Japanese Tsunami 2011

Japan's fault lines still a worry, two years after quake

Philip Cunningham says two years after the devastating earthquake, the worry in Japan over the next big one mirrors the unease in its volatile politics, now in the control of right-wing demagogues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 March, 2013, 9:01am

Japan is in a cold burn now; cool on the exterior, simmering underneath. It's obvious in a geological sense; Japan sits above an unstable hot zone, but it's also a metaphor for a seemingly stable but deeply volatile and incendiary political system.

Take Mount Fuji, for example. It is quintessential Japan; its understated majesty is the Yamato essence writ large. Graceful in contour, shimmering slopes, peak powdered white, clean and wind-swept by clouds, it is in harmony with forest and field, it is self-contained and tranquil - except when it's not.

Mount Fuji last exploded in 1707. Now scientists are saying the current magma pressure levels exceed the parameters of the last cataclysmic blast. Small earthquakes rock the foundation of the mountain, while steam pressure is rising.

The second anniversary of the March 11 triple disaster of mega-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown is a good time to reflect on how shocks delivered by nature can alter the course of history, especially since geologists say the big one is overdue and yet to come.

Before disaster struck, Japan was on a much-needed path to political reform after decades of cronyism and one-party rule. The Democratic Party of Japan was led by the straight-talking Naoto Kan, who first made a name for himself when, as health minister, he apologised for the previous administration's malfeasance in the scandal of HIV-tainted blood. As prime minister, he had the political courage to call for higher taxes - unpalatable but necessary medicine - and he offered Korea an apology for Japan's annexation and predations dating from the century before. With such an agenda, it comes as no surprise that Japan's stalwart right wing was gunning for his political demise. Right-wing hotheads in Japan's coastguard almost single-handedly succeeded in creating a crisis with China in 2010, putting the premier in the hot seat due to the pre-emptive arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain whose boat had collided with a Japanese patrol boat in the disputed island area. But wiser heads prevailed.

The day after the giant earthquake, the hapless Kan flew to Fukushima to examine the damage and find out what was really going on from the information-inhibiting, politically connected nuclear industry. Again he showed uncommon courage in trying to uncover the cover-up, though he was vilified for suggesting that Tokyo might be at risk, which it was.

His subsequent condemnation of nuclear power and proposed freeze on building new plants, along with the closure of plants deemed at risk, sealed his political fate; he was blamed for post-earthquake malaise and vilified by the old right-wing aristocrats who efficiently exploited the "geopolitical" crisis to plot a comeback.

And come back they did, a team of right-wing militant apologists the likes of which Japan hasn't seen since the war years. The current cabinet includes two recycled prime ministers from blue-blood families (they are both grandsons of prime ministers) with roots in war crimes and labour exploitation. It includes second- and third-generation Liberal Democratic Party insiders, strong proponents of nuclear power, textbook revisionism advocates and the son of former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, instigator of the latest Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute and infamous in China for denying the Nanking Massacre.

Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi enhanced the family fortune by exploiting Chinese labour and manufacturing munitions in the Japanese colony of Manchuria; he was indicted but not convicted as a class-A war criminal and later became prime minister. Taro Aso's family built its construction business fortune with the involuntary help of Allied prisoners of war during the war years. Neither man has offered a public moment of reflection or inkling of remorse for the crimes of their ancestors, let alone the inequities of their own cosy business ties and reckless right-wing demagoguery.

Despite the devastation wreaked across Asia by the militaristic upheaval and incendiary foreign aggression of Tojo's Japan, Abe, Aso and most members of their like-minded cabinet are advocates of whitewashing the past. They have repeatedly sought to beautify an ugly chapter of Japan's history with ritual visits to pay respect to war criminals at the Yasukuni shrine, while also meddling with textbooks, denying wartime sex slaves compensation and refusing to comment on forced-labour abuse in their own family tree. They are hawks on China, hawks on North Korea but play lovey-dovey with the US, quick to accommodate the Pentagon's power - and abuse of power - in the region.

Their foundation is in the politics of denial; they deny the past and any wrongdoings linked to their clans, while they also deny the average citizen a fair chance by rigging the game with collusion between political insiders, industrialists and bureaucrats.

But the more general denial of reality that has descended on Japan's embattled citizenry is less self-serving and more understandable. Denial is not just tempting, but perhaps vitally necessary in a land where the ground shakes violently underfoot without warning and the archipelago's most beautiful mountain is overdue to explode.

A sober lesson can be drawn from the recent right-wing sweep of power in Japan. Telling the truth, speaking with humility and showing respect for others is a political liability. Lying about the past, powdering over dangerous mistakes and whipping up popular support by picking on other nations is a time-tested formula for wresting political control. It worked in the second world war, and it's working now. But the pressure of the truth will eventually find a way out.

Japan sits on a fault line where tectonic plates collide and heated magma surges upwards, but in an odd case of "geo-political" convergence, the art of politics increasingly imitates the flaws of nature.

Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and freelance writer, whose most recent book about China is Tiananmen Moon