Japan at a crossroads
By Motofumi Asai and Kim Mi-kyoung
Japan is currently at a crossroads. The country is trying to re-establish its identity, and re-configure its posture in a rapidly shifting global landscape.
China's rise and Japan's relative decline are at the epicenter of the changing dynamics. Japan's position vis-a-vis China in terms of military strength, economic competitiveness and political leadership is causing much anxiety in the Tokyo government. Specifically, Japan has had to tread the precarious waters between the U.S., its traditional ally, and China, the emerging partner and rival. South Korea, over which Japan has felt a sense of superiority, is no longer dismissible. Confusion and soul searching define the current state of affairs.
There are two primary defining moments in contemporary Japanese history. First, the Meiji Restoration, Japan's response to Western encroachment, proved Japanese prowess on the international stage. Progressive visionaries such as Yoshida Shoin, Sakamoto Ryoma and Fukuzawa Yukichi advocated Japan to emulate the advanced West, and thus jumpstarted the nation's modernizing efforts. However, successful modernization ironically paved the road to provoking war and eventually leading to the country's own collapse. Subsequently, Japan's unconditional surrender in 1945 to allied powers marked the second watershed moment.
Japan's postwar trajectory explains the current confusion and chaos. There is a relatively wide consensus that Japan has been enabled to prosper over the past 60 years because it is central to the American security framework in the region. The country's postwar economic accomplishments were the fertile ground for resurrecting national pride and self-esteem. At the same time, though, the majority of ordinary Japanese people nurtured mixed feelings about the awkward co-existence of the Peace Constitution and the U.S.-Japan military alliance, which negates the very spirit and principle of the Constitution.
Things have changed now. Traditional Japanese pride and self-esteem are being overshadowed by self-doubt and a lack of specific direction. The elderly are anxious about retirement pensions, while the youth are concerned about finding employment. Rural populations are isolated and aging, and the middle-aged are worried about job security. One of the reasons behind Japan's state of hopelessness stems from the failure of policy elites' to preempt certain repercussions of Japan's habitual resignation to reality while being entrenched in power politics.
Japanese political elite's dominant intellectual current has been heavily imbued with power politics. Maruyama Masao, a well-known scholar of Japanese political culture, once characterized the concept of Japanese reality as having three strong biases: It is submissive to, rather than challenging, the given; it is one-dimensional rather than multifaceted and flexible; and it is submissive to the strong and coercive against the weak. Japan's elites believe that the international order is permanently predatory.
Incidentally, this explains why they often come across as stolid in their recognition of Japan's tainted historical record in Asia. They blame the victim's powerlessness for the unfortunate experiences, while relieving itself from accountability for past acts of aggression.
As an extension of the lack of penitence, Japan's conservative elites consistently argue that the Peace Constitution is American-imposed and excessively apologetic, and that it must be amended so that Japan can become a ``normal,'' rearmed country.
This is only possible as Japan takes a certain measure to adapt itself to the current power-centric international system. They also argue that the Constitution's ``excessive'' human rights protection should be restricted in favor of ``national interest." Their dismissive attitude toward human rights has been translated into stringent gate keeping.
For instance, they vehemently oppose the arrival of international refugees, including North Korean escapees, into its territory, and are self-absorbed in responding to Japanese abduction issues. Further, this brand of politicians has been largely dismissive of Japan's past atrocities committed on the Korean Peninsula such as forced laborers and ``comfort women.'' This particularistic perception obscures Japan's ability to regard itself in favor of universal human rights.
History suggests that the growing recognition of human dignity is an essential universal value. The ability to provide for basic human rights and democratic governance has become a basic norm for any state seeking legitimacy as a responsible member of the international community. The debates on historical perception between Korea and Japan are ultimately about the respect for and protection of human rights which were violated, concealed and ambivalently redressed by the Japanese government.
The current state of confusion and soul searching can hopefully change the Japanese power elite's perception about human rights that other people's pains can sometimes be as hurtful as their own pains. This would take a healthy dosage of imaginative idealism. The leap in beliefs will not only be helpful in curing the ubiquitous domestic woes, but also in mending fences with neighbors like Korea and China. The East Asian community can prosper only when the members acknowledge, respect and trust each other.
Furthermore, a breakthrough for the current state of confusion and soul searching will happen only when ordinary Japanese people realize that it is the common citizen, not the political elite, who should be in charge of Japan's future. The ownership of sovereign rights has been exercised by the peoples of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand to change the course of their respective countries. The Japanese people need to wake up to the irreversible democratic trend. A starting point would be to purge, once and for all, their entrenched sense of resignation to a problematic ``reality.''
Motofumi Asai is president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Japan, and Kim Mi-kyoung is an associate professor at the institute. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.