Remembering Japan: A bilateral history
“But the essence of a nation is that all the individuals share a great many
things in common, and also that they have forgotten some things.”
—Ernest Renan, What is a Nation?, 1881
A little more than a year ago, a retired attorney named Charles
Louis Kades passed away in a rural Massachusetts hospital. It was not an untimely
death: Kades was 90; his life had been full. He had been a prominent
New Dealer in Washington before World War II and a lieutenant colonel in
the occupation force led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur after Japan’s surrender.
In February 1946, under MacArthur’s orders, Kades oversaw the drafting
of a new Japanese constitution. The Japanese still live under that
constitution—the “peace constitution,” so called because it bars Japan from
waging war or maintaining a standing army.
I begin with Kades’s passing because of the way we are invited to remember
him. His obituaries were effusive. “In one whirlwind, a ten-day effort,”
the New York Times noted, “Mr. Kades supervised the transformation of Japan
from a monarchy into a democracy.”1 The Economist, in a full-page appreciation,
called Kades “the American father of Japanese democracy.”2
These remarkable assertions are not merely overweening memorials to one
man’s place in postwar history—a place no one could possibly occupy. They
tell us that Americans stepped into a vacuum—political, social, civic—
when they arrived in Japan in the late summer of 1945. To put it another
way, we have left no room for any Japanese—no thinker, no politician, no
popular leader, no ordinary citizen—in the tale we now tell ourselves about
With due respect to the late lieutenant colonel, I rank these two quotations
among the most objectionable things I have ever read about Japan.
Kades did a lawyerly job in Tokyo after the war; the occupation’s legacy is in
many respects formidable. But Kades did not give the Japanese democracy.
No one can do that anywhere—as Americans ought to understand better
than almost anyone. To me, our created memory of Kades and, by extension,
of our seven-year occupation of Japan, is
but one measure among many of an old
habit we have, the hundred-year habit of
looking across the Pacific and presuming
we see reflections of ourselves.
In its postwar version, let us call this
habit “history without memory.” By this I
mean the sweeping narrative of the American
century that we tell ourselves and others,
an epic with clear, well-defined lines, a
big blue sky, and a cast of heroes and de-
mons usually attired in either white or black. It is not an altogether inaccurate
picture of the past 50 years. But it falls critically short on everyday
detail—the people, actions, events, and consequences that reside in human
memory. Like much else in our culture—like television, for instance—history
without memory tends to confine us to a sort of eternal present. We are
especially weak—I put this bluntly—when it comes to remembering what
we have done to other people, as against with or for them.
History without memory is a pervasive product of the Cold War, most evident
in our gloss of events where East-West tension was at its greatest: in
Italy in the late 1940s, in Iran or Guatemala in the 1950s, in Indonesia in
the mid-1960s. Japan presents an early and clear example, a nation where a
Charles Kades may have made history but where we see little need to remember
much else. And because we forget the details—or perhaps because
we never knew them—history without memory resembles that old habit of
looking across the ocean and discerning an idealized likeness of ourselves.
How do we view the Japanese today? As we constantly remind ourselves,
they are struggling to emerge from a recession now seven years old. Their
economic and social systems remain in the grip of a tired but tenacious bureaucracy.
In Nagatacho, Tokyo’s political quarter, the Liberal Democrats
reign again after a brief interruption—even though the scandals that began
amid the “economic bubble” a decade ago (and which actually reach back to
the occupation years) have continued more or less without interruption.
Scandals, sluggishness, the dead weight of overpopulated ministries—all
of it is evident. But then comes our conclusion: Backs to the wall, we say
the Japanese have no choice but to free their economy, deregulate their
markets, privatize everything, and in general get with the program we call
globalization. In today’s environment, those dirigiste bureaucrats cannot but
decree their own demise. The future has arrived—as ineluctably at the
other end of the Pacific as at ours. There are even a few Japanese political
leaders, including Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, willing to nod in apparent
But there are always a few officials around Tokyo who will accept our
scoldings and affirm our dire warnings. Assenting to the American view has
been, after all, the job of Japan’s conservative political elite since we helped
consolidate its position during the occupation. As these officials understand,
they are there to help us deceive ourselves, for (as they also understand)
the reality in Japan is almost always quite different from what we
think we see.
Japan’s economy, apparently in recovery earlier this year, has fallen back
to the brink of renewed recession. But we must guard against making too
much of the nation’s performance in this quarter or that. More Japanese
traveled overseas last year than ever before. Imports of luxury autos are at
their highest, while Japan’s trade surplus is again rising. Under these circumstances,
we ought not be surprised to discover that Japan is not rushing
headlong into radical reform. If anything, the way it has ridden out the
1990s tends to affirm the course bureaucrats have followed for the past five
decades. “We are not a troubled nation,” a Japanese newspaper columnist
told me during a recent trip to Washington. “You just don’t see the symptoms
of economic problems when you are in
But you do see certain things quite easily
when you are in Japan. The nation has entered
an era of profound self-examination
and change. So have its people — who are
and change, bo have its people—who are
more troubled than my columnist friend
wants to admit. Japan faces a period of fundamental
flux comparable with the start of
its great modernization in the 1860s or with the years after the surrender in
1945. However complacent the Japanese are about their immediate economic
prospects, they understand this. And they understand that the most
essential change to come is a change of consciousness.
We do not understand this, for we are still making our history without
memory. This time we can call it post-Cold War triumphalism—our obsessive
conviction that the world must conform to the turn our society is tak-
ing. Once again, at a critical phase in Japan’s evolution we are unable to see
it clearly, for we insist upon seeing only ourselves.
One day in December 1945, a few months after the surrender, a U.S. correspondent
named Mark Gayn took a trolley to the Shimbashi district, just
south of Tokyo Station and the Ginza. Then as now, Shimbashi was a hectic
quarter given over to small-time businesses, though all that had survived
the war was a bustling black market. Gayn later recorded the excursion in
his book Japan Diary: “Conductors are having difficulty with men who
smoke in streetcars, despite ‘No Smoking’ signs. The men say: ‘Do we have
democracy or don’t we?'”3
Nothing better captures the confusion that greeted the occupation
forces. What was this talked-of thing called demokurashii—or minshu shugi,
“people masterism” in a literal translation? One problem the Japanese faced
had to do with institutions. They didn’t have the mediating mechanisms a
democracy needs to interpret diverse interests. But as the men on the trolley
suggested, Japan had a deeper problem—the problem of inexperience, which
is to say the problem of consciousness. In the Japan of late 1945, people
tended to think democracy meant everyone got what he or she wanted. This
was natural enough: It was democracy that had overturned the imperial
state, and in the imperial state nobody got what he or she wanted.
But none of this was new. The Japanese had been wrestling with the
question of democracy for 75 years by the time the Americans arrived. Soon
after Mark Gayn took his trolley ride they began the most important debate
of the postwar era. It concerned something called shutai-sei, “subjectivity.”
The term refers to the perceiving, judging, deciding individual. To achieve
shutai-sei meant to establish one’s autonomous identity—to leave behind
all the old, enveloping conventions. The shutai-sei debate was a kind of national
conversation. It involved scholars and intellectuals of many political
hues and was widely followed in newspapers, magazines, and journals. To
many Japanese, cultivating the autonomous self was the fundamental postwar
task, more essential than any other. Their failure to make subjective
judgments, they said, had led them to acquiesce when the wartime dictatorship
draped a net of ideology over them and pushed the nation into tragedy.
As one of the leaders of this debate put it, “An internal reform of the psychological
structure of society must occur.”4 Japan required what many awkwardly
called a “new democratic human type.”
The United States had no part in this debate. What it gave the Japanese—
a sophisticated and magnanimous gift—was not democracy so much
as time, the prospect that they would have a chance to begin again. The oc-
cupation began by allowing the Japanese to make their own choices for the
first time in their history—to form political parties and labor unions, for instance,
and to select leaders by a method of their own making. In substance
the U.S. gift of time arrived in a series of social and political reforms. Not
least, the occupation set about purging the military, bureaucratic, and business
elites who had led the imperial state.
Unfortunately, we withdrew our generous gift almost as soon as we gave
it. The Cold War brought a radical shift in our priorities. Rather than encourage
the Japanese in their necessarily messy experiment with democracy,
we put political and economic stability before all else. The transformation
was nearly total. The occupation dropped or rolled back many of the early
reforms, stopped the purges of the wartime elite, and encouraged the purge
of those who opposed them. Corruption became so widespread that it was
soon inseparable from the normal workings of government. A little more
than a decade after the surrender, Japan had an accused war criminal,
Nobusuke Kishi, as prime minister. Not surprisingly, the new democratic human
type lost his way in all of this: He never appeared on the scene.
