New York Times: Jekyll and Hyde on Japan

In recent weeks, the New York Times editorial board has been giving Japan’s government a hard time. First, they bemoaned passage of a draconian state secrets act. Then they took Prime Minister Abe to task for worshipping at a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including class A war criminals. But finally, the editors have found something to praise: giving the go-ahead for reclamation to build a new U.S. Marine base in Okinawa. (The Times has offered similar praise before, and I wrote about it here.)

One motivation for building a new base in Henoko was that the current one in Futenma became politically fraught after a twelve-year-old girl was gang raped by American soldiers in 1995. Okinawans, however, have resisted efforts to address this by simply moving the Marines to a less densely-populated area. They are sick and tired of being exploited as pawns in the name of American and Japanese military objectives. Up to one fourth of the civilian population perished in the Battle of Okinawa. Though Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952, Okinawa remained under U.S. military occupation for twenty years more. Even after reversion to Japan, Okinawa hosts three fourths of all U.S. bases in Japan. In the past, those bases held stockpiles of nuclear weapons and quite possibly Agent Orange without the knowledge of the local populace. Okinawans in large numbers have had enough, and insist that any new base be sited elsewhere.

The Times tell us that Abe “worked to make the deal happen by pressing Okinawan officials to approve the permit and offering financial support for the island.” By “pressing”, the Times apparently means Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru threatening Okinawa legislators with expulsion from the party unless they broke campaign promises to resist the Henoko plan. Yes, the same Ishiba whose likening of secrets bill opponents to terrorists had so recently perturbed the Times. In that editorial the Times declared: “The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month rammed through Parliament a state secrecy law that signals a fundamental alteration of the Japanese understanding of democracy.” But on the reclamation approval, the Times is suddenly sanguine about strong-arm tactics to defy Okinawan popular will. They fret that “local politics could still thwart the project.” Maybe it’s not just the Japanese understanding of democracy that is suspect here.

If members of the Times editorial board are so committed to their vision of security, perhaps they would like to host new military bases in the vicinity of their homes and have Osprey aircraft of questionable safety hovering over their children’s schools. Then they might recognize how inadequate are vague statements that the two governments “must be responsive to Okinawans’ concerns about jet crashes, crime, environmental degradation and noise.” Those governments have been making such pro forma commitments for nearly two decades, and there is little prospect of anything substantial being done. For Okinawans, the only acceptable response is to remove the source of the problems from their communities.

The New York Times is important not only because of its wide readership, but also because it is seen as “liberal”. Unfortunately, this leads many to takes its editorial positions as delimiting the leftmost edge of responsible opinion, and fail to recognize how truly illiberal some of them are. On issues involving press freedoms, it is relatively progressive – it is, after all, a newspaper. But on “national security”, it takes its lead all too often from the Obama administration.

I criticized the first of these editorials for neglecting to note that the secrets act was a response to U.S. demands that Japan tighten its secrecy regimen. With the latest editorial, we can see the reason for this omission: U.S. priorities are not to be challenged.

After praising Abe, the Times returns to the theme of the second editorial, and attacks his excessive nationalism: “Mr. Abe’s wrongheaded version of history has a poisonous effect on regional security, and the United States has warned him about this. Perhaps President Obama will have to make this point more firmly.” The hubris here is astonishing: would the Times, I wonder, countenance a foreign leader who “warned” a U.S. president, and if the president failed to comply, then “made the point more firmly”? This is how a Mafia don makes someone an offer he can’t refuse, or how an empire addresses a client state.

That the Times sees Japan as a U.S. satrap is entirely consistent with its contempt for popular will in Okinawa. Japanese progressives may be tempted to welcome U.S. efforts to restrain Abe’s jingoism, but such efforts target symbolism and rhetoric alone. Essentially the U.S. is telling Abe: go ahead and destroy your Peace Constitution; just don’t visit Yasukuni and remind people why Article 9 was needed in the first place. Furthermore, relying on external pressure substitutes for the hard work of domestic politics, and comes at a huge price in terms of Japanese sovereignty. And as long as Japan remains subservient to the U.S., the worst of that exploitation will be offloaded to Okinawa.

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