Japan's new defense minister Tomomi Inada talks to reporters at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Tomomi Inada can become a better defense minister than many of her recent predecessors at a time when security matters are vitally important for Japan amid rising tensions with China. The US, instead of attacking her views on history,  should help her succeed and also stop insisting that Japanese politicians, officials and even citizens  should think a certain way. 

When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe appointed Tomomi Inada as Japan’s new Defense Minister, last month, the US foreign policy “commentariat” gnashed its teeth – rather than assess how she might perform her duties or even note the rare appointment of woman to an important cabinet position.

Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada speaks during a news conference after National Security Council (NSC) meeting in Tokyo
Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada speaks during a news conference after National Security Council meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other ministers on a nuclear test by North Korea, at Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Even the US State Department spokesman made a notably terse comment.  Inada has a bad reputation in Washington, D.C.  She is perceived as a “denier” of Japanese wrongdoing before and during World War II and as something of a provocateur by baiting South Korea and China with her visits to Yasukuni Shrine where convicted war criminals are enshrined.

Defense Minister Inada, like her boss Abe, does have some views about Japan in the 1930s and 1940s that one might vigorously disagree with.  However, a little introspection and rational analysis is in order.  Officials and politicians with controversial views exist in most governments, but still serve capably.

Prominent figures in US politics and foreign affairs have maintained the American Civil War was about “states’ rights” – not slavery.  Leftists cringe when statesmen assert that the Vietnam War was a noble cause, and US troops who fought there were always perfect gentlemen.  And there is no shortage of believers in the rightness of the Iraq and Afghan Wars – even if many Iraqis and Afghans might consider them historical “deniers” and provocateurs.

And if America needs something to apologize about (and Agent Orange isn’t enough), go back to the little remembered Philippine Insurrection where the US Army’s behavior towards enemy combatants and civilians was typified by the expression “civilizing with a Krag.”

As for Inada’s custom of visiting Yasukuni Shrine (side-stepped this year by her official visit to the JSDF base in Djibouti on August 15, Japan’s end of the war day), there are people buried at Arlington Cemetery – where US Presidents and cabinet officials routinely visit – who might have been convicted of war crimes had they been on the losing end of a war.

‘Authorized thought’

Inada’s treatment suggests there is a sort of “authorized thought” that the American foreign policy establishment expects of Japanese politicians and officials.  Among this elite crowd, even the Japanese citizenry is expected to think a certain way.

After Japan’s recent elections, more than a few Japan watchers in the US were chagrined that a large percentage of young Japanese, voting for the first time after the law was changed to give 18-19 year olds the vote, voted for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). To these elites, young voters are required to vote for anyone but the LDP.

Overlooking the fact Japanese can make up their own minds, some American academics, media, and commentators also bemoaned Japanese citizenry’s insufficient enthusiasm for protesting the Prime Minister’s security legislation last summer.  They did, however, effusively praise and attribute undue influence to a tiny group of student protestors that most Japanese have never heard of – a group that recently disbanded.

Ironically, if Inada were saying (and thinking) the left-wing equivalent of her beliefs, nobody in the US “commentariat” would care.

Japan’s Socialist Party ruled briefly in the early 1990s.  The Socialists routinely covered for the murderous Kim regime in North Korea, and even denied the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents (crimes that the North Koreans later admitted).  Japan’s Communist Party (JCP) has some troubling ideas about the US-Japan defense relationship as well, ideas that would have arguably lost the Cold War.  DPJ Prime Minister Hatoyama had disturbingly naïve views during his term in office in the late 2000s.

Yet, none of these groups or people ever received the strident criticism currently directed at Abe and his allies such as Inada.  Although the Socialists and JCP are unlikely to ever take power anytime soon, Abe and Inada are equally unlikely to gain widespread acceptance of their historical views.

Provoking the Chinese, Koreans

Chinese and Korean sensitivities are a common justification in Washington policy circles for demanding Japanese conservatives such as Inada – and all Japanese for that matter – accept endless foreign berating and engage in remorseful breast beating.  There is the perceived need to not anger the Chinese and the South Koreans, whose cooperation is deemed necessary to achieve regional peace in Northeast Asia.

