The release of a new Japanese film, Merdeka (the Indonesian word for “independence”), signals a U-turn in the direction of Japanese political culture, from one centered on self-abnegation and self-renunciation, to one based on the rediscovery of their own tradition and the truth about their own history. Opening in Tokyo in May, Merdeka depicts the selfless decision of more than 2,000 Japanese officers and troops to stay behind in Indonesia after the Japanese surrender in 1945, and help the Indonesian freedom-fighters throw out the Dutch, who were determined to make a comeback. The [London] Times cites Hideaki Kase, the conservative Japanese commentator, and a co-producer of the movie, as saying “This is the first film about Japan as the liberator of Asia, with Indonesia as the setting.” The Times dryly informs us that “the makers hope that China will protest about their latest film” to help promote it, and a tone of barely-controlled outrage is palpable throughout their report. The movie, we are told, “challenges the conventional view of the Japanese as brutal aggressors” who killed “millions.” Furthermore, this sinister movie “coincides with a campaign by a group of nationalists rewriting history for schools by glossing over atrocities by Japanese troops and depicting them as noble crusaders for the independence of South-East Asia.” In other words, the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has gone Japanese.
RISE OF THE JAPANESE RIGHT
Since the end of the (first) cold war, and the implosion of the Soviet Empire, the ghost of Hitler has haunted the Western imagination, the bogeyman whose reincarnation has been proclaimed countless times since his death Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, even poor old Manuel Noriega, all have been denounced by American Presidents as Hitlerian, or even, in Saddam’s case, “worse than Hitler.” Perhaps some day soon these same people will be denouncing some future leader of Japan as “another Tojo” an inevitable epithet for any Japanese politician who dares to challenge the Anglo-American orthodoxy that “the colonies” were better off in the good old days, before independence. None has arisen, as yet, to challenge the Americans, and reassert Japanese national sovereignty, although there are rumors that Shintaro Ishihari, the governor of Tokyo, is considering a run for Prime Minister if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party fails to win a parliamentary majority in elections to be held later this year. If such a “Japan first” nationalist of Ishihara’s stripe has a chance at the helm something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago it will have much to do with the political and cultural atmosphere created by the resurgent Japanese Right.
A PROPHECY FULFILLED
This resurgence is dramatically displayed in Merdeka, the story of a heroic Japanese officer devoted to the independence of the Indonesian people, and which the Times reluctantly concedes is “based on fact.” When Japan took Java, in the first weeks of 1942, Indonesians danced in the streets, welcoming the Japanese army as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by a twelfth-century Javanese king. King Jayabaya foretold the day when white men would one day establish their rule on Java and tyrannize the people for many years but they would be driven out by the arrival of yellow men from the north. These yellow men, Jayabaya predicted, would remain for one crop cycle, and after that Java would be freed from foreign domination. To most of the Javanese, Japan was a liberator: the prophecy had been fulfilled. The Japanese not only freed Indonesian nationalists from Dutch dungeons, but hired them on as civil servants and administrators. In the waning days of 1944, however, it was clear that Japan could not win the war. The Japanese officially granted Indonesia its independence on August 9, 1945, and the commander of Japan’s southeast Asian forces appointed future President Sukarno as chairman of the preparatory committee for Indonesian independence. As one account of Indonesian history puts it, “With the minor exception that three crops had been harvested, Jayabaya’s prophecy had been realized.”
THE EMPEROR SPEAKS
A week later, Japan surrendered to the Allies. The British, and the Dutch, moved to retake their “rightful” possessions in Southeast Asia. Japanese forces had been recalled to defend the homeland, but a few were determined to carry out the pledge of honor made by their government, and in a final heroic gesture of solidarity for their Asian brothers, they stayed behind, and fought for Indonesian independence against the West. Merdeka is their story, and it naturally enrages the Times of London, which somehow fails to mention British assistance to the Dutch in this battle. Released by a major studio, and starring popular actors, the movie opens with a statement emblazoned on the screen: “The Greater East Asian War was fought in self-defense.” So said the Emperor Hirohito in his 1941 declaration of war against the Allied powers, as the noose around Japan’s neck was tightening, and truer words were never spoken.
DAY OF DECEIT
A series of embargoes had been declared by the Western powers, as a protest against “Japanese imperialism” this from the same gang that had carved up China and feasted on Southeast Asia! By imposing an oil embargo, a steel embargo, and a rubber embargo, the US and Britain were choking Hirohito’s country to death: the first act of war was not Pearl Harbor, but the crippling economic sanctions that threatened to destroy Japan. As Charles Callan Tansill’s monumental history of prewar American-Japanese diplomatic relations, Back Door to War, conclusively proved and later historians approvingly noted Franklin Delano Roosevelt was determined to maneuver the Japanese into striking the first blow, and struggled mightily to achieve that aim. As Robert Stinnett shows, more recently, in Day of Deceit, the President knew all about the impending Japanese attack: a comprehensive plan existed to get us into a shooting war with Japan, and, when they were finally driven to it, we knew when and where in advance: the US, it turns out, had deciphered the Japanese code, and intercepted messages detailing the Pearl Harbor “sneak attack” were decoded. The President had to have known about it. If this book hasn’t been translated into Japanese yet, then it ought to be: a paperback edition in English is coming out in May, and you can pre-order by following the last link. I would highly recommend it, for it gives a more realistic account of the origins of the Pacific war than we are used to and gives the reader the background to understand the subsequent fate of the region.
The spirit that animates Merdeka extends even to the Japanese educational system, where new textbooks have been approved by the Ministry of Education that, for the first time, expunge the myth of Japanese war guilt from history books over bitter protests from the two Koreas and China, who vehemently demand that Japan must kowtow forever for its alleged “war crimes.” So far, at least, the Japanese have refused to back down, and the group of nationalist scholars who champion the new textbooks have indignantly denounced such demands as intolerable interference in Japan’s internal affairs. As an indication that popular opinion in Japan on this issue is undergoing a transformation, there is the popularity of the graphic novels of Yoshinori Kobayashi, a well-known cartoonist, which debunk the mythology of Japan’s sole responsibility for the war: he is popular especially among the youth. The new generation, faced with the looming threat of China, and the unbridled arrogance of the US, is likely to choose a third path: the path of independence.
The Bush administration is widely believed to be tilting toward giving Japan a much wider berth when it comes to providing for its own defense, yet the signals from Washington are hardly encouraging. The decision not to court-martial the commander of the Greeneville is even more shocking to the Japanese than the original incident, and will poison relations between the two nations for some time to come. Isn’t it odd how yet another “accident,” the “bumping” of the US spy plane over the South China Sea, has defined America’s relations with a major Eastasian power in the Bush era: it seems as if America is on a collision course not only with China, but with virtually every country in the region, Japan and the two Koreas included. It is the curious case of the “accident”-prone superpower, that trips over its own feet even as it tries to dominate the world stage. A more pathetic and more dangerous clumsiness would be hard to imagine.
WHO LOST CHINA?
During the 1930’s, the Japanese proclaimed their intention to create a “co-prosperity sphere” extending from Manchuko (Manchuria) in the north, to Indonesia in the south: together, the Asian peoples, led by Tokyo, would throw out the Western colonialists. Asia for the Asians! In the US, however, sympathy for the Chinese “freedom-fighters” of the Kuomintang was obligatory among fashionable leftists, whose sympathies were with the Chinese Communist Party (then allied with Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists in a single organization.) The Communist Party in this country launched a very successful campaign of solidarity with China, and support for the boycott of Japanese goods and the embargo. The US State Department, heavily infiltrated by Communists including FDR’s top advisor, Harry Hopkins then dumped the Nationalists, and suddenly everyone was asking “Who lost China?”
RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT
In retrospect, if we hadn’t sided with the Communists and their allies at every opportunity, and hadn’t reflexively opposed the Japanese, then perhaps China might not loom quite so large on the world stage as it does today. These days, a Japanese “co-prosperity sphere” in the region doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. But it can never happen until and unless two events occur: 1) The US ends the military occupation of Japan, dismantles its military bases, and withdraws all its forces from Japanese territory, and 2) The Japanese Constitution written in poor Japanese by Americans must be changed to abolish the section forbidding Japan from having a proper army. This has been incrementally violated over the years, and it is time to get rid of it altogether.
THE COMING CRISIS
Whether Japan can find the right leadership to lead it out of its economic, political, and cultural dead-end is not for me to say. The great problem besetting the country is economic, which, as the economist Jeffrey Herbener points out, is a perfect illustration of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle and the problems created by bank credit expansion. Whether the resurgent Japanese Right can combine the principles of economic liberalism with a foreign policy that puts Japan first could prove as problematic as in the case of American and European nationalists, neither of whom shows any signs of understanding basic economic principles. In Japan, however, where the villains of the Austrian theory the banks are clearly exposed in their villainy, there is a unique opportunity. The bad loans wracked up by Japan’s investment bankers, encouraged and subsidized by Japan’s central bank, are at last coming due, and in spite of all efforts to stave off the economic crisis, the moment of truth that is, the moment of extreme deflation is about to arrive. What happens then, politically and culturally, in Japan, is anyone’s guess, but my guess is that Washington isn’t going to like it.