Behind Abe’s slap down of Obama at the G-7 summit


The shock came early at the Group of Seven summit in Japan with an indelicate choice of words from Shinzo Abe in protesting the rape-murder of an Okinawan woman by a U.S. military contractor. At a joint press conference with President Barack Obama, the Japanese prime minister said with unusual forthrightness: "I feel profound resentment against this self-centered and absolutely despicable crime."

His harsh tone was reminiscent of a drill sergeant dressing-down a downcast rookie at a boot camp. There was political capital to be gained from being offensive in front of the lame-duck president. From a Machiavellian angle, the crime couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment, shifting the onus of an unpopular U.S. military base relocation plan from his own Liberal Democratic Party back onto the White House and Pentagon.

Populist anti-Americanism

Visibly embarrassed, President Barack Obama struggled to keep his composure. In an excessively polite society where evasiveness is the norm, Abe’s blunt accusation conveyed popular stereotypes of Americans as loud, rude and demanding individualists with a clumsy disregard for the Japanese sense of decorum and manners. The gap in cultural characteristics cannot be wider than between the Japanese whose self-restraint is reinforced by the dread of shame and Americans who are fearful only of the risks of being caught breaking the law. In the darker recesses of the Japanese mind, Americans are conniving criminals by nature in dire need of stern training in morality and civility.

The stereotype is primarily based on depictions of U.S. nationals in manga comic books as thuggish gangsters, power-hungry militarists, arrogant diplomats or hen-na gaijin (eccentric foreigners obsessed with Japanese culture). The minority of Japanese who actually have real-world friendships with Americans may know better but rarely if ever speak out in their defense against abusive comments due to the risk of being scoffed at as dupes, apologists and even traitors. Nonetheless every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, and American conduct overseas has not ingratiated them as the most welcome visitors in many foreign countries.

The shocking castigation from, Abe who studied at Stanford and has worked in New York, was obviously a calculated ploy to boost his poll ratings at home as a bold leader who can stand up against Western liberal do-gooders to chart an independent course for Japan. Resentment of an “absolutely despicable crime” can also be perceived as a double entendre in reference to the unforgivable atomic-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With crafty transference of war guilt onto Washington. Abe deftly co-opted the anti-Americanism of opposition leftist parties and pacifists, along with their supporters among liberal historians in the U.S, mouthing platitudes about peace and friendship before Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

By coming to Hiroshima without any intention of apology, the White House played into Abe’s revisionist view of the Pacific War:

  • by enabling the prime minister to dodge a reciprocal visit to Pearl Harbor, thus preserving intact his revanchist view of the global conflict as a Japanese campaign to liberate Asian and other oppressed peoples from the unequal treaties and racial discrimination imposed by Western colonialism; and
  • providing justification for resumption of Japan’s quiet policy of “deterrence”, a code word for its covert nuclear-weapons program, which was setback by the Fukushima disaster.

Rising Nationalism

Abe’s tirade, which reinforces nationalism across the political spectrum to his party’s great advantage, undoubtedly brought deep satisfaction to his supporters in the revanchist movement called Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference). The rightist bloc ideologically dominates the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (LDP) and is gaining momentum in the Diet for removal of the postwar Constitution’s Article 9, which forbids war-making as an instrument of state policy.

For all his bluster and grand-standing, Abe is not a one-dimensional radical rightist with a bullhorn and rising-sun headband. Prior to his political career, he was a managerial technocrat at Kobe Steel and then worked at the Japanese trade office in New York. His twin idols are the samurai revolutionist Yoshida Shoin and his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served at the wartime Munitions ministry. During the era of unfair treaties under a weak shogunate in the first half of the 19th century, Yoshida advocated a campaign of repelling the foreign powers by importing their weapons technology. In both terms as prime minister, Abe followed the Yoshida strategy by secretly lobbying the Bush and Obama administrations to transfer dual-use nuclear technologies to Japan for production of warheads.

In contrast to Abe, the radical rightists, who are influenced by the legacy of nationalist writer Yukio Mishima, put greater stress on Shintoist spiritual values and the warrior code of bushido than on advanced weaponry. If anything, right-wingers disdain Americans as spineless cowards for dropping the atomic bombs rather than affirming their principles by sacrificing their own lives in battle. In interviews for my former newspaper, rightist spokesmen expressed their uneasy distrust of the mainline conservatives including the late Yasuhiro Nakasone, Kishi and Abe for being supplicants to American military strength and financial power.

Sovereignty issues at Ise

The conservative prime minister is therefore vulnerable to not-so subtle pressures from the right wing of Nippon Kaigi and its coterie of military officers. One of the proofs of loyalty demanded by the right is worship at Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the war dead including defendants convicted by the Tokyo war-crimes tribunal. Yasukuni is not an ancient site but was founded in 1869 to honor the radical nationalists who fought on the side of the Meiji Restoration against the Western-awed shogunate.

The Grand Shrine at Ise, dedicated to patron goddess of the Imperial family, has even greater symbolic significance than Yasukuni for the rightist movement as the font of national sovereignty vested in the world’s longest continuous royal lineage. Ostensibly a cultural site without political involvements, Ise is in fact identified as the source of divine sanction for the Emperor as a full-fledged monarch aided by his ministers and a docile parliament, as stipulated in the Meiji Constitution that guided modern Japan until 1945.

