There hasn’t been much charisma oozing out of Japanese Prime Ministers since the American public was buttered by fascination with former PM Junichiro Koizumi, who at times looked more like an aging Tokyo-punk skater in a suit than the typically dry politician of the rising sun. We dug Koizumi for his version of “swagger,” Cowboy Be-Bop, perhaps, appropriate for that time of gun-and-spurs incursions into Middle Eastern lands. He got chuckles with his visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate in Memphis, putting on his best King of Rock impression, but it was a healthy distraction from the grim-faced tight bowel seriousness that defines Japan. At that time, we got a friendly glimpse into the workings of the Kantei (the official residence of the PM), and Japanese politics didn’t seem so rigidly unfamiliar and … unfriendly.
Lately, however, the amount of transition and turmoil in Tokyo has many Asia observers worried about the direction of the overpopulated Pacific isle and home of the world’s second largest economy. Don’t be fooled by trivial analyses on the resignation of now former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama: his resignation had little to do with his fashion choices and the sporting of that infamous multi-colored checkered shirt. It even had less to do with the brewing controversy over the fate of the massive U.S. military base in Okinawa. Global Times columnist Yen Wei offers some keen, outsider insight into what’s bubbling inside the Land of the Rising Sun:
What stuck out about Hatoyama was not only his shirts, but also his campaign promises and political rhetoric. After taking office as the first non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime minister in six decades, he loudly talked about his plan of re-considering relations between Tokyo and Washington after his country’s long postwar history of being the little brother of Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, the party he led, the Democratic Party of Japan, was trying to cozy up with Beijing.
Upheaval and revolving door upset in Japanese politics was showing for some time, so the outrageously short term wonder of Hatoyama should have come as no surprise. It’s some wonder that Japan has managed to chug along as an economic powerhouse while five prime ministers were ousted in the past three years. Concern by the most casual observer should have started with the stunning wholesale electoral coup engineered by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in May 2009. A party that’s been out of power suddenly surging into majority status after sixty years is nothing to shrug away as a global blip. In many respects, it was the tipping point for 21st century Japan, perhaps the defining moment of a resurgent neo-nationalism that’s beginning to stir the Nippon pot. Robert Gilhooly discussed this disturbing trend in a provocative photographic Special to the Global Post:
Some … have argued that there is a relative absence of nationalism in Japan compared with China, Korea and even the United States. In an article in the Japan Times last year, Dujarric argued that rather than wishing for a return to militarism and harboring any colonial aspirations, many Japanese people feel “contempt” for the militarists who took the nation to war. Yet there is an increasing number, including some members of Parliament, who support a move to revise Japan’s constitution to allow its military to participate more actively in global conflicts, prompting many, such as award-winning Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, to voice concerns about the apparent rise in nationalism in Japan. If the apparent nationalistic fervor on display Aug. 15 at Yasukuni Shrine is any gauge, it is difficult to disagree.
That the rise of right wing movements in Japan has aligned with dramatic changes in its politics is by no means a coincidence. This might seem unrelated, but the author recalls the following blog post in BionicBong, an online Japan culture portal,catching a few eyes as poster “Astrogirl” acknowledged an internal social debate about the direction of Japanese manhood:
We have a serious problem of fewer children in Japan these days. There are some causes of it, and today, I focus on Soushoku Danshi (Vegetarian Boys). Vegetarian Boys are not literally Vegetarian, but they are not active in dating or in pursuit of girls. So they are not hunters.
If Soushoku Danshi keep increasing, Japanese seeds are going to go extinct. We will just have to wait and see what’s going to happen in the next few decades…
Japan, the land of samurais and seppuku, might want its “man” back.
From political unrest and cultural identity issues to Toyota clashes with U.S. lawmakers over faulty cars and growing unease over North Korea and China, a variety of shaky trends are converging in Japan that should worry American diplomats and military officials. Recent clashes over the Okinawa base dilemma are symbolic of a Japanese desire to rid itself of the U.S. occupational legacy on its land. In a sense, Koizumi might have played the Bush Administration, cozying up with the beleaguered President in desperate search of Iraq War “Coalition” friends as part of a larger plan to trigger Japanese military interests abroad through Constitutional revision.
Worry over American handling of China and North Korea is creating new tensions that will exacerbate over time. In his book “The Next 100 Years” geopolitical analyst George Friedman predicts the outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Japan by the mid-21st century if current trends persist. Even though Friedman’s time frame for a second U.S.-Nippon war is far off and highly uncertain, the rise in nationalism should be worrying other Asian powers such as China and won’t sit well with either one of the Koreas. The memory of murderous war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers in World War II is still fresh throughout the Pacific.
Folks should also examine the influence of Japan’s ultra-secretive Yakuza crime syndicates in Japanese politics, which many historians consider as a driving force behind the Japanese war machine in World War II. David Kaplan and Alec Dubro’s authoritative look at the Japanese criminal underworld titled “Yakuza” is an alternative look into what might be repeating itself in modern Japan.
Let’s see where new Prime Minister Naoto Kan takes this. If he can last that long.