In Japan this momentous shift is called the “reverse course.” I know of no
Japanese who considers this phase of postwar history a matter of any debate;
it is too important to what Japan has—and has not—become. One can even
date the reverse course, more or less precisely: Its harbinger appeared on
February 1, 1947, the day MacArthur blocked a general strike that was to
have marked a major advance in Japan’s democratization. Nonetheless, we
read almost nothing about the reverse course in our standard accounts of
postwar Japan. With the reverse course, our vision got blurry, and we started
to construct our history devoid of memory.
Americans wrote this history, so oddly divorced from ordinary fact and
recollection, in the 1950s and 1960s. It began with the idea that the war
was a brief aberration in Japan’s progress toward liberal democracy. This may
not sound like much more than an ordinary historical thesis, one way of
looking at the past. But it was an essential untruth, a sort of founding fiction,
because from it flowed so many other fictions and untruths. The next
was that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Japan as it had developed
during the modern era, that it did not require a lot of New Deal-ish
reform. Democratic consciousness? Marxist bunkum. Now that the war had
ended the nation simply needed “a slight readjustment of the rules.”
These words belong to the late Edwin O. Reischauer. The son of missionaries,
Reischauer became a scholar, Washington advisor, and—during the
presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson—ambassador to Tokyo.
Reischauer was also a principal architect of the “Japan” we still accept
today as a matter of fact—a version of the nation that will always require
quotation marks because it stands so far from reality. Reischauer elaborated
upon this Japan over many years in such volumes as Japan: Past and Present,
M} Life Between Japan and America, and The Japanese (which remains in
print as The Japanese Today) .5
Reischauer was not alone. Many other scholars wrote from the same perspective.
Ezra Vogel’s Japan As No. 1, published in 1979, did much to turn
this perspective into our conventional wisdom.6 Their numerous critics term
these scholars the Chrysanthemum Club, after the seal of the Japanese imperial
house. In my view, the Chrysanthemum Club is notable in two respects:
its almost complete control over our understanding of Japan and the
extent to which it put scholarship in the service of Cold War ideology—that
is, almost completely.
We are all familiar with the Chrysanthemum Club’s Japan. It did not have
a rather gruesome feudal past, as we had once thought, nor was it a coercive
state in the modern era, as we had believed during the war. It was a country
ruled by “tradition” and “culture,” as embodied by the emperor, a good man
who had opposed the war. Tradition and culture explained the enviable
work ethic of the Japanese and their humility before authority. Harmony
and consensus prevailed, for the Japanese were a modest people given to
compromise in all things. Nagatacho was not a hive of corrupt ultranationalists
resurrected from wartime cliques; it was the home of East Asia’s first
up-and-running parliamentary democracy.
In 1970 or so, we took to calling this imaginary country “Japan Inc.”—an
entire nation cast as a corporation, and its people as employees rather than
citizens. By and large, we saw nothing wrong with Japan Inc. Its mission was
to produce. It ran with the sound and rhythm of a sewing machine. People
did not bother with politics. They did everything in groups—an essential inheritance
from “tradition”—and were happiest when putting in 12-hour
days at the camera factory. They had a constitution that declared them
pacifist, but by treaty they were our Cold War allies. This may seem confusing—
even contradictory—but it did not matter, for the Japanese were our
faithful, compliant, uncomplicated friends.
No correspondent I know has accepted this version of Japan without
question (though some come awfully close). Nonetheless, I was stunned
when I arrived in Tokyo, a decade ago this autumn, to open a news bureau
for the International Herald Tribune. Japan Inc. was there before me, certainly,
but it afforded no explanation as to how it got there. Missing, of
course, was perspective or depth—in other words, history and memory together.
Japan has long had the habit of presenting a face to the world and
veiling the reality behind. Japan Inc. was another such face—this one made
after the war by the United States and managed by the reinstalled Japanese
elite. You were supposed to look at Japan as if it were a television show.
Once you started to pry beneath the surface, Japan Inc. looked as if it might
easily come undone.
And that is precisely what began to happen within a few months of my
arrival in Japan. It is the process we continue to witness today.
‘Japan Is Seething Within’
In Japan today one can only imagine the scene during the late 1940s and
early 1950s: a lively, engage populace, a place of diverse, contending views, a
glorious cacophony of voices—an active society, in short, a civil society in
the making, mindful that it had much to decide. Picturing such a nation is
an act of the imagination because Japan today so emphatically lacks these
attributes. Japan has no public life to speak of; as a civil society its was put
to sleep even as it awakened. Company belonging, clan politics, and other
forms of corporatist identity were urged upon the Japanese in place of a
working democracy. People call Japan an “economic democracy,” but of
course no such thing exists: No quantity of consumer goods, however evenly
distributed, can ever substitute for the exercise of democratic rights by informed
But by the end of my tour in Japan, in the mid-1990s, I could hear the
faint echoes of those early postwar years. A place that never seemed to
change—a correspondent’s nightmare in many respects—had begun to
change fundamentally. One could read these seismic rumblings at first only
with difficulty—a point underscored, perhaps, by the diversity of forces that
produced them. With the “bubble economy” of the late 1980s, Japan became
aware that it had caught up with the West—in material terms, at
least. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the Cold War’s end. Amid these
momentous developments came a third: The emperor died. Hirohito had
seen Japan through 62 years of militarization, conquest, war, defeat, resurrection,
and, finally, affluence.
These events have produced the Japan we see now, a Japan rocked loose
from its moorings. To make itself the West’s technological equal was a dream
Japan had harbored since it began to modernize in 1868. Having realized the
dream, the nation had to find something else, some other ambition, to drive
it forward. Hirohito’s passing in January 1989 gave the Japanese an immense,
altogether palpable sense of psychological release. At last they could
begin the long, fraught task of coming to terms with the past—and enter, as
they like to put it, the “post-postwar era.”
Dramatic as these developments were, however, neither has been so startling
in its consequences as the ebbing of the Cold War tide. There before
us, as if in a sort of freeze-frame, is the same nation the United States did so
much to create when it reversed course 50 years ago: extravagantly corrupt,
obsessed with market dominance, ecologically reckless, stifling of the individual,
politically dysfunctional, leaderless, incapable of decisions. In sum,
Japan is again a nation that has many things to decide—the same things, by
and large, that the Cold War kept it from deciding.
In the West we understand that it is decision time—in a general kind of
way. The Japanese talk of reforms of many types these days—political, bureaucratic,
administrative, economic, social. And as most Japanese recognize,
they certainly need reforms of this nature. But much of the talk we
hear from the other side of the Pacific is intended only to placate expectant
outsiders, to satisfy our anticipation as to the imminence of change. Change
will come to Japan, but there is nothing imminent about it. We seem to
think we are watching a short, while in my view we are in for a very long
We miss, as we missed it 50 years ago, that Japan must undergo one particular
change before any of the others can have any substance or meaning.
No one uses the old language anymore, but I think it is useful to see the
Japanese as launching something very like that “internal reform of the psychological
structure of society” that they debated just after the war. That is
to say, the Japanese have begun again to look within themselves for the new
democratic human type that, half a century ago, eluded both the intellectuals
and the smoking men on the trolley.
This change of consciousness, which I noted at the outset, seems finally
to have begun, and I think the world—and especially Americans—ought to
applaud it without reservation. If such a process is not in motion, we will
have to view the reverse course as not just a 50-year delay in Japan’s effort
to build a democratic society, but something nearer to a tragedy. More practically,
as I have already indicated, none of the other reforms now on the
table in Japan will ever amount to much unless this “internal reform” accompanies
or precedes them. Bureaucrats and ministries do not regulate
themselves out of power; corrupt, old-guard politicians do not rule themselves
out of office. The recent controversy surrounding Koko Sato, a convicted
bribe-taker, is eloquent as a case in point. Hashimoto hired him into
his cabinet—to reform the bureaucracy no less—only to fire him within days
amid mounting public outrage.
Putting aside the “should” of the equation, there is ample evidence of the
endeavor I describe. One sees it in schools and universities, the corporate
world, political parties, the national legislature—even, at times, in the bureaucracy.
To put the finest possible point on it, when we describe change in
Japan today we mean the change occurring in individuals’ relationships to
whatever social institutions may concern them. To put it another way, the
terms of belonging are changing. Or another: An essentially corporatist society
is gradually becoming its opposite—pluralist. As I note in ]apan: A Reinterpretation,
it is the difference between the furtive, private individuality
required in a “group” society and the public individuality permissible in a
One of the more graphic instances of the phenomenon occurred in 1996
in Maki, a town of 30,000 located on the Sea of Japan coast. The Tohoku
Electric Power Company, the regional utility, proposed a nuclear-power
plant on Maki’s outskirts. Townspeople opposed to the project gathered sufficient
signatures to hold a referendum—the
first such vote in Japan’s history. At this
point, Tohoku Electric and the national government
did what authorities in Japan have
done for decades as a matter of course. They
did not debate the issue; they began taking
the good citizens of Maki out to French restaurants,
carnival events, and hot-spring
baths—so seeking to establish the proper
sense of patronage. This is the sort of thing
apologists call “Japanese democracy.” In the
past it would have worked.
The turnout on referendum day was nearly 90 percent and the voters defeated
the nuclear plant proposal by a 61 to 39 margin. Although the vote
was not binding, Tohoku Electric acknowledges that it dare not go forward.
But the outcome is only part of the tale. The true drama of the piece lay in
the extraordinary effort Maki’s people made to do what they had never before
done: to form their views as individuals and then express them publicly.
These are interesting times in Japan. The nation is a mess in many respects,
but this is not altogether bad. In certain ways Japan is again the kind
of work-in-progress it was after the war. After 50 years of stasis, one should
expect a period of creative destruction; renewal will follow. The economy
requires an overhaul. Nagatacho is out of balance, careening toward no one
knows quite what. Nine governments have ruled since I first arrived in Tokyo,
and countless parties and coalitions have formed and fallen apart. But
as incidents such as that in Maki indicate, the Japanese are at last learning
to operate the machinery of democracy. They are stubbing out their cigarettes
on the trolley, let us say.
It is not, one must add, an especially enviable time. The Japanese have
paid heavily to reach this point. The best description I have heard of the
Japanese today—of the Japan that began to emerge during my tour for the
Herald Tribune—comes from Robert Jay Lifton, the noted New York psychiatrist
and a student of Japan for more than 30 years. “Japan is seething
within,” Lifton told me recently. “We’re terribly impressed with its achievements,
but we tend not to look at the underbelly of Japanese society, and
the underbelly is pain, confusion, and resentment. Only now have the Japanese
begun to build something like a civic culture. A kind of democracymindedness
has begun to change the prevailing psychology. And with it
there is an aversion toward the remaining authoritarian institutions.”
Memory without History
One of the extraordinary interludes of my years in Japan began after Iraq invaded
Kuwait in August 1990. As Washington started gathering support for
a military response, Tokyo stood like a deer caught in headlights—paralyzed.
Given that its constitution excludes it from collective security actions, what
was Japan to do? Legalities aside, what did it want to do? Numerous shades
of opinion were aired. Many Japanese thought the events in the Persian Gulf
had nothing to do with them. But just as many voiced shame that their
country was unable to act.
In hindsight, this was the point at which the Japanese realized that the
post—postwar age was upon them. In some inchoate way, even the conservative
leadership understood that the old arrangements could not hold much
longer. As Tokyo dithered, Washington grew more shrill. And this was
among the more peculiar aspects of the episode. The United States did not
seem to recognize that the Japanese hesitated because of the constitution it
wrote for them. And as a measure of Tokyo’s long habit of deference, no
Japanese official noted this bitter irony. But the Japanese quietly understood
from this time on, it seems to me, that among the many other things they
would have to change, relations with the United States would be high on
But what was it that had to change most of all? What change would tie
together all of the others that the Gulf war incident brought to the fore? As
with the question of Japan as a democratic society, the essential change to
come will be in people’s heads. The Japanese need self-awareness.
“Thus, the Japanese, not long ago one of the most militaristic peoples of
the world, have now become ardent champions of internationalism.” So
wrote Edwin Reischauer shortly after the war. And so did the United States
launch among the Japanese an enduring confusion as to their identity, their
principles, and their contribution to the world.
The United States encouraged an exchange in postwar Japan between
nationalism and internationalism. It may seem an easy notion to grasp. But
the logic is apparent, not real. The Japanese still widely embrace the pacifism
embedded in the postwar constitution. But declaring one’s pacifism is
not the same as repudiating any sense of national pride and identity. That,
nonetheless, has been Japan’s mistake. Internationalism in Japan is not a
principle by which it proposes to engage the world. It is the idea Japan uses
to justify its detachment. It is a way of saying what the Japanese will not
do—a way of denying themselves and their “Japaneseness”—an awkward
but often-used word.
The postwar constitution well captures this notion of internationalism.
Its 103 articles resound with shall not, like a set of commandments. “Children
shall not be exploited.” “Freedom of thought and conscience shall not
be violated.” “Peers and peerage shall not be recognized.” The constitution
Japan still abides by could hardly support any sense of nationality. It essentially
bans the return of prewar Japan. And amid all the shall nots, one reads
that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the
nation”—the wording of Article 9, the clause internationalists hold in the
Shall nots aside, what shall Japan do? The question has been posed often
since the Gulf war, but on this point the Japanese falter. They cling to the
postwar idea of a Japan that stands for something new on the planet, an unarmed
evangelist for diplomacy and reason. In the next century, they say,
economic power—capital and technology, the things Japan can give to the
rest of the world—will replace the old notion of power as a function of military
strength and territorial dominion. “It may seem that Japan is abnormal,”
a thoughtful politician said to me a few years ago. “But when we
succeed in restructuring the international community, countries like Japan
will become the normal nations and those that maintain military power and
dispatch it abroad will be abnormal.” The French call this kind of talk
angelisme. And it is precisely the angelisme of Japan’s internationalist majority
that ironically leaves the nation so oddly isolated at our century’s end.
The great villains of postwar Japanese society are its nationalists, of
course, those diehards lingering in the shadows of ultra-rightist politics. To
most Japanese, the nationalists are something like a bad dream. They keep
alive the notion of Japan as a tightly coiled jack-in-the-box waiting to
spring. They will not admit Japan’s past aggressions. They refuse to acknowledge
wartime atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre. Xenophobes all, a fanatical
few drive their sound vans around Tokyo, blaring on through
megaphones about everything from imported rice to foreign workers.
By any measure but its own, the nationalist fringe has chosen its ground
with egregious judgment. Nonetheless, I have always thought the ultra-right
minority deserves a more careful hearing. These Japanese deny both history
and their responsibility in it. But haven’t the gray old war horses, in their
suits worn shiny with age, kept alive the ideas of self-respect and sovereignty
and Japaneseness, even if they do so in a form that appeals to no one but
themselves? They alone seem to stand for these things, and make grotesque
caricatures of them, for the simple reason that the internationalists have
surrendered the ground.
I know of few Japanese who will easily accept such assertions as anything
other than a kind of blasphemy—the arguments of an uncomprehending
foreigner who is either reckless or a rightist himself. But I likewise know of
few Japanese who easily accept the constraints under which they have lived
since the war—and who do not feel the need somehow to address their restlessness.
It is almost as if, amid all the professions
of pacifism and cosmopolitan purpose,
the detested far right—in some perverse
form—voices the disavowed desires of the entire
Changing the constitution has been a taboo
subject in postwar Japan. Only an ultranationalist
would even raise it. As every
internationalist fervently believes, not only
does Article 9 protect the rest of the world
from Japan; it also protects the Japanese from
themselves. These assumptions still go more or less unchallenged in Japan.
The United States cultivates them because they help to justify the presence
of almost 50,000 troops on Japanese soil. A few years ago, a U.S. correspondent
asked a senior officer in Okinawa why Americans remain there. “Nobody
wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan,” the U.S. officer replied. “So we are
a cap in the bottle, if you will.”8
If this reasoning ever stood up, it does so no longer. Whom would Japan
attack, and why, once fully “resurgent”? This question has no sensible answers—
not if we consider how the world, and Japan along with it, has
evolved over the past five decades. Japan maintains a self-defense force of
150,000 troops—all of them voluntary. In a nation where full employment
has long been an article of faith, who would join a force with nothing to do,
no role in domestic, regional, or global affairs? There is only one conclusion:
All that keeps the nationalist threat alive is Japan’s habitual fear of it. Expose
it to the fresh air of national debate and it will disintegrate like mummified
remains once unwound.
The Gulf war episode prompted the Japanese to begin recognizing this.
They are beginning to see that one cannot be authentically internationalist
without first being a nationalist of one kind or another. Confident of their
affluence, they have begun to claim as theirs the questions that in the past
only the nationalists would,frame: Shall we reclaim our sovereignty now?
What do we stand for? We are Japanese—and what is wrong with that? Behind
these questions lies a process of exploration the Japanese call “becoming
a normal nation.”
At the end of 1994 the Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest of Japan’s four national
newspapers, published a draft of a proposed new constitution. The
event received little attention abroad. Yet it marked a profound departure
for the Japanese. It broke the taboo. Among its 108 articles, the Yomiuri
document declared the armed forces constitutionally legal and allowed the
country to fulfill international security obligations without encumbrance. It
erased all the shall nots. “The people shall not be prevented from enjoying
any of the fundamental human rights” became “The people possess all fundamental
human rights.” The newspaper’s implicit message was clear: Japan
must finally say what it is, and what it will do.
I applaud the exercise. Only by enacting a new constitution can Japan assume
the responsibilities that must accompany its economic prominence.
Over time, Japan may choose the same basic law it now possesses; it may
choose to rearm fully, or not at all. These matters are less important than
the choices the Japanese make after an open national debate—the more
contentious the better. Required to answer for itself, Japan would no doubt
accept more responsibility in matters such as trade and the global environment.
Its psychologically fraught relations with Asia would suddenly have
more to do with the future than with the past.
This last point leads to another, larger question. We have long accused
the Japanese of “historical amnesia.” That is what we call it when a nationalist
leader or a government minister distorts the past or refuses to acknowledge
it. But this is a misnomer. The Japanese remember well enough. What
they lack is history. Internationalism made history the province of rightists
and the conservative elite, and the conservative elite simply does not want
Japan to take its proper place in history. So the Japanese, we may say, suffer
the inverse of the U.S. problem: We can call it memory without history.
Recovering history is an essential dimension of the project the Japanese
now contemplate. It is a battle to be fought on many fronts: in textbooks,
courtrooms, newspapers, government ministries. It is their fight—the fight
of ordinary citizens against official rewrites of the past. But the United
States has a role in this, too. For the United States made it possible for the
Japanese elite even to contemplate refusing to sign history’s logbook. We did
this when we excused Japan—when we declined to consider the emperor as
a responsible party to war and when we restored the wartime leadership in
Tokyo, those whose political heirs now govern Japan.
The U.S. role in all of this is simple—simple to articulate, if not, perhaps
to implement. Americans must start to recognize the extent to which we
made the Japan before us today. That is, we must begin to remember.
I have described a Japan in transformation—a nation emergent. The remaining
question is evident: Are we prepared for the Japan of the future, a
more open and assertive Japan, a less dependent Japan, a Japan likely to be
more of its own mind for the simple reason that its people will be?
We ought to be, of course. And we say we are. Washington wants Tokyo
to “do more,” to take a “global role”—phrases it has used often enough in
recent years. We want a less regulated Japan—so we decry the heavy hand
of the bureaucracy every chance we get. More fundamentally, we say we
want a more democratic Japan—the more democratic the better—and that
the sewer of corruption that never ceases to run in Nagatacho repulses us.
But the record is not so clear on close examination. Do we really want a
more responsible Japan—or do we prefer the diffident nation to which we
are accustomed? We loudly berated the Japanese for their flubbed response
to the Gulf crisis, but we liked the check they wrote—a $13 billion contri’
bution—and we liked it partly because it arrived with nothing more than a
muttered “Me, too” in terms of policy demands. “Unhand that economy!”
the United States forever exclaims. But every time Washington asks Tokyo
to see that Japanese companies buy more U.S.-made widgets, the demand
lends implicit support to the dirigiste system through which the bureaucracy
directs the system.
Nor has Washington shown itself prepared to begin remembering its role
in Japan’s past. One despairs of listing all of Washington’s trade spats with
Tokyo. They began with textiles in the early 1970s and have since run
through everything from baseball bats to skis to beef, cars, car parts, and (a
current gripe) 35-millimeter film cassettes. But the export mill is our baby;
every significant component of it was in place before the occupation had
ended. Equally, we may be appalled by Nagatacho’s scandal-ridden pols, but
we ought not hike up our skirts and trousers too high. These are our boys,
after all—direct descendants of the restored wartime elite. For many years
the Central Intelligence Agency covertly funded its conservative favorites
in Japan, a fact that makes indignation a tough act to sustain.
