The tragedy of Shinzo Abe’s narrow-minded nationalism

Kevin Rafferty says Japan can contribute much to a truly global world, but new ideas, imagination and innovation are needed from the Japanese prime minister

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 2:09pm

In his new year resolutions, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised that Japan would play a greater role as a mover and shaper of global affairs. But there is a tragic contradiction between his narrow view of the world and a global vision.

Successive Japanese governments, including the current one, have certainly fallen asleep in projecting any sort of world view.

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Where is the Japanese voice at big international gatherings, including the UN, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and ministerial gatherings of the various global bodies, especially the G7?

Abe himself has helped to raise the country’s profile by his tireless travelling to meet other world leaders and promote Japan. But he is a one-man band.

At the IMF and World Bank, where Japan remains the second-biggest shareholder after the US, Japan fails to make its voice heard. The main players are US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble, the UK’s George Osborne, publicly, and China behind the scenes. Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister, has the additional clout of being deputy prime minister and a former prime minister, but rarely speaks except to the tame Japanese press.

At the IMF/World Bank spring meetings last year, Japan hosted an important meeting on health care. Aso was the guest of honour. He turned up late, after the main presentations, sat for a couple of minutes, read a short speech in faltering English and swept out with his entourage; for a putative global power, this was a shabby performance.

At the IMF and World Bank, Japan fails to make its voice heard

Years ago, a senior Japanese official in Washington told me: “We sit at meetings; we are silent; sometimes we sleep; sometimes we snore.” The same Japanese behaviour happened in Paris at the landmark climate change summit. The US, China, the host France, the European Union, even the pope, were influential. Japan was silent on the sidelines, proving that Abe’s global promises are bold but empty.

On his international trips, Abe has frequently been a super-salesman, promoting high-speed railways to India, trying to sell submarines to Australia.

He is following other world leaders: Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and David Cameron vie for deals in China; Xi Jinping (習近平) visits the US and UK talking hi-tech and nuclear plants and maybe a Chinese stake in Manchester City football club.

Such salesmanship is very different from Japan graduating to be a global player with contributions that could influence the way the world works for the better.

It should be troubling for Japan and the world that Abe and his supporters are driven by a nationalist view that is rooted in the past. Change the US-imposed constitution, they say, even though it was passed in the Japanese parliament, turn the Self-Defence Forces into a proper army able to fight abroad, make Japan “normal” again. His next logical step would be to get rid of the US defence umbrella and shake off any form of US colonialism.

Such salesmanship is very different from Japan graduating to be a global player with contributions that could influence the way the world works for the better

Is this affordable and, more important, is this the way forward for Japan? Abe and other leaders should remember the words of Dwight Eisenhower, five-star general and supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe that defeated Hitler, after he became US president.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” he said. “This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities… We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.”

Before he embarks on global adventures, Abe should urgently consult some wise advisers to understand Japan’s culture and traditions and its place in the world, in history, today and tomorrow.

It has an immensely rich culture that is the envy of the rest of the world; no need to embellish it with fakes like whaling and the slaughter of dolphins that antagonise the rest of the world and diminish Japan.

A difficult historical part includes the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s militarism.

Abe risks taking Japan backwards with a new constitution that is not a carefully considered supreme document – what a constitution should be – but the spearhead for a nationalistic agenda.

The rest of the world is doing it. Islamic terrorists slaughter innocents and rape women in the name of a deranged god; ditto the Taliban; Nato forces bomb a wedding party or a hospital “by mistake”; North Korea claims to test a hydrogen bomb; Beijing builds islands and airstrips to expand its empire in the South China Sea. The UN huffs and puffs about sanctions that don’t amount to a string of beans.

The way to fight terrorism is not with more terror. Similarly, the way to fight nationalism is not with more nationalism, but with internationalism, to understand that we are all temporary dwellers on a fragile earth, whose lives interact with and affect each other.

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Nationalism led to disasters in previous centuries, to widespread misery in the 20th century, and today, with all our military firepower, it could bring catastrophe and destroy us all. What are needed now are new rules, new ideas, imagination, inspiration and innovation to achieve a truly global world.

Nationalism led to disasters in previous centuries, to widespread misery in the 20th century, and today, with all our military firepower, it could bring catastrophe and destroy us all

Problems needing urgent solutions include care of the environment, curbing greenhouse gases, making sure there is enough water and food for all, coping with growing inequality and the concentration of wealth and power in a small number of hands.

Japan has many good things to share, including healthy cuisine and lifestyles that lead to long lives, and advanced technology that makes life easier. Politically, Japan is unique in being both the perpetrator and victim of some of the worst war crimes. The “no war” constitution won respect because it looked to a new world.

It is a pity that Abe has no children: his lifetime dream should not be to resurrect the past to vindicate his grandfather, but to strive to ensure that his generation’s grandchildren inherit a healthy planet. True globalism means sharing with the world. It is Abe’s tragedy, and potentially Japan’s and the world’s, that he seems to have only a nationalist view.

Kevin Rafferty is a journalist, commentator and former professor at Osaka University