Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

The “Only Solution” Mantra

April 17, 2016

Last week, Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida told Secretary of State Kerry that building a new airbase at Henoko in Okinawa is the “only solution” to closing the Futenma base while maintaining essential security functions. Kerry implicitly agreed. This ritual is repeated virtually every time American and Japanese officials meet. Do they think that by endlessly repeating this mantra, people will believe it?

The trouble, as Peter Ennis puts it, is that “MCAS Futenma is convenient for training and Marine down time, but has no strategic function.” Ennis is no peacenik; he makes this point precisely because he sees the unwillingness to reconsider the Henoko base as a threat to core priorities of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Moreover, in an unguarded moment, former Minister of Defense Morimoto stated that “from a military perspective, the relocation does not have to be in Okinawa.”

Another crack in the facade appeared when Michael Armacost, a former ambassador to Japan, declared that “Futenma is not an essential base”, and cast doubt on the merits of transferring it to Henoko.

Anyone open to facts and logic can see that Kerry and Kishida’s claim that Henoko is the “only solution” is nonsense. The point of their dog and pony show is not to persuade, but to send the message that they will never budge. But the Okinawan people have held off this base for 20 years, and if we stand with them, even mantra-intoning officials will one day be enlightened.

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The Nation and East Asia

August 2, 2015

I am a longtime subscriber to The Nation magazine, which is celebrating its 150th year. It’s an indispensable resource, with some of the best writers around. But in the interest of making it even better, I recently submitted the following letter to the editor.


The Nation provides excellent coverage of many issues, but falls short in its coverage of Northeast Asia. In a search of your website, I found that in the past year, Japan and Korea (North and South), with a combined population 25 times that of Israel, had only half as many hits. And while China, Japan, and the Koreas combine for a population 42 times that of Iraq, they had fewer hits on thenation.com.

I am not suggesting that population is the only gauge of appropriate levels of coverage, but these figures are grossly disproportionate. I fear that The Nation is stuck in outmoded priorities that relegate one fifth of humanity to a journalistic backwater.

Our leaders are differently inclined, and their “Pacific Pivot” deserves much more scrutiny. I think Nation readers would like to know about Okinawa’s struggle to stop construction of a new U.S. military base, and about the right-wing government of Japan’s push, ignoring widespread opposition, to authorize closer military collaboration with its American ally. In a gift to the Pentagon, these stories have received sporadic coverage at best. While the region is ostensibly at peace, progressives may wake up one day and wish they’d been paying more attention.


The Nation’s “fighting the last war” predilections are apparent even within its coverage of East Asia. In the interest of brevity, my letter omitted the fact that more articles mentioned Vietnam in the past year than China. (All searches were performed July 22, 2015.) Now, my political awareness – and, I suspect, that of some Nation editors – was formed during the Vietnam War. Vietnam has yet to fully recover from the catastrophe we wreaked upon it, and the United States has not even begun to own up to its crimes. But does any of that justify treating Vietnam’s neighbor to the north, with 14 times the population, as less important?

Shortly after I sent my letter, The Nation ran a fine article on Prime Minister Abe’s end run around the Japanese Constitution. But as we know in the context of climate change, a single data point does not alter a statistical fact. While many of the magazine’s readers are well aware that the Prime Minister of Israel is named Netanyahu, they will have long forgotten about Abe if another year or two passes before he is mentioned again. Infrequent coverage means that every article has to go back to the beginning and spend hundreds of words reacquainting readers with the basic facts; they never develop the familiarity with the issues necessary to act upon them.

This is all quite consequential: shouldn’t we be asking presidential candidates about their policies toward these countries? The Nation is not the only progressive media outlet that tends to neglect coverage of East Asia. But it is influential, and it’s time for it to lead.

Philistines

July 28, 2014

Three cheers for America’s Japan pundits! In the wake of a reinterpretation of Japan’s Constitution to permit the exercise of collective self-defense, our resident experts in think tanks and academia demonstrated independence of mind with a chorus of approval. No groupthink here! The fact that their positions aligned with that of the United States government, which has for decades pressed Japan to rip up Article 9, is completely coincidental. Nor, in the case of those with previous service in the State Department, Pentagon, and National Security Council, was their scholarly objectivity the least bit compromised. Who would draw parallels with the way scholars in the Soviet Union parroted the Party line? Only a party pooper.

