to defend Japan from any possible disparagement that the Japanese nation is truly brought into disrepute around the world.
Likewise, the hard right believes that they are creating a strong Japan that can make its own way in world affairs, and to be truly independent. In principle, one would very much want Japan to be more independent and to speak with its own voice around the world. The global order is obviously unbalanced in many respects. On the other hand, if the only thing that Japan has to say to the world with its independent voice is that comfort women are prostitutes and that kamikaze pilots are heroes, then maybe its just as well that Japan remains under the US imperial boot for another century or two.
The majority of Japanese people, who often do have common sense, decency, and goodwill, would be well advised to begin reining in that feverish wing among them who passionately believe they are protecting Japan from harm, but in reality are the nation’s own worst enemies.
Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency.