Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1991


Last in a series on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath


Could it Happen Again?                                                                                                              Pacifism Has Taken Root, But Japanese Sometimes Transmit Disturbing Signals. As Pearl Harbor Stirs Emotions, Many Ask Whether They Might Ever Again Take the Path to War

 TOKYO — Here, by a grove of cherry trees whose thick, dark canopy trembles with a flock of brilliantly white doves, stands the altar of Japanese militarism. The spirits of foot soldiers and generals, cannon fodder and war criminals are enshrined as deities in this place and rest eternally, without judgment, blame or sin.

At Yasukuni Jinja, the “Shrine of the Nation at Peace,” stoop-backed widows pray for the repose of their husbands who fell in Manchuria. White-haired veterans grieve for comrades lost to unbelievable carnage on Pacific islands. Political leaders come, too, making bold nationalist statements—without uttering a word.

Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the brilliant naval strategist who planned Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 50 years ago today, is part of the pantheon of Yasukuni gods. So is Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister during Japan’s maniacal war of aggression against the United States and Asia.

Half a century after the attack on Pearl Harbor triggered America’s entry into World War II, Japan shows no overt signs of going down the dark path to militarism again. Its people are peace-loving, well-educated and affluent—presumably no longer susceptible to the kind of mass delusions and emperor-worship that supported the jingoistic fervor of 1941.

Stunning postwar economic success would seem to eliminate the need for military adventure. Strategic overseas investments and trade ties now provide security in oil imports and food supplies. Genuine prosperity is bonding Asia, not marauding troops.

But as Yasukuni illustrates, Japan still transmits ambivalent and sometimes disturbing signals to the watching world, arousing suspicion where perhaps there need be none.

And that is why today, with the Pearl Harbor commemoration stirring emotions across America, an ordinarily unthinkable question arises: Could it happen again?

Could a testy U.S.-Japan economic relationship deteriorate so badly in the future, and common strategic interests diverge so radically, that the postwar allies would once again come to blows?

Consider the throngs of ordinary people who crowd the Yasukuni shrine on weekends and holidays, knowing full well it is spooked by the ornery spirits of the militarists. Or the columns of Cabinet ministers and ruling Liberal Democratic Party leaders who file through to pay homage to the war dead every Aug. 15 -- the anniversary of Japan’s surrender—knowing they will provoke outraged protests from Asian neighbors as well as Japanese pacifists.

The outside world cannot understand what is truly in the minds of Yasukuni worshipers, both ordinary folk and policy-makers. Nor can it gauge the importance of the right-wing forces that survive in contemporary Japan and are pointedly unapologetic about the aggression that caused the war.

Likewise, many Asian and some American victims of World War II remain unforgiving, and deeply suspicious about Japan’s rising global economic clout. Behind the economic challenge, they fear, lurk hidden intentions.

Revisionist Line

So it is that the long-running debate on Japanese “revanchism”—a revengeful spirit that moves a defeated nation toward rearmament and renewed aggression—comes to the fore.

Tetsuo Nojima, 72, a regular at Yasukuni who saw action in Burma, parrots a revisionist line on history that is gaining currency:

“Most people I know believe we fought a justifiable war to liberate Asia. . . . It certainly was not a war of invasion or aggression,” said Nojima, among the gang of white-capped veterans who sold Yasukuni calendars and rightist literature on a recent Sunday, lining the pebble path by the shrine’s towering torii gate. “We have nothing to apologize for.”

Shintaro Ishihara, a member of Parliament notorious for his right-wing polemics, denies that the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) ever took place. Historians say as many as 100,000 Chinese civilians were massacred by Japanese soldiers in that incident.

Such views are bound to grate on Americans. But do they portend another collision in the Pacific?

The scenario for belligerency is far-fetched. The two countries are committed to and bound by a mutual defense and security treaty, which is designed to make them long-term partners in stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the tragedy of the last war instilled a deep loathing of the military in most Japanese and spawned a postwar ethos of pacifism.

“All Japanese, with the exception of a few insane right-wingers, know our relationship with the United States is essential for our survival,” said Masamichi Inoki, chairman of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. “Military conflict between our two countries is unthinkable.”

Still, the vengeful spirit was once fearful enough that the U.S. occupation clipped Japan’s wings, imposing a war-renouncing constitution. And in an arrangement without precedent in modern history, a vestigial U.S. occupation army has remained in Japan, with part of its mission to play a restraining role on Japanese militarism -- 46 years later. A 1990 Pentagon report identifies a major strategic aim of American troops in Japan: “Discouraging and destabilizing development of a power projection capability.”

Maj. Gen. Henry C. Stackpole, a top Marine Corps officer in Okinawa, put it more bluntly: “No one wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan,” he told the Washington Post last year. “So, we are a cap in the bottle, if you will.”

Military Ghosts

External safeguards have been effective so far, but they also imply a lack of political will on the part of Japan to impose its own internal constraints. The message is that postwar democracy has not matured to the point where civilian control of the military can be guaranteed.