If the Japan wonks had one message above all, it was that this absolutely critical change was no big deal. This “historic shift,” this “landmark moment,” declare Richard Fontaine and Jeffrey W. Hornung, “is unlikely to change very much in practice, at least in the near term.” For Jennifer Lind, “The most recent change in Japanese defense policy is thus both remarkable and routine.” You see, Article 9 wasn’t eviscerated all at once. As Lind (ex-DOD) puts it, “Japan’s gradual relaxation of defense constraints should in no way suggest that the country is rearming with intent to once again commit aggression in East Asia.” Outside the scope of her study, apparently, is the effect of removing constraints expressly designed to prevent such aggression on the intentions of future administrations.

World-class scholars that they are, these thinkers provide irrefutable support for their thesis that the change isn’t so big: Michael Green and (again) Hornung note the “very restrictive” conditions that must be met in order for Japan to exercise collective self-defense: “1) The situation should pose a clear threat to the Japanese state or could fundamentally threaten the Japanese people’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 2) There is no other way to repel the attack and protect Japan and its people; and 3) The use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.” After all, when a state claims such conditions hold, that means they do. President Bush warned of the imminent threat from Iraq, which is why he is now universally venerated as America’s greatest president for saving us from Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. As to the third condition, look no further than Gaza, where the number of lifeless children mounts by the day. But since Israel says it’s employing minimum necessary force, war crimes charges are entirely groundless. See how it works?

But the wonks don’t stop there. After an exhaustive search, Green and Hornung unearthed crucial evidence that there’s nothing to worry about: “Abe himself has explicitly said that the change will not lead to Japan’s involvement in foreign wars.” Well, that settles that – the prime minister said so! Fontaine (formerly of State and NSC) and Hornung use subtle reasoning to deduce that “the Constitution’s Article 9 … has not changed.” You see, its text hasn’t changed, only what the government takes those words to mean – a matter, obviously, of no consequence. We can but gasp in awe at such penetrating analysis.

Some benighted souls, however, aren’t as thrilled with the teensy-weensy reinterpretation. Fontaine and Hornung highlight criticism from other Asian nations, but focusing on criticism from China is not, repeat not, a straw man! Most wonks, though, paid at least some attention to opposition within Japan itself. Lind strides in with historical context: since the Second World War, the Japanese, she says, “have been skittish of rearmament and involvement in overseas military operations.” Webster’s defines “skittish” as “easily frightened, jumpy” – you know, like a horse. Imagine that – a little thing like millions of dead and cities in ruins, and the easily frightened Japanese still get jumpy as Abe coaxes them back into the starting gate.

Well, stop fretting, fraidy-cats: Green and Hornung are telling you that Article 9 has not been “completely and blatantly” gutted. Coming from as valiant a champion of pacifism as former Bush NSC staffer Michael Green, who can fail to be reassured?

One source of opposition goes entirely unmentioned by these experts: Japanese constitutional scholars, most of whom find even the Self-Defense Forces unconstitutional, to say nothing of relaxed conditions for their deployment. Do you find this omission odd, dear reader? Then for once in your life, think like a Japan wonk! People who worry about quaint legal niceties are obviously Marxists or something. You’re not a Commie, are you, dear reader?

James Schoff (ex-DOD) predicts that the decision “will produce a substantive (yet incremental) policy change that the Japanese and other nations will embrace over time.” (italics mine) You see, in Schoff’s groundbreaking theory of democracy, governments properly ignore public opinion while making “an historic reinterpretation of the nation’s constitution,” confident that the pesky electorate will come around later. Sheila Smith expands on this view, opining that “Japan’s prime minister needs to persuade the Japanese public that he is on the right path.” The public too has an important role to play: “The Japanese people must support this evolving role for their military,” writes Smith.

Green and Hornung’s airtight proof of the democratic legitimacy of Abe’s approach to authorizing the change deserves special recognition. “During this process,” they say, “the proceedings were reported upon daily by Japan’s media, enabling voters to be fully aware of the discussions.” Plus, Abe held a press conference! Yes, we all remember Tom Paine’s stirring exhortation that between elections, people just need to shut up and listen. As the two savants also observe, “Japan today is a deeply rooted democratic country with strong civilian control over a well-trained military and a seven-decade record of peaceful activity.” If detecting a causal link between Article 9 and that record is beyond the capacity of such august authorities, we may be certain that none exists.

In the halls of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the sound of popping champagne corks may have subsided, but never fear, we won’t lack for more sublime wisdom from these sages. They may soon be explaining why building a new U.S. base in Okinawa – and using strong-arm tactics to break up local protests – is just Abe’s little way of “reducing the burden” on that prefecture. Enlisting Japan in U.S. global strategy is an “incremental” process, so the work of an American Japan wonk is never done.


On a serious note, I don’t remember when I first read about Article 9, but it made an enormous impression on me. Here was a country that had experienced the very worst that war can offer (and yes, inflicted it on others as well). And with help from the U.S. Occupation, that country had learned from its experiences and renounced war itself. The people of Japan blamed their sufferings not primarily on the enemy, but on those who led them into tragedy. And so they placed real institutional constraints on what leaders could do in the future. Affirmations of devotion to peace are often hollow, but here was a solid and courageous commitment.

If there was any redemption from the horrors of World War II, it was Article 9, pointing to the possibility of ending reliance on military force. A world that felt those horrors keenly and was dedicated to preventing a repeat of them would have carefully nurtured that hope.

So behind the bile above is sorrow at the destruction of something beautiful. A kind of beauty beyond the comprehension of philistines with value systems that begin and end with “U.S. interests,” in advance of which they are always eager to provide wretched rationalizations.

The Quality of Democracy

June 25, 2014

In its drive to reinterpret Japan’s Constitution to allow it to exercise collective self-defense (CSD), the Abe administration’s proposals have constantly shifted. Prior to this week, Abe sought to authorize force provided that “Japan has come under military attack as well as when another nation has come under attack and that leads to the possibility that the survival of Japan is threatened and the right of the Japanese people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be fundamentally overthrown.” Coalition partner New Komeito, however, objected to language under which an attack on any country whatsoever that led to the mere possibility of certain poorly specified results would allow Japan to invoke the right to CSD. Consequently, Abe’s lieutenants have come up with new language, replacing “another nation” with “a country with a close relationship with Japan” and requiring that the attack “clearly cast a danger” rather than merely led to a possibility of harm.

On the surface, the changes seem to narrow the criteria, and New Komeito’s vice president has welcomed them. But would they in practice constrain Japan’s leaders any more than the old criteria?

In the first place, “a country with a close relationship with Japan” is still rather vague. A primary impetus for CSD is to allow Japan to take on missions for or in concert with American forces. Under the US-Japan Security Treaty, the two countries have an unquestionably close relationship. But in recent months, Japan has sought closer ties with Vietnam and the Philippines as they face China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. So an attack on them, assuming the other criteria were met, would presumably permit Japan to use force. Outside of, say, Côte d’Ivoire and Finland, what countries would be excluded?

More to the point, who would make the determination of whether a given country had “a close relationship with Japan” and whether an attack on it “clearly cast a danger” to Japan? The “decider” would be the government itself. Even if this were subject to a vote in the Diet, how many legislators, having been alerted to a purported national emergency, would question the clearness of the danger and refuse to authorize military action?

We have seen elsewhere the precise value of commitments made by a government with a history of language abuse to do X only if it can certify Y. Under U.S. law, no military aid may be provided to “the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree or, after the date of enactment of this Act, a coup d’etat or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” To an objective observer, this would clearly apply to the current government of Egypt, but the Obama administration somehow found Morsi’s overthrow by military officers as something other than a coup. In addition, the law provides an out: “assistance may be resumed to such government if the President determines and certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office.” It seems unlikely that this was intended to apply to a coup leader like el-Sisi engineering his own victory in an election that was democratic in name only, but as the President himself makes the determination, shipments of Apache helicopter gunships are set to resume. The quality of democracy is in doubt, and not just in Egypt.

The fundamental problem with Abe’s drive for CSD is that the state is attempting to use extra-constitutional means to remove constitutional limits on itself. When that same government can avoid restrictions merely by certifying that certain conditions hold, it is in practice free to do as it wishes. The fiction of limits serves only to provide New Komeito’s leadership with a way to package a sell-out as a victory eked out after principled resistance.

 

 

Making War on Japan’s Peace Constitution

May 15, 2014

The New York Times editorial board has come out against Prime Minister Abe’s push to authorize collective self-defense. This is welcome, but the editorial omits the aspect of the story most relevant to American readers – that their government is cheering Abe from the sidelines. This fits a pattern of the Times criticizing Abe without mentioning U.S. support. I wrote about one case here; another is a previous editorial on collective self-defense. Oddly, the Times manages to mention the U.S. role in framing Japan’s Constitution almost 70 years ago – just not it’s role in undermining it now. As a citizen of what purports to be a democracy, it is that role that matters to me, for I share in the responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, and – if only through the ballot box and campaign contributions – I exert an influence on it. The same cannot be said of Japanese policy.

Collective self-defense (or CSD) refers to aiding an ally under attack, and sometimes more broadly to joint military operations with an ally. At present, of course, Japan has just one ally – the United States. The problem for backers of Japan’s exercise of CSD is that it conflicts with Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Nationalists like Abe have long resented the Constitution as having supposedly been imposed on occupied Japan by the U.S. In fact, while it’s fair to say the Constitution was imposed on the conservative elite, the war-weary public embraced it. Somehow the same nationalists who turn up their noses at this “foreign” Constitution are also eager to serve as a strategic partner of the U.S. But for Abe, CSD is merely a steppingstone to undoing virtually all constitutional restraints on Japan’s military.

It is an unfortunate peculiarity of the Japanese system that courts tend to leave constitutional interpretation to the government. Even so, longstanding government interpretations have held that CSD is unconstitutional. Abe, therefore, has two paths open to him: revision (i.e. constitutional amendment) or reinterpretation. Revision would require, first, passage by two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Diet, and then majority support in a national referendum. Due to this formidable requirement, the Constitution has never been revised. Given the public’s widespread reluctance to further weaken Article 9, it could be even more challenging in the case of CSD. Hence, Abe seeks to achieve his goal via reinterpretation. The constantly shifting arguments his administration has amassed for this are pure sophistry; Bryce Wakefield has done the definitive takedown.

Poll results depend on the wording of questions, so pinning down public opinion on CSD is not easy. A poll by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper found 71% favored authorizing CSD, the great bulk of them insisting it be exercised only “with minimum force necessary.” The liberal Asahi, however, found the public opposed to lifting the ban on CSD exercise by a greater than two-to-one margin. In between these extremes is an NHK poll showing the public opposed to the exercise of CSD by 41% to 34%. The picture seems clearer regarding reinterpretation, with another Asahi poll finding the public by a four-to-one margin to consider reinterpretation unnecessary, at least in the short term.

The U.S. support has come from various sources, including Defense Secretary Hagel and his Chief of Staff, former officials Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Vice President Biden, and at a press conference in Tokyo last month, President Obama. Some pundits are quick to point out that in official statements the U.S. refrains from endorsing reinterpretation, couching its support in the kind of language used in its Joint Statement with Japan: “The United States welcomes and supports Japan’s consideration of the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defense.” The distinction between “supporting X” and “supporting consideration of X” would be meaningful if the U.S. ever did the latter while opposing X. When then-Prime Minister Hatoyama sought to reconsider construction of a new Marine base in Okinawa to replace an old one, he encountered not support but a brick wall from the Obama administration and ended up resigning. As that case shows, Japanese politicians resist U.S. dictates at their peril; American backing can be equally consequential.

At any rate, as in Obama’s press conference, officials sometimes slip up and say what they mean: “the alliance is so important and collective self-defense is so important.” A more accurate characterization of the U.S. position is that it doesn’t care how CSD is authorized, as long as it’s done quickly. Should Abe succeed in reinterpreting Article 9, there is no doubt that the U.S. will welcome it, popular will and constitutionalism be damned.

I must confess to some ambivalence about Article 9. On the one hand, its renunciation of war is a profound example to the world. On the other, government interpretations have subjected it for decades to death by a thousand cuts, to the point that little remains beyond a vague commitment to a defensive orientation. That means little when even outright aggressors claim to be acting defensively, and littler still coming from politicians who consider themselves entitled to redefine words and phrases at will.

The Constitution’s boldest guardians are members of the generation that remembers the horrors visited upon Japan, while many younger people are legitimately concerned about China’s military expansionism. Some are even seduced by romantic depictions of “the Greater East Asian War.”

Is an Article 9 so compromised worth saving? Or is the greater threat to constitutionalism the self-deception in maintaining an Article 9 the original meaning to which dwindling numbers of Japanese are fully committed? After all, despite forswearing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential,” Japan has one of the highest military budgets in the world. While the Constitution’s preamble affirms “we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world,” it was the U.S. that took on the bulk of Japan’s defense; if not for that, support for Article 9 would collapse.

Some might argue that with government interpretations already suffused with linguistic contortions and illogic, Abe is only continuing the practice. But the existence of precedents for contemptible behavior is no argument for allowing it to continue. At least Article 9 still serves as a brake on the designs of jingoists like Abe – that’s why he’s bent on neutering it. But should the prohibition on CSD fall, it is hard to see Article 9 surviving. Most Japanese constitutional scholars interpret Article 9 strictly, and one, reacting to a report just released by Abe’s hand-picked panel, said it “would remove all restrictions by Article 9 of the Constitution on the actions of the government. That would not be simply changing the constitutional interpretation, but a destruction of the Constitution.”

“Japanese people who conserve Article 9” is in contention for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It would be a bitter irony if the prime minister were to accept an award for Article 9 after having eviscerated it. All that is certain is that if a change is to be made, it must be through the expression of the people’s will, and not government fiat.

Only the Japanese people can save their constitution. What they do not need is the U.S. government putting wind in Abe’s sails.

 

This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

Pity the Poor Marines

February 28, 2014

Pity the poor U.S. Marines, helplessly caught in a feud between the Okinawan people and the government of Japan. At least, Col. Eric Mellinger would have you believe so. Mellinger, chief of staff for the III Marine Expeditionary Forces in Okinawa, recently confided: “I hate to say we are the ball in the middle of the two rackets, but often I do think the U.S. military is used that way because it highlights other tensions that have absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. military.”

It’s quite true that it suits Japan’s central government just fine to have 74% of U.S. bases there located in Okinawa, with 0.6% of Japan’s total land area. Concentrating the U.S. presence in a small, politically weak prefecture also cordons off opposition to the crime, noise, environmental harm, and accidents that it brings. And there’s nothing new about Tokyo’s victimization of Okinawa. After all, Emperor Hirohito wrote to General MacArthur in 1947, suggesting that Okinawa be leased to the U.S. for 25 years or longer. Despicable as that was, Hirohito did so at American urging, and in this the hands of the U.S. military are far from clean. When Okinawa remained under U.S. military rule even after Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952, this was, notes Chalmers Johnson, “simply the price of getting the Pentagon to go along with the peace treaty.”[1] The U.S. finally restored Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972, but retained the bases. Johnson observes, “The military’s situation in Okinawa struck me as similar to that of Soviet troops in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. In both cases the troops preferred to stay on because the pleasures of life as a legionnaire in an imperial garrison far outstripped those of life back in the ‘homeland’.”[2]

The Marines in particular wield a “racket” of their own. Though a 2013 RAND study found that Mellinger’s own III MEF could be moved to California without harming response times, a supposed need to base air and ground units near each other is offered up as a rationale for keeping them in Okinawa. Even within that constraint, Peter Ennis attributes rejection of sharing facilities with the Air Force to “decades of inter-service rivalries” – i.e., the Marines insist on a shiny new base of their own. The Commandant of the Marines himself gives the lie to Mellinger’s plea of innocent neutrality. General James Amos “expressed great admiration for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the thorny base realignment issues on Okinawa, and said he was confident that Abe would be able to overcome local opposition.” In cracking down on anti-base protests, Abe is unlikely to withhold any instrument of state power, up to and including the Coast Guard and Self-Defense Forces. This is the same administration that is pushing for fewer restraints on the SDF’s use of force outside the country.

Mellinger goes on to suggest that Okinawan concerns about living near military bases are on a par with those of Americans: “I don’t think what the Okinawan people have as far as feelings is all that much different from what Americans have.” But let’s look at some numbers:

  • U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan: 50,341
  • U.S. military personnel stationed in Okinawa: about 26,000
  • Okinawa land area as percentage of Japan’s total: 0.6
  • West Virginia land area: 24,038.21 sq. miles
  • United States (50 states and DC) land area: 3,531,905.43 sq. miles
  • U.S. military personnel in the 50 states and DC: 1,187,466

From these figures we can derive that about 52% of U.S. military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, and that West Virginia’s land area is roughly 0.7% of the U.S. total. So if the U.S. concentrated its stateside personnel in one state to the degree it does in one Japanese prefecture, there could be something like 52% of 1,187,466 troops in West Virginia. That’s over 600,000 in a state with a current population of less than 2 million.

Imagine that those 600,000 troops were not Americans, but Japanese. Imagine that, occupying the state’s best land, they forced West Virginians to help defray the costs of this foreign military presence – including officers’ clubs and golf courses. Imagine that, like U.S. troops in Okinawa, those Japanese troops operated under a Status of Forces Agreement that shielded them from local laws. Imagine that the Japanese had stored chemical and nuclear weapons on their bases while hiding this fact from West Virginians. Perhaps now, Col. Mellinger, you can begin to fathom “what the Okinawan people have as far as feelings.”


