When anti-Japan protests, the fiercest in years, erupted in China over territorial disputes last September, I was attending a conference in Tianjin, roughly 80 miles south of Beijing. Footage from the capital was chilling: smashed Japanese department stores and automobiles, flags on fire, protesters hurling eggs and debris at the Japanese embassy with chants of “F*** Japan.” Someone tried to crash into a Japanese diplomat’s car on a Beijing highway.
By comparison, the Tokyo I returned to a week later felt downright placid. Most Japanese peered down their noses at the violence in Beijing, finding the scenes embarrassing and barbaric. One Japanese government official I spoke to privately blamed then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his administration for bungling the whole affair through diplomatic incompetence. “They should have kept quiet about [the purchase of the disputed islands],” he said. “None of this would have happened.”
(PHOTOS: Anti-Japan Protests Hit China’s Capital)
A few months later, Noda was gone, replaced by Shinzo Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (infamously neither liberal nor democratic), high on a nationalist-leaning platform. Suddenly, the yen tanked, aiding Japanese exporters, and right-wing rhetoric and behavior spiked. High-profile politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister and former PM Taro Aso, visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead and criminals that whitewashes the nation’s imperialist massacres in Asia. Abe floated revisions to Japan’s 1995 war apology and its pacifist constitution, Article 9 of which forbids Japan from having a standing army. He dressed up in army fatigues and posed in a fighter jet emblazoned with the numerals 731, the number of the most notorious Japanese chemical and biological warfare unit in World War II.
Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Japan’s so-called second city, Osaka, also dropped a couple of stink bombs. He said the sexual enslavement of Asian women to satisfy the Japanese military in World War II was par for the course, and doubted that it was state-sanctioned. Then he advised male U.S. military personnel in Okinawa and elsewhere to make use of the Japanese sex industry to reduce crimes of sexual assault.
Hashimoto’s gaffes would be uninteresting except for this: he apologized to Americans for the second, but had no words of remorse for his Asian brethren. Why should that be so?
Japan’s national identity (the story it tells itself in order to be itself) has been disrupted twice. In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry blasted open the isolated Tokugawa regime for trade. In 1945, American General Douglas MacArthur tore open an isolated military government for trade, military expediencies and intelligence. In both cases, the Americans, icons of the West, focused Japan on modernization — and away from Asia. Japan complied and became the second richest economy in the world, if not the first, in the late 20th century.
Japan thrived following a simple path: Learn from the West. Forget Asia.
Its apparent swerve toward nationalism in 2013 may be the result of a desperate identity crisis. Japan has not been “Japanese” since Perry’s intrusion 160 years ago, and MacArthur’s occupation 70 years ago. Yet it was never colonized like its Asian neighbors in Korea, China and Southeast Asia. In a sense, Japan is the proverbial black sheep of Asia, neither Western nor Eastern, claimed or lost.
Recent geopolitical repositionings slip Japan between rocks and harder rocks. Europe is an economic sinkhole. The U.S. is distracted by two wars and domestic failure. The only power is in Asia, a region Japan has long abandoned, and in the failed friend of Japan that is the U.S.
I asked Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire, a study of Asia’s intellectual traditions, if and how Japan could resuscitate its value in Asia.
“It seems that Japan can only be taken seriously by its Asian neighbors, especially rising China, and become a normal nation-state if it emerges from under the American security umbrella,” he says. “[It needs] to revise MacArthur’s constitution and become a nuclear-armed military power.”
But Japan cannot renounce its pacifistic constitution without raising anxieties in Asia — and elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine another well-meaning nation with such bad options. If Japan renounces its U.S.-made constitution, it risks belligerent response. If it doesn’t, it has no sovereign identity.
Mishra adds: “I can’t think of another nation with such terrible historical choices.”
One night in Manhattan, a friend of mine said: “Can you imagine taking the Long Island Rail Road for an hour, and finding a Japanese air base, replete with shiny fighter jets with Japanese flags performing formations? That’s what Japanese see one hour out of Tokyo.”
Hiroki Azuma, one of Japan’s leading young academics, notes that images of traditional Japan in its popular culture invariably refer to the Edo era — Japan before the arrival of the Americans. Yet they still contain anachronistic icons — zippo lighters, cell phones, fast-food emporiums.
Japan is a country whose identity has been bowdlerized, hollowed out by a dream of Western dominance that no longer exists. It may make sense to see its recent surge in nationalism as a dumbed-down version of Japanese adolescence. This is a country spun around by its own single-minded pursuit of progress, and it has no idea who it’s supposed to be today.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.