This might be a sensible, pragmatic argument if 70 years had not passed since World War II with Japan behaving impeccably in the interim, or if such perpetual berating and breast beating might actually work.

No Japanese apology will ever be quite enough to placate China and the South Koreans (and certainly not the North Koreans.)  Imperial Japan did, indeed, inflict hideous barbarities on its captive populations, and we must never forget them.

However, for China, Japanese brutality many decades ago is a useful tool for rallying the population and distracting it from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s own shortcomings.   And for many Koreans, though not all, resentment of Japan is part of their psyche – and as tenacious and irrational as Balkan hatreds.

Forcing the Japanese to wear a hair shirt longer than necessary – especially when its critics might equally well try one on for size – is counterproductive.  Even many Japanese who don’t ascribe to Inada and Abe’s historical views – and who think World War II was a terrible idea – are tired of constant hectoring and demands for continuous apologies.

The ‘history card’:  Aim for consistency

The US government and its foreign policy establishment should seek to eliminate – or dilute – the “history card” – that fuels the problems in Northeast Asia.  But instead of putting the onus exclusively on Japan, it should aim for some consistency by helping China and South Korea to look at their own past behavior.   Incessant – and often cynical – demonizing of the Japanese ignores historical perspective that might contribute to more stable, mature regional relations.

Once again, a little introspection is instructive:

As for China, the CCP was responsible for the deaths of at least 50 million of its own citizens – in good weather and long after the Imperial Japanese Army ceased to exist.  And the mausoleum of the man responsible for the carnage is a pilgrimage site for both Chinese officials and citizens – and his likeness graces the national currency as well.

As for South Korea, accounts by World War II Allied POWs often refer to the Korean prison camp guards as being the cruelest, most sadistic of the lot, which is no small feat considering the general barbarity of treatment in the camps.

Perhaps the UK’s Far East Prisoner of War Association might erect statues near Korean embassies and consulates memorializing their brutal treatment at “Korean” hands?  And 20 years after the Japanese occupation ended, South Korean forces in Vietnam often mistreated and killed civilians and helpless POWs, while Korean military gunned down its own citizens during political protests as late as the 1980s.  They may still have some apologizing to do.

Human nature being what it is, the “history card” will never disappear.  But it is possible to turn what is now an “ace of spades” into a less divisive  “deuce of spades.”  Towards this end, the

American commentariat might spend as much effort highlighting Chinese and Korean behavior as it does working itself into a lather over Inada and Abe’s minority views about the past and expunging these incorrect thoughts.

This American insistence on “authorized thought” from the Japanese while ignoring serious – and far more recent – transgressions by Japan’s main critics, feeds the notion – hyped almost entirely in Asia by China and South Korea – that the Japanese are uniquely dangerous and need to be kept on a short leash.  This mindset makes it even harder to work out regional problems.

US views of Japan change slowly, however, as evidenced by Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent statement that Japan cannot have – and implicitly, will not be allowed to have – nuclear weapons because America wrote Japan’s Constitution.   VP Biden’s comments dripped such condescension that they even irked the left-wing Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Biden’s cavalier comment merely boosted Japan’s right-wing, for whom the “American imposed Constitution” is a longstanding insult.

This unrestrained willingness of many American and Western foreign policy types to tell Japan what to do and what to think is a curious thing.  It perhaps has something to do with the Japanese being less willing than almost any people on earth to tell someone to “shut up” to their face.

While an anthropologist can best answer this question, “Japan watchers” should avoid acting as if they alone know what’s best for Japan.  They should not require an “authorized thought” test in order for a Japanese official to win their approval.

Instead, accept that there will always be Japanese officials with views with which one disagrees – and that there is more to Inada or Abe (and the US-Japan relationship) than their views of history.

Indeed, Inada has the potential of being a better defense minister than a number of recent predecessors, and at a time when security matters are vitally important in the face of increasing belligerence by China.  It is in America and Japan’s interests to help her succeed rather than demanding she has no “unauthorized thoughts.”

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with 20 years of experience in Japan as a US diplomat, business executive, and as a US Marine Officer. 

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