[1] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 201.
[2] Johnson, p. 7.

U.S. War Crimes: Time for an Apology?

February 19, 2014

An edited version of this post is available at Foreign Policy In Focus.

“I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.”
–George H. W. Bush, 1989

Japan is often accused of lacking contrition for horrible acts committed by the Imperial Army, but apologies have, in fact, been proffered. As but one example, in 1993 Prime Minister Hosokawa declared: “I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people and to state that we will demonstrate our new determination by contributing more than ever before to world peace.” In this respect, Japan is far ahead of the United States. So recent calls for the U.S. to apologize for atrocities it committed during its war with Japan, including the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are entirely appropriate. It’s incumbent on any country guilty of war crimes to atone for them. Apologies would be deeply meaningful, not only to survivors, but to the descendants of victims as well.

Apology, if sincere, requires self-reflection and the possibility of changing one’s behavior. That, indeed, should be a primary motivation: one is horrified at one’s own action, and doesn’t want to repeat it. Conversely, one who insists on the justice of his past actions is unlikely to change.

The knots we tie ourselves into to avoid facing up to our wrongs lead us into a hypocrisy that should make us uneasy. The House of Representatives passed a resolution in 2007 urging Japan to apologize again for the “comfort women” system, and the Washington Post suggested that not just private compensation, but direct reparations should be paid to survivors as well. It is rightly observed that a time will come when no one will be left to accept apologies or benefit from payments. But I doubt that the House or the Post has ever extended the same consideration to victims of atomic and incendiary bombing in Japan.

The whitewashing of American history is a gift to those in other countries who do the same. As Philip Seaton writes in Japan’s Contested War Memories, “American refusals to issue an official apology give conservatives and nationalists in Japan a trump card: ‘why should we apologize when others do not?’” Similarly, State Department condemnations of Syria’s targeting of noncombatants ring hollow when that is precisely what the U.S. did in 1945. America’s dominance in world politics gives it considerable influence over international norms, sometimes in ways that conflict with official policy. Thus, even as it decries the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the message it sends by defending their only use is that such weapons are legitimate.

From the moral to the practical, a U.S. apology would have many salutary effects. The Susan Rices and Keith Alexanders of the world, however, are unlikely to agree, and can be expected to do all they can to prevent such an outcome. The prospects of an apology, therefore, are exceedingly dim. Let’s examine some of the obstacles.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that in 2009 Japan actually warned the Obama administration against visiting Hiroshima and making an apology. They may have feared that doing so would undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella,” or perhaps impair any future effort by Japan to develop nuclear weapons of its own. At any rate, this should not deter any president from an apology, which in any case should be made not to the Japanese government, but to the people of the bombed cities.

The recent appeals, naturally, are directed at the current president, who came to office in 2009 raising hopes for a sharp break from the jingoism and militarism of the Bush years. Since then, he has continued to move people with soaring rhetoric, such as his April 2009 speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament. Over time, we have seen how unreliable a guide such rhetoric can be to his actual policies. But if Obama accepts an invitation to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the significance of that will lie in what he says. And here, it is not the Prague speech that provides the best indicator, but the Oslo speech later that year in which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

In parts, the speech seems thoughtful and even rings true: “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.“ But overall, the speech was a ringing defense of American power. Were Obama to go to Hiroshima, instead of an apology, he would more likely deliver statements like this: “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” Ultimately, though, the moral paradoxes are resolved: “Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Harsh judgments are meted out to others: “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma — there must be consequences.  Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy — but there must be consequences when those things fail.” But as we saw in the case of torture, there are never consequences for the U.S.

So let’s be careful what we wish for. It is sheer fantasy to think that the 44th president would make a heartfelt apology for the decisions of the 33rd. The best we can hope for from a president known for caution is that he would simply lay a wreath at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. More likely, he would set the cause back with a vague expression of regret at the lives lost on both sides, accompanied by a historically dubious rationalization of the bombings as supposedly having ended the war and saved lives. The last thing the hibakusha want to hear is “We’d do the same thing all over again.”

The problem with official Japanese apologies is that far-right politicians keep nullifying them with statements denying that the Nanjing Massacre occurred or that the Imperial Army was responsible for the “comfort women” system. Is there any doubt that American troglodytes would act in the same way?

