Japan’s paradoxical neighbourhoods - Page 4
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Tony Barrell (dec.)
WITH FOREIGN NEIGHBOURS IT IS DIFFERENT. Like Britain, Japan is a cluster of large and small islands offshore from a continent about which its peoples have always been ambivalent, introverted or aggressive. By the end of the sixteenth century Britain had given up its territorial claims on the mainland of Europe, but Japan was just starting on its quest to claim the Asian mainland.
In the 1590s, a decade after the Spanish Armada foundered in its plan to subjugate England, two attempts were made to invade Korea, as a way of getting into China. Huge numbers of Japanese ships were sunk by Korea's unique ‘turtle' ships and Chinese troops came to Korea's aid. More than a hundred thousand Japanese troops never came home, and the sacrifice of national honour and prestige was traumatic. That old war is every bit as unpopular in Japan's neighbourhood now as is the ‘Great East Asian War' of the 1930s and 40s.
Three decades after the Tokugawa family seized power in 1600, the Japanese were discouraged from commercial engagement with their neighbours – at home and abroad. Throughout two hundred and fifty years of feudal isolation, villagers paid homage and taxes to the samurai lords who ruled the regions, and they decided whether or not people could move freely around the country. Without written permission nobody could leave their neighbourhood. This goes a long way to explain how Japan's treasured regional variations – food, craft, art, folklore, rice varieties – became so distinctive, and why travel created an interest in stories, poetry, novels and artworks which revealed the nation to be a patchwork of internal exotica.
The Japanese merchant class eventually tired of the stagnant economy that came with isolation, and saw the arrival of the Americans in 1853, with an ultimatum that Japan must open its ports to traders, as an opportunity to remove the backward-looking clans, and create industries powered by a new generation of factory workers. A brief civil war ended the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, and a modern European political system was established, with a link to the ancient authority systems rooted in the villages and their shrines.
Emperor Meiji, aged fifteen, was taken from the seclusion of the old Imperial neighbourhood, Kyoto, in a grand parade along the tokaido, to the newly renamed Tokyo and, once installed, came to personify the modern age of progressive authoritarianism, much in the same way, and at the same time, as Japan's future Axis allies, German and Italy were created in Europe. Young Meiji was the figurehead for the political and economic program which created Japan the nation. In Germany it was Kaiser Wilhelm I, in Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.
People who had been confined to their rural neighbourhoods for generations were now told they could find jobs in the city or join the armed forces. It was the beginning of Japan's rural depopulation. Those who died fighting in national wars (starting with the civil war) were given a new ‘spiritual home' – the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. Close to the emperor's fort, Yasukuni was to replace the local neighbourhood and family shrines which had been dedicated to fathers or sons lost in clan warfare. Yasukuni is now home to the spirits of 2.46 million individuals, including the convicted and executed war criminals led by General Tojo Hideki, who planned the Great East Asian War. When Koizumi went to Yasukuni in 2005, a Chinese newspaper said it was ‘like someone knowingly eating rat shit'.
The war resumed the interrupted quest to unite Japan with its international neighbourhood, and submit it to rule from Tokyo, beneath the benevolent watch of the emperor – ‘coeval under heaven', as the Imperial proclamation put it. However, the Imperial project was problematic for most Japanese, who still lived in small towns and villages, and retained a neighbourhood mentality which could only really be charged with war enthusiasm by continuous exhortations that they put their lives at the service of His Holiness the Emperor whose very existence was threatened by backward foreigners, especially the Chinese.
A brief war with China annexed Taiwan in 1894; in 1905 Russia's navy was destroyed and the ‘rights' to position troops permanently on the mainland acquired. In 1910 Korea became ‘part of Japan'. Acts of aggression by Japan's forces were always portrayed at home as a response to provocation. In 1931 it was deemed ‘necessary' to seize Manchuria and the Kwantung army was forever chasing bandits, guerrillas and coup plotters across borders. China was occupied and Indo-China invaded. Even Pearl Harbor was a pre-emptive strike to stop the USA thwarting the assault on the Philippines. And so it went, as land, sea and air forces moved all the way south to New Guinea, dramatically and swiftly expanding Japan's neighbourhood beyond a range it was possible to sustain.
In more recent years the LDP leadership has been trying to assert Japan's right to be a ‘normal' nation that should be able to deploy its forces in ways not limited by a ‘peace constitution'. Koizumi's great project: his visits to Yasukuni and his assertions that Japanese troops should be allowed to bear arms in multi-lateral peace keeping forces were popular while he was.
Gavan McCormack suggests in his new book Client State (Verso, 2007) that, far from striking out on their own in a new expansionist plan, Japan's hawkish leaders have aligned the country more tightly with US foreign policy and, as with Australia, there is little chance of Japan ever trying to achieve strategic military goals in the neighbourhood without close consultation with and approval from Washington. The project begun by Nakasone Yasuhiro in the 1980s, to make Japan an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier' in the service of the (then) anti-communist alliance, may have been completed. It looks as if this policy is no more popular at home than it is in the neighbourhood. Mainly because he tried to push through an agreement which allowed Japanese oil tankers to refuel US warships in international waters, Koizumi's successor Shinzo Abe was forced to resign in September 2007. It remains to be seen which China and Japan's other neighbours fear most: a resurgent nationalist Japan eager to retake old territory, or a tighter strategic relationship with the USA.
Meanwhile, at home – which is where most Japanese prefer to be – the paradox remains: if the village neighbourhood disappears and they are no longer Japanese, what would they be fighting for? ♦