Is a jingoistic Japan on the rise under Abe? Or is this aging powerhouse no longer dangerous?

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
TOKYO, Japan – It is a delight to be back in Tokyo, one of the cities of my journalistic youth, after an absence of more than five years.

Aside from more glitter and chrome, snazzier neon lights blinking, super electronic displays, faster Shinkansen trains at bullet speeds over 300 kilometers per hour, more JR and subway frequencies – nothing much has changed in the Japanese mentality. Except for some things: there is a growing sentiment that Japan must rearm, revise the American-dictated pacifist constitution of 1946 (a valid thought), and confront growing threats from North Korea – and, sotto voce, China.

The newly-installed Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, the youngest in history and the first to have been born postwar, is the grandson of former "war criminal" Nobosuke Kishi, who, at age 46, was industry and commerce minister in the wartime Cabinet of Premier Hideki Tojo – the man who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Kishi ended the war as assistant minister to Tojo in charge of military production. At the surrender, Kishi was jailed in Sugamo Prison along with the other villains, but released on December 24, 1948, and found "rehabilitation," emerging in 1952 as a founding member of the currently ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a member of the Diet’s House of Representatives.

Soon, Kishi ascended to Prime Minister and became the most diligent global glad-hander, striving to convince everybody – especially the Americans – that a New Japan wanted only peace, friendship and survival.

Abe’s view, expressed often enough, is that grandpa and his bunch did nothing wrong in launching the Pacific War, that in fact the rampaging of the Imperial armies had helped overthrow white man’s colonialism and give impetus to nationalist revolutions, and all that jazz. Handsome, suave, and articulate Abe, however, seems to have two faces – I won’t say he speaks from two sides of the mouth.

I first arrived in Tokyo as a cheeky newspaperman, based in Maronouchi, at the tail-end of grand-daddy Kishi’s successful reign. In those days, in coffee shops and private clubs (just off the Ginza) the Japanese used to say of Kishi – "sotsu ga nai". Thus they themselves passed judgment on him as a man who had an answer for everything – in short, an unflattering comment that he had no principles but reacted to the cynical pragmatism of the moment. I trust that Mr. Abe has not inherited too many of Mr. Kishi’s genes – but sometimes, alas, he sounds a bit like him. He rightly defends the prerogative of Japanese to visit and pray at the Yasukuni Shrine in which are interred over three million of Japan’s war dead in all its past wars. The trouble is that enshrined there are also the ashes and symbolic honors of 14 certified "Class A" war criminals, including Tojo himself. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s very public official visits to Yasukuni outraged the Chinese and Koreans who had suffered greatly under the bootheel of the Japanese. Last month, when Mr. Abe visited Beijing for his first meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao, he issued the vague statement that "I will not say whether I will visit Yasukuni Shrine because this has become a diplomatic and political issue."

Abe-sensei! Is this back-pedaling or sotsu ga nai? Abe told a recent news conference that while Japan’s alliance with the United States must remain pivotal to its foreign policy, he would pursue "dynamic diplomacy" with regard to South Korea and China. Namamangka sa dalawang (even tatlong) ilog, as our old folks would say.
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Frankly, I see nothing wrong with Japanese officials praying at the Yasukuni, after all it venerates their war dead, but memories of a bullying Japan are still vivid in several countries – although in our generous Filipino way we obviously have forgiven them the 100,000 men, women, children and babies they tortured, slaughtered or burned to death in the February battle for the Liberation of Manila in 1945, or the one million Filipinos who were slain or died of starvation during their more than three years of harsh military occupation. (Since our population was about 17 million at the time, don’t you think the loss of 1.1 million was significant?)

In any event, we must keep a wary eye on a resurgent Japan. We welcome Japan’s regeneration of spirit since no nation can be on its knees, murmuring gomen nasai, over 60 years after the war – but are painfully conscious of the super-patriotism being manifested.

A contentious bill which aims to instill patriotism in the minds of children and which some Japanese critics themselves warn carries echoes of pre-war militarism was rammed through the Lower House of Parliament Thursday last week.