That alone is no argument against an apology, but it does mean that only someone who will forcefully defend her stand should make it. Recall that when falsely accused of going on an apology tour, Obama’s only response was to deny it, thus giving credence to the idea that there’s something wrong with apologizing.

In Japan, apologies like Hosokawa’s, along with textbooks that discussed wartime atrocities and sexual slavery, were met with a virulent reaction by the far right. Were Obama to so much as express mild regret, even some Democrats would abandon him. People calling him a traitor would be all over the Sunday talk shows, while those able to argue for apology would struggle to be heard. Are we ready for a fight like this? If not, as with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s 1995 plan for an exhibit looking squarely at the Hiroshima bombing, it might end up entrenching the very attitudes we want to change.

The refusal to admit that one’s country has done evil things doesn’t exist in isolation. It is supported by an ideology, and in the U.S., that ideology is American exceptionalism. For if you insist that your country is the greatest on the face of the earth and always uses its power for good, you are going to have a hard time incorporating war crimes into that picture.

American exceptionalism is fraught with contradictions. Its advocates sometimes declare that we’re great because of our ideals – but if you insist on sticking to them, you’re accused of naiveté. In both Japan and the U.S., those who rant the loudest about their country’s greatness are often most hostile to its finest attributes.

Apologizing for one war crime would inevitably raise the issue of others, from Operation Speedy Express to sanctions on Iraq to (quite possibly) Fallujah, and pretty soon pressure would build against committing new ones. So exceptionalism is not just an ideology for idiots; exempting one’s country from moral scrutiny also serves the interests of the “realists” at the State Department and Pentagon for whom any constraint on future actions is anathema. Thus, they are dedicated to preserving the view that only other countries commit crimes against humanity, while U.S. misdeeds are merely the acts of “bad apples”.

Daunting as the task of displacing an ideology is, American exceptionalism should be seen as the central impediment to war crimes apologies. The alternative is to strive to do right guided by what Noam Chomsky has called the principle of universality – “if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us.”

As of 2009, a poll found that 61% of Americans considered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be justified. It is hard enough to get the government to act when public opinion is with us. As for achieving an official apology for those acts, we clearly have our work cut out.

To the extent that progress can come from leaders at all, I think it makes more sense to seek it from those lower down on the totem pole. Before we can get to a presidential apology, we’ll need a lot more acts like Nancy Pelosi’s wreath-laying at Hiroshima in 2008. A la “only Nixon could go to China,” it would be very helpful if an enlightened Republican or retired military officer would do likewise. Harry Truman’s grandson showed the way in 2012. We need more legislators with the courage to shun the language of exceptionalism. Recall that Joe Biden’s remark on marriage equality led to a shift on the issue from Obama. Perhaps a future vice president can provide the final push toward an apology.

But the hope for a quick fix by relying on top-down (or even middle-down) approaches is likely to be disappointed. Those of us who believe the U.S. has things to atone for need to speak about it, and not just to each other. Seaton tells of Kurahashi Ayako, who at the behest of her late father had his apology for acts committed while serving in China inscribed on his gravestone. In doing so, she defied powerful social pressures. Kurahashi, writes Seaton, “saw herself fitting a common pattern in Japan: although people have silent knowledge of Japanese aggression, it is taboo to talk about it.”

Americans, too, have a taboo to break.

Welcome to Reality

January 30, 2014

Is reality finally seeping into the offices of the New York Times editorial board? The titles alone of their recent editorials on Okinawa tell a story:

April 5, 2013:     Progress on Okinawa
January 5, 2014:   Another Step Forward on Okinawa
January 27, 2014:  Okinawa Solution, Elusive as Ever

The Times has been cheerleading as the government of Prime Minister Abe pressed on with plans to build a new airbase for U.S. Marines in the Henoko district of Nago City. But with the re-election of Mayor Inamine, a fervent base opponent, the board seems to have finally awakened to the depth of Okinawan resistance. While early in January, they fretted that “local politics could still thwart the project”, the dismissive tone is now gone. True, as if made from a cookie cutter, all three editorials make feeble, virtually identical pleas that the U.S. and Japan “must be responsive to Okinawan concerns.” But this time, they acknowledge that “Okinawan resistance goes far deeper than everyday not-in-my-backyard complaints.” And for once, Okinawan priorities get the last word: “A base-relocation plan that protects American and Japanese strategic concerns cannot be allowed to unfairly burden Okinawa’s citizens.”