Sadly, we seem to prefer the Japan we claim reflexively to dislike. In particular,
we have developed an unhealthy reliance on what is at best Japan’s
weak, attenuated democracy. This may seem a preposterous assertion, but
travel 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo and it will not. If Okinawa is any
guide, a more democratic and autonomous people will want to live in a more
autonomous nation—an idea the United States does not yet seem prepared
Three-fourths of the U.S. military facilities in Japan are crammed onto
Okinawan soil and occupy a fifth of the prefecture’s usable land. A great debate
has arisen as to the necessity of these installations in the post-Cold
War world, but that is not the present point. Okinawans have opposed the
bases for decades. They hinder economic development, are noisy and polluting,
and cause crime and accidents. Last year, a month after the referendum
in Maki, Okinawans held one of their own: Nine of ten voters opposed the
U.S. presence. Last spring, 3,000 landowners refused to renew leases on territory
U.S. bases occupy. Tokyo’s response was to legislate away the refusers’
The Okinawa debate could be a moment of true arrival for the Japanese.
It could allow Tokyo to show itself prepared to preside over a democracy, a
civil society, instead of an unsovereign economic machine. By resolving the
Okinawa question in a calm, democratic fashion, Japan could demonstrate
that it deserves a larger position among global powers: a seat on the United
Nations Security Council, for instance—its abiding ambition for some years.
Instead, Okinawa reveals only that Japan is not yet ready for such a privilege.
The principle here is simple: Responsibility begins at home.
Okinawa also reveals as starkly as any such issue can that the United
States is not yet ready for the Japanese to join the world, either. Washington
has become dependent, one might say, on Tokyo’s dependence, as well as on
the dependence the Japanese have long exhibited toward authority. If the
Japanese succeed in wringing this dependence out of their psyches and their
political system, and then build a country that speaks for itself, U.S. troops
and planes will no longer be stationed on Japanese soil.
That is a reality. The broader reality is that a healthier relationship between
the United States and Japan must inevitably be a more distant one.
Japan’s constitutional debates make this point implicitly, though these debates
remain in a nascent phase. The need for distance is considerably
clearer when it comes to the treaty governing our security ties. The security
treaty is another of those issues the Japanese are gradually removing from
the deep freeze since the Cold War’s end. As numerous newspaper polls now
indicate, roughly two-thirds of Japanese voters want to reduce the U.S. presence.
That was emphatically their desire in 1960, the last time the treaty
Not only does the tilt of public opinion reflect political sentiment, but it
is also a practical matter. As every thoughtful Japanese understands, the
pact will now work only as long as we do not use it. Once we face a crisis
and must consider implementing its pledges—once U.S. soldiers and pilots
begin to die protecting Japan while the Japanese continue producing
Hondas and Walkmans for export—the security pact would very probably
damage relations with the United States beyond immediate repair. This is
ordinary logic. Yet Washington recently reaffirmed the security treaty without
alteration (and earlier this year vowed to maintain troop strength in Japan
at current levels). Tokyo, of course, provided its predictable approval.
“America as teacher, Japan as student; America as superior, Japan as inferior—
that’s the psychology that came out of the war,” John Dower, a professor
of Japanese history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once
told me. “It has colored the relationship ever since, but it’s time to move on.
It’s long past time that we see each other as equals.”
This accurately reflects the way many Japanese view our ties in their current
form, even if leaders on both sides of the Pacific ignore the reality. Our
bilateral relations now present us with critical challenges. Yet in neither Tokyo
nor Washington does one find any sense of innovation, imagination, or
sympathy. One finds inertia—an inertia that probably reflects the enormity
of the task. It leaves us to wonder: What event will force us to act? What
crisis will we have to rush to manage? Where lies the trip-wire that will
cause us to stumble into the future—for is that not what we intend to do?
1. Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Charles Kades, 90, Architect of Japan’s Postwar Charter,”
New York Times, June 21, 1996, p. A25.
2. “Charles Kades,” Economist, July 6, 1996, p. 77.
3. Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (Rutland and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1984), p. 13.
4. The quotation is from Maruyama Masao, the pre-eminent figure in postwar intellectual
discourse. In the shutai-sei debates, Maruyama led a faction known as “the
modernists.” For this passage, see “Nationalism in Japan: Its Theorhetical Background
and Prospects,” p. 152 in Maruyama’s Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese
Politics, Ivan Morris, translator (Oxford: Oxford University Press, expanded
5. Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: Past and Present, revised edition (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1958); My Life Between Japan and America (Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1986);
and The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap
6. Ezra E Vogel, Japan As No. 1: Lessons for America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
7. See Chapter 2, “Hidden History,” in Japan: A Reinterpretation (New York: Pantheon
8. Fred Hiatt, “Marine General: U.S. Troops Must Remain in Japan,” Washington Post,
March 27, 1990, p. A14.