“If the American cork is pulled out, it seems to me that the cover of hell will be lifted,” said Inoki, the venerable security scholar. “All of Japan’s military ghosts will spring out.”

Japanese can be their own harshest critics. They fret about the downside of their “unique” national character, about the bending of their peace constitution, about right-wing intimidation of free speech, the viability of their political opposition and the depth of their commitment to pacifism.

The unsettling paradox of Japan’s “nuclear allergy,” for example, suggests that one of the most passionate checks on rearmament— the agony of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—may have an uncertain future.

Japan is the world’s first and only country to face the tragedy of atomic warfare, yet it is now preparing to stockpile large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium—purportedly to resolve its dependence on imported energy resources. Anti-nuclear activists say the government’s ambitious plutonium-breeding program makes little economic sense.

Could Japan consider a nuclear deterrent option? The military did have a top-secret program to develop an atomic bomb during World War II, but it failed to get far because of poor organization and an inadequate uranium supply. Suspicious U.S. occupation authorities destroyed the country’s five cyclotrons, temporarily crippling the academic community’s efforts at developing atoms for peace.

As early as 1972, however, nuclear phobia was wavering. In a government poll that year, four in five respondents said nuclear weapons are undesirable, but a slim majority believed Japan would have them in the future.

Japan nominally became a nuclear-free zone after Parliament promulgated the “three non-nuclear principles,” banning production, possession or entry of nuclear arms. But it is an open secret that the U.S. military has routinely violated the last rule, with impunity.

Japan now has the technical prowess to develop nuclear weapons in as little as six months, analysts say. Its defense industry already has capabilities in sophisticated missile technology, and Japanese scientists are building a homemade rocket, capable—if its engine stops blowing up in tests—of launching satellites or warheads.

North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons program, in one scenario, could provide the impetus for change.

“If the North Koreans and the Chinese and the Soviets all had nuclear weapons in this region, there will be voices in Japan insisting that we must have them too,” said Seiki Nishihiro, who retired last year as administrative vice minister—the most powerful career bureaucrat—at the Japan Defense Agency.

“Popular resistance to nuclear weapons could easily flip in reverse if Japan were surrounded,” Nishihiro said. “That’s a very worrisome prospect.”

Volatile Opinion

Despite postwar advances in democracy, education and free speech, the volatility of popular opinion suggests danger to some social critics.

As Emperor Hirohito lay dying in late 1988, for example, the nation fell into a trance of “self-restraint,” canceling weddings and festivals and arousing uncomfortable memories of prewar mind control.

Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima dared to speak out—on Pearl Harbor Day, 1988 -- saying the emperor bore responsibility for the war. He was inundated by right-wing threats; an ultra-nationalist gunman shot and nearly killed him in early 1990.

While such right-wing political terrorism does not pose the threat to society it did in the 1930s, when government by assassination was common, it continues to cast a chill on open debate. The extremists lack credibility now, but a rise in their fortunes cannot be ruled out.

Yukio Okamoto, a former Foreign Ministry official who became a consultant this year after heading the North America political desk, pushed hard while in office for Japan to take greater responsibility in the Gulf War by sending personnel, as well as cash.

But Okamoto confessed bewilderment at the brittle nature of public opinion he wanted to change. Polls showed only 30% of the Japanese supported sending navy minesweepers to the Gulf in October; support jumped to 70% after only six months of debate.

“The Gulf War was a turning point for Japan, but I think the pendulum may have swung too fast,” Okamoto said. “Japanese are conformists, and a fad can sweep the country very easily. I worry now that the change in public perception was too drastic.”

Chie Nakane, an anthropologist, once eloquently described her concerns about blind conformism in an interview published in Foreign Policy magazine:

“We Japanese have no principles. Some people think we hide our intentions, but we have no intentions to hide. Except for some few leftists or rightists, we have no dogma and don’t ourselves know where we are going. This is a risky situation, for if someone is able to mobilize the population in a certain direction, we have no checking mechanism. . . .”

A comical, if somewhat disconcerting, example of this tendency is illustrated in the recent rise of the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, an ultranationalist cult centering on a chubby, blue-suited messiah named Ryuho Okawa. Spiritual practice focuses on intense rounds of test-taking, mimicking the rigors of Japan’s “examination hell” educational system. About 200,000 members are reportedly active in Okawa’s cult.

Military Museum

At Yasukuni Shrine, a visit to the military museum out back offers a glimpse of the kind of hero worship that many younger Japanese would find absurd. But the museum halls do not ring with laughter.

Go through the rotunda past the Zero fighter, the one-man “human torpedo” submarine and the “Cherry Blossom” suicide bomber, and enter Exhibition Room No. 9. This space is devoted to the Special Attack Forces—the approximately 6,000 young pilots and sailors who blew themselves up with their bombs in futile attacks on the American fleet.

A plaque dedicating the room—dated exactly on the 44th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor—says it all:

“The suicide operations, incomparable in their tragic bravery, struck terror into their foes and engulfed the entire country in tears of gratitude for their unstinting loyalty and selfless sacrifice. . . . The devotion of the Special Attack Forces will remain forever in the hearts of the Japanese as an expression of patriotism in its noblest and purest form, while at the same time leaving an indelible impression among the peoples of the world.”

A man in a charcoal-gray business suit, who gazed intently at the uniforms and diaries of the doomed servicemen, was asked whether he thought the suicide bombings were acts of nobility or folly.

“I believe the Special Attack Forces are a kind of heroic inspiration, even if the war shouldn’t have happened,” said Akihiko Kazama, 36, who first identified himself as a “civil servant,” then confided that he was a 12-year veteran in the Ground Self-Defense Forces—

Japan’s euphemistic name for its army.

At the same time, the professional soldier said he is opposed to breaking with tradition to send Self-Defense Forces overseas, even to participate in peacekeeping operations under the U.N. flag, a controversial proposal dating from the Gulf War and now up for approval in Parliament.

Kazama is a believer in the safety of the status quo. “The Self-Defense Forces should remain the way they are, quiet and low-key,” he said. “Our job is to stay home and defend Japan.”

The Self-Defense Forces, or SDF, has ironically grown into one of the largest militaries in the world, despite constitutional limits. It expanded because the United States, in a policy of grooming an effective ally to help contain Communist expansionism in the Far East, pushed Japan to rearm.

The letter of the law forbids anything resembling a military:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” reads Article 9 of the constitution.

“In order to accomplish this aim, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” it says. “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

In its 1991 Defense White Paper, an annual document on security policy, the Defense Agency reiterates the argument that the constitution “does not deny the inherent right of self-defense” and that the current levels of force represent the “minimum necessary” for that objective.

Defense Budget

Indeed, Japan’s defense budget is capped by Parliament at 1% of the gross national product, but even that is no modest sum for the world’s second-largest economy. Depending on exchange rates and whether military pensions are counted, military spending ranks somewhere between No. 3 and No. 6 in the world—in the neighborhood of Britain, France and Germany.

With a basic defense budget of $34 billion this fiscal year, Japan’s army, navy and air force have 234,000 men and women in arms, 1,210 tanks, 319,000 metric tons of warships—including more destroyers than Britain—and 1,153 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

“The Japanese military is pretty potent—it’s perhaps the most underrated military in the world,” said Marcus Corbin, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “In terms of hardware and forces, they are big and they are good.”

But despite the size and relative wealth of the military, it is years away from being able to project power far from its shores. It has no aircraft carriers or long-range bombers, and no plans to obtain them. Some analysts contend that the Self-Defense Forces could not defend Japan against invasion without firepower from the 46,000 U.S. troops stationed here.

Parliament keeps a tight grasp on the purse strings, and long gone are the pre-surrender days when military leaders had constitutional veto power over cabinets that allowed them to seize the prime minister’s post and steer the ship of state.

If the role of the military does expand in the future, it’s unlikely to be caused by a putsch from within its ranks. It is leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party, under mounting U.S. pressure, who want to use their military—at least noncombat troops—as an instrument of a more active foreign policy.

Following a brawl in committee debate, the ruling party Tuesday rammed a bill though the lower house of Parliament that would create the new peacekeeping force. The bill was sent to the upper house for its approval.

The army chief of staff publicly criticized the LDP’s aggressive tactics. A visit to the Japan Defense Academy in Yokosuka, near the major U.S. nval base at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, underscores the tameness of the military.

It is a low-slung, modest campus, in need of a coat of paint. In the gymnasium on a recent afternoon, cadets practiced kendo—a martial art akin to fencing—attacking each other ferociously with wooden swords and releasing blood-curdling screams worthy of real samurai.

Kendo is for sport, though, and in the classrooms these students are much like “any other college kids,” says Masashi Nishihara, a professor at the academy.

In fact, as many as 90 of the 450 cadets who graduated in April refused their commissions and sought lucrative jobs in the private sector, as they are allowed to do under lenient government rules, Nishihara said.

That reflects a general problem of recruitment—the Self-Defense Forces cannot attract young Japanese, and its legal allocation for lower-ranking ground troops is only 65% filled. Would-be soldiers are marching for industry, which pays better and offers a softer life.

The Defense Academy’s soaring dropout rate also reflects “bad morale,” Nishihara said. Cadets were alienated by former Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu’s inept handling of Japan’s response to the Persian Gulf crisis, he said. Kaifu’s confused rhetoric on sending troops abroad at that time prompted a lot of doubts about the SDF’s mission.

Nishihara said he conducted a straw poll in one of his seminars: About a third of the students said they would go to the Persian Gulf “if ordered.” But another third challenged the idea, saying the SDF’s mission should be limited to defending Japan. The remaining third did not voice an opinion.

“The officers here never dreamed they might have to go to the Middle East. They aren’t trained for that,” Nishihara said. “Maybe the indoctrination of our so-called pacifist constitution has been pretty effective.”