In the past, the Times placed its hopes on Tokyo’s efforts to pay off Okinawans in exchange for acquiescing to the base. That worked on the now widely-despised Governor Nakaima. But with such efforts backfiring in the Nago election, the Times is forced to question the validity of its insulting assumption that Okinawans can be bought.

Another possible reason for the shift is disillusionment with Abe. Last April, The Times was full of praise: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan showed political leadership by agreeing with the United States on a timetable for reducing the size of the American force and returning some land used as a military base.” (This was an extremely deceptive characterization of the agreement.) The only question was whether Abe could “deliver” on efforts to get Okinawa to knuckle under. More recently, though, the Times has parted company with the Abe administration on such matters as the state secrets law, textbooks, visiting Yasukuni, arms exports, and squabbling with China over islets. Having seen what Abe’s been “delivering”, perhaps the Times has a case of buyer’s remorse, and is starting to question other aspects of his agenda as well.

For the first time, the Times mentions the threat the base poses to the endangered dugong, a kind of manatee. And for once, they allude to the possibility of transferring Futenma operations not to Henoko, but to Kadena Air Force base. But let’s not exaggerate the extent of the Times’s enlightenment. They haven’t completely abandoned their faith in the efficacy of bribery: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has tried to sway Nago residents with promises of a half-billion dollars in public-works spending, may yet find a way to entice Okinawans into acceptance.” At least, I hope they’re talking about money. The alternatives include, as Gavan McCormack reports, the kind of intimidation with which the central government attempted to interfere in a local election, and the potential involvement of the National Police Agency and Coast Guard. One would hope, though, that the Times dimly perceives that attempts to force the base on an unwilling Okinawa will result in civil disobedience and perhaps violence that could threaten their cherished Japan-U.S. alliance itself.

Of course, the Times persists in its devotion to Pentagon priorities. Last April, they wrote of “growing concerns about North Korea and China.” Then it was “Pentagon officials now say the relocation is also needed to meet security requirements as the United States rebalances its focus toward Asia.” Now they stress “the importance of America’s military presence to regional stability.” Apparently, they still believe that if Futenma were closed today, we’d all be speaking Mandarin tomorrow. They thus seem oblivious to the argument, made by Peter Ennis and others, that Futenma “has no strategic function” and that only inter-service rivalries bar the Kadena option. Signs of growing recognition of Okinawans’ right to self-determination should be welcomed as progress. But as the Times itself has discovered, “progress” can be fleeting.


As they stand up to two governments, the Okinawan people need our help. So I hope you’ll consider signing this petition. If you need any more convincing, please watch this moving documentary.

Japan’s LDP Drops No-war Pledge It Never Meant to Keep

January 9, 2014

My Japanese politics professor once said of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that it is “not liberal, not democratic, and not really a party.” So even it’s name is deceptive.

Like the Republicans in the United States, the LDP has transitioned from conservatism to something like proto-fascism. But what to make of the party suddenly dropping a pledge from its manifesto never to wage war? Perhaps we should give them a little credit: when they do go to war, no one can say they broke their word.

Actually, the LDP has been keeping and breaking promises lately. When Prime Minister Abe provoked a firestorm of controversy last month by worshipping at Yasukuni shrine, he was supposedly just fulfilling a campaign pledge.

But just six weeks ago, party heavyweights forced legislators to recant a campaign promise (to oppose construction of a new Marine base in Okinawa) by threatening them with expulsion from the party. So the LDP’s devotion to keeping promises seems to shift with the wind. Maybe that’s how Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga can get away with claiming, after expunging the no-war pledge: “The content (of the platform) hasn’t changed at all.” The only way that makes any sense is that there was no content to begin with.

Update: An Asahi Shimbun report clarifies the context of the change to the LDP’s action plan. The deleted pledge stated: “visits to Yasukuni Shrine will be carried on with the resolve to pledge never again to wage war and to be true to the principles of a pacifist nation.” Apparently LDP politicians intend to make Yasukuni a regular part of their itinerary, and don’t want to mouth loathsome platitudes about peace every time they go. But they have no problem forcing platitudes on others: they want to add the following to the Japanese Constitution: “The Japanese people must respect the national flag and the national anthem.” Already, teachers in Osaka can be fired for failing to sing the anthem.

New York Times: Jekyll and Hyde on Japan

January 8, 2014

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.