In contrast, the democratic postwar Constitution, drafted under the supervision of American advisers, transferred sovereignty to the Japanese people, thereby relegating the Emperor to a mere symbol of the populace. While the differences in terminology may seem petty, a return to the older constitutional model as advocated by Nippon Kaigi would result in an executive oligarchy of powerful ministers, acting on the Emperor’s authority, who cannot be overruled by the Diet nor subject to judicial review.

Emperor Akihito has gently indicated his opposition to war in principle and dismay at the rightist drive for constitutional revision. Nippon Kaigi supporters gingerly sidestep the inconvenient incumbent by elevating the imperial line rather the particular individual in that highest role. While an emperor has the prerogative not to act as a supreme authority, as was the case during the ancient practice of powerful retired emperors, his loyal subjects on the right can only hope and pray for a change of heart or a proactive successor. In an era of a divided and weakened parliamentary opposition, the reigning emperor’s stance is of critical importance for Japan’s future direction.

The subtle implications of Ise as a venue were completely lost on G-7 leaders obsessed with monetary policy, who were led around the shrine precincts by their nose-rings like silent oxen to the slaughter. Six of the magnificent seven were kept in blissful ignorance of the fact that millions of humans have died horrifically in war and famine due to these finer points of constitutional law and ecclesiastical protocol. By all appearances and without single word of discord, Shinzo Abe got the rubber stamp for constitutional revision from leaders of presumable Western democracies.

Conflicts in the Bilateral Relationship

Influenced by Pentagon neoconservatives and ahistorical drivel from movie The Last Samurai, Washington accepts the scuttling of Article 9 as a quid pro quo for continuance of Japanese payments “of their share” of costs of U.S. base maintenance in the Far East. The U.S.-Japan security pact, which over six decades has never been invoked for the defense of either national territory, is basically a lease arrangement with the property owner paying the rent, an unequal treaty if ever there was. Temporarily, both sides can maintain the facade of collective defense in the grossly inflaed maritime dispute with China over tiny islets. Beyond that near horizon, however, treaty ties will become strained by widening differences between the national interests of Japan and the U.S.

Military build-up without a war threat

Catch terms such as “equal partnership” and “collective security” are being used to describe the geographical expansion of operations for Japanese “self-defense” forces. In fact these bland terms mean that Washington is knowingly permitting offensive capabilities to be acquired by the Japanese military. The last time such illicit methods were found to be acceptable was in the late 1930s when the Japanese ignored the London Naval Accords with a crash program to build aircraft carriers and submarines. That precedent, of course, led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A potential for another surprise attack is low, even if it is on the bucket list of some unrepentant right wingers as depicted in the Hollywood film Black Rain.Any tensions between the military forces of Japan and the United States will be deflected toward other powers in the Pacific, in line with past U.S.-backed Japanese aggression against Taiwan, Korea, China and Russia. The main stumbling block today is that nations in the Pacific region are far more prepared and better equipped to stop any Japanese military advances.

A quick look at the geopolitics shows that Japan is hemmed in as a military power:

  • On the western front, the close relationship between China and the Korean republics, united by the historical memory of wartime militarism, is a formidable barrier against any replay of Japanese military adventurism.
  • In the north, the lackluster intervention against the Russian Far East in the early 1920s, defeat in the tank battle with Soviet forces at Nomohan, and harsh consequences in Siberia at the end of World War II quell any popular enthusiasm for another northern expedition.
  • The southward drive was stymied by Australia’s rejection of the Japanese bid to build submarines and Canberra’s opting for French co-production. Australia, along with France, is a rugged power in the South Pacific with an indelible memory of war brutality by Japanese forces. The failure of the White House to swing the Australian submarine deal, as promised to Tokyo, was one of the reasons for Abe’s livid words in front of Obama.
  • Southeast Asia is the only potential arena for military expansionism. The regional problem for Japan is, again, the war experience in many ASEAN group nations, which welcome defense cooperation with the distant United States but remain distrustful of long-term Japanese economic domination. The ASEAN nations, with their trade surpluses, can afford their own military expenditures and will not face any foreseeable need for Japanese intervention.
  • And toward the east, the looming factor, which will probably curtail joint naval operations, is the growing isolationist sentiment and support for trade protectionism among the American electorate. Donald Trump’s singling out of Japanese industry as an unfair competitor is due to the lopsided presence of Toyota, Honda and Nissan in the U.S. automobile manufacturing sector. Most Americans do not perceive any tangible benefit from the security treaty and base closure will again become an issue for taxpayers.

Japan’s re-militarization program, therefore, has hit its limits before it even begins, another failure in the wake of Abenomics. The grandiose program to restore Japan as a world power is falling exceedingly short of the mark. The combination of shrinking demographics, economic stagnation and burgeoning public debt are conspiring to reduce Tokyo’s geopolitical influence and strategic capabilities. In response to the rising prestige and economic power of China, ASEAN, Russia and possibly a reunited Korea, the U.S.-Japan security alliance is becoming as useful as a fifth wheel.

The ever-pragmatic Americans, a roguish bunch without principles and no compelling reason for self-sacrifice, will likely revoke its vows with Japan for better business prospects with other nations. The cold-hearted abandonment of a no-longer wanted Japan is an all-too-familar scenario depicted in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, so in tragedy or perhaps as a farce her story will probably be repeated soon.