There’s nothing wrong with teaching "love of one’s country", which is the first proposed revision to the Fundamental Law of Education since 1947. The LDP and its allies in the New Komeito Party simply outvoted those who called for a delay for more discussion and debate, to send this measure to the House of Councillors, the upper chamber. The ruling coalition hopes to get that measure enacted into law before the Diet Session adjourns on December 15. The Kimigayo of fealty to Emperor to the death may be in fashion again, and the Hinomaru, the national flag wave bravely once again in the forefront of the forward march of a resurgent military machine, the critics complain.

Once more, this writer sees nothing very much amiss in that – but a caveat. There is a dark side to the Japanese character – which outsiders perceive today, whenever they arrive in Japan as courteous, scrupulously polite, helpful and friendly to foreigners. You bet, this is what’s so charming about the Japanese. Yet, that other side of nice Dr. Jeckyll, a hideous Mr. Hyde lurks in the psyche. This is manifested in the bullying in elementary and high schools which drives young students who are victimized to suicide.

You also encounter it in the streets, or aboard the subway late at night, when sararimen and assorted males wend their way home or to other entertainment spots from their usual bout of hard drinking with associates – even sometimes the boss himself. After many swigs in the shotu ba or the beer emporia, or sochu and sake nooks, the drunken boors push their way through the avenues and into subway trains in a manner reminiscent of the wartime Kempetei and the sadistic, head-shaven heitai at their worst.

It gives one the impression that inside every polite Japanese is concealed the character of the bakuto and the rude, overbearing male who gropes women, ravishes them, and loves to kick others around – provided, of course, that they are backed up by a bunch of their equally alcohol-fueled peers.

Japan, too, which is fast recovering from the recession which inflicted her when the bubble burst in 1991 is being plagued increasingly by what they used to call the "black mist" of corruption. Governors who came into office as reforming governors are now being caught with their own sticky hands in the cookie jar. One example is Wakayama Gov. Yoshiki Kimura who was arrested Wednesday last week in a bid-rigging scandal involving a corrupt connection between local officials and construction companies seeking public works contracts.

Investigators at the Osaka District Prosecutors’ Office suspect Kimura of direct involvement in which a consortium of favored companies won the contract for a prefectural sewerage project in November 2004 – a multi-billion yen scam. Kimura was the fifth governor of the prefecture in the postwar period. Two of the five governors served five four-year terms for a total of 20 years in office. Kimura won office, overturning the longtime rule of his predecessor by vowing bidding reforms. Guess he didn’t mean what he promised – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Even Tokyo’s acerbic-tongued Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who’s preened himself as a super-nationalist, didn’t hew to the straight and narrow. He’s now being dunned for padding his travel and other leisure expenses by immense sums. Is there anything new under the sun? Not even under the Rising Sun.
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Yet, Japan works. There used to be that saying that New York is "the city that never sleeps." It is Tokyo which never sleeps, long after those lullaby’s of Broadway have subsided. Whether it’s for fun or overtime, the 12 million hurrying Tokyoites are constantly on the go. So are the more than 30 million persons who live a packed existence (800 to a square mile) within a 30-mile radius of the capital.

Tokyo, like Rome, has its catacombs. While in Rome the underground caves and tunnels house only the Christian and other more ancient dead, Tokyo’s extensive underground cities hold grand department stores, scores of thousands of shops and food outlets, and hundreds of kilometers of track along which whiz nine underground train systems operated by Japan Railways (JR) or interlinked subway networks.

The coaches which whiz along are laden with blue-suited worker ants and either O.L.’s (office ladies) or party-going girls. Almost 20 million passengers are ferried to work, school, or play by about 29,000 trains. Four different Japan Railways commuter lines including the loop line (the pea-green Yamanote which meanders all over the city), plus three private lines converge on Shinjuku. Trains zip in from the "bedroom towns" to the north and west of the capital, then suck them up again for the return journey. The last train of the day pulls out of Shinjuku or Tokyo station at 12:56 a.m. and the first train of the new day pulls in at 4:30 a.m.

This is the Japan which everybody must respect, even fear since its once demoralized citizens (though aging fast) seem to have recovered their stride – even their swagger. The super-machine of Japan Incorporated is rolling again. In a wink it could be converted into a military machine.

Think of that. Those 127 million Japanese are on the march.

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