Shinzo Abe, friend of Trump and lacking Asian allies, is a true son of modern Japan
Jean-Pierre Lehmann says the prime minister’s cosying up to the US is consistent with the ideological arc of modern Japan, which more than a century ago decided to cast its lot with the West, turning its back on Asia
“Datsu-A, Nyu-O” was the title of a Japanese publication that first appeared in 1885, 17 years after the start of the so-called Meiji Restoration (1868), a period marking Japan’s amazing drive to modernisation. Not until perhaps the reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in China, in 1979, had the world seen anything comparable. From backward feudal isolation, in the space of a few short decades, Japan emerged as a modern, industrialised, imperialist world power. It was the only non-Western nation that succeeded in meeting the West on Western terms.
The document that set out the vision of this new Japan was titled “The Charter Oath of Five Articles”, the fourth and fifth of which read: “Evil customs of the past shall be discontinued, and new customs shall be based on the just laws of nature”; “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world in order to promote the welfare of the empire.” The knowledge being sought was in fact from the West. The Datsu-A, Nyu-O publication – which literally means, “Exit Asia, Enter the West” – confirmed that promoting the welfare of the empire required “de-Asianisation” and “Westernisation”.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Japan learned and assimilated a lot from the West, primarily Britain, Germany, France and the US: constitutional law, jurisprudence, banking and finance, education, capitalism, modern military and naval strategy, railway building, industry, music, painting, sports (baseball from the US in 1873), lighthouses, textile manufacturing, watch making ... the list runs on. Until the undertaking of these reforms, ever since the fifth century, Japan had been a student of China and, to a lesser extent, Korea. Thus, “evil customs of the past” referred to Chinese learning.
Reflecting this vision and trend, in the course of modern history, Japan has formed three major alliances with Western powers: Britain, from 1902 to 1922; Nazi Germany, from 1938 to 1945; and the US since 1953. While Japan had a number of Asian colonies (Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria) and invaded most countries in East Asia, it has never had, does not have, and, based on the current schmoozing between Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe, is unlikely to have any Asian allies. While playing golf with Trump in Florida, Abe pointed out that his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960, was the last Japanese prime minister to have played golf with an American president (Dwight Eisenhower).
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Kishi in many ways embodied the Datsu-A, Nyu-O syndrome. During the war as the senior official in charge of the industrial policy of Manchukuo, he was responsible for the abduction of hundreds of thousands of Chinese slave labour, for which he earned the sobriquet Showa no yokai – “Showa-era monster”. For his war crimes, Kishi spent three years in Sugamo prison, but was released by the US as the Chinese liberation, the Korean war and the cold war changed the picture of the Asia-Pacific theatre. He was judged a good candidate to help lead Japan in a pro-US direction.
Washington was not to be disappointed. In 1960, in spite of massive demonstrations by Japanese pacifists, Kishi, then prime minister, managed to ram through the Diet (Japan’s parliament) the ratification of the US-Japan security treaty that had been signed at the end of the US’ military occupation of Japan and that has served Japan so overwhelmingly well for the ensuing decades. Japan was transformed from America’s hated enemy to its pampered protégé, a status for which Kishi, who was dubbed “America’s Favourite War Criminal”, was an important architect.
Abe’s main obsession in kowtowing so obsequiously to Washington was to preserve the treaty and the alliance with the US. As far as one can judge from the fraternising last weekend, it would seem to be “mission successful”, though with Trump’s renowned volatility on the Japanese front, cautious optimism would be more in order than euphoria. Since the news of Trump’s election in November created a degree of panic in Tokyo, Abe has sought many means to brown-nose America. In December, he paid a “historic” visit to Pearl Harbour.
The Datsu-A, Nyu-O syndrome continues to be flagrantly illustrated, for example, from the fact that just a day after Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbour, his defence minister, Tomomi Inada, made an official pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, where, inter alia, “repose” the spirits of a number of Japanese class-A war criminals, which is no doubt where Kishi’s spirit would also be had he been executed rather than liberated by the Americans. While sucking up to its American ally, Tokyo insults its former Asian colonies and enemies.
Watch: Japanese defence minister Tomomi Inada visits Yasukuni Shrine
Whether the consolidation of the US-Japan security treaty (if indeed this is to happen) will strengthen peace in the Asia-Pacific remains to be seen. We live in very dangerous times: Asia generally, northeast Asia in particular, is a geopolitical cauldron. As Deng Yuwen wrote in the Post recently, “in the Trump era, we can’t rule out war between China and the US”.
Were Japan to re-enter Asia, contritely for the crimes committed in the past and constructively to bring about greater peace and prosperity in the turbulent continent, the world would be on a positive-sum game trajectory and the impact on Asia would be tremendous. As it is, by persisting in the Datsu-A, Nyu-O syndrome, tensions are exacerbated and the risks of war enhanced.
China was the US’ ally against Japan (and Nazi Germany) in the second world war, it would be a terribly tragic paradox if Japan and the US were to ally against China in a third world war.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong