[VIEWPOINT]Japan's Ultraright: Voices From the Past

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[VIEWPOINT]Japan's Ultraright: Voices From the Past

Is East Asian history moving in reverse? Over the last few years, people the world over have been predicting the decline of the nation state in international politics. But Japan appears to be intent on reinforcing its nationhood by embracing ultranationalism - with a skewed history textbook and a proposed visit by the prime minister to a shrine to Japan's war dead - and initiating diplomatic tensions with other countries. What conditions have given rise to this phenomenon? How should we counter it?

The United States, a victor in World War II, made every effort to root out Japanese militarism by dismantling conglomerates, establishing labor unions, implementing national land reforms and punishing war criminals - at least, in the early stages of its military administration of Japan.

However, at the end of 1940s, contrary to U.S. expectations, the global political structure began being reshaped by the emerging Cold War. The core of U.S. policy in Japan veered toward establishing a bridgehead against Communism by supporting the political stability and economic growth of Japan. As a result, the U.S. military governance did not succeed in fully ridding Japanese politics of all the officials of imperialism. Many of those with administrative abilities later emerged as key politicians.

Shigeru Yoshida, a former high-ranking official arrested for war crimes, went on to lead the main group of conservatives and served as prime minister five times. Nobuske Kishi, a key architect of Japanese colonial policy, who was also arrested for war crimes, also later returned to the political stage, serving as prime minister and leading another conservative group.

The conservative politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics over the last half-century, inherited some of the ideas of Yoshida and Kishi. In Japan, unlike in Germany where war crimes were comprehensively punished, there was no definitive divide imposed between the pre-war and post-war generations.

In the Cold War era, the Japanese were careful not to reveal this residue of pre-war thinking, but it leaked in occasional, controversial slips of the tongue. Now we have an environment in which the inner workings of some Japanese political minds can be fully revealed. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and Cold War tensions are ebbing. Though the United States continues to engage in East Asia, it wishes to reduce its commitments here and replace some of them with renewed Japanese military power. That is why high-ranking U.S. officials want Japan to amend its constitution, which allows only home defense forces. As relations between the world's biggest economic powers become more equal, Japan's radius of independent action is broadening. Surely the last decade of economic recession and lack of reformative leadership are other reasons for the current Japanese tendency toward ultranationalism.

Falling leaves mean autumn is approaching. The surge in Japanese ultranationalism portends multi-polarization and instability in East Asia.

It is very important that Korea's voice is heard in Japan. A distorted Japanese view of history is not compatible with peace in East Asia. It is also important for Korea to ally with conscientious people in Japan, and to isolate the ultrarightists and check the tendencies of the Japanese government with the force of international opinion. In these matters Korea needs U.S. cooperation. If an enlarged Japanese military role is a must, it must go hand in hand with Japan's honest coming-to-terms with the past and a vision of what its role will be in the context of U.S.-East Asian strategy.

Korea's first step against the new political order of the post-Cold War era in East Asia must be dismantling the Cold War structure between North and South Korea. Working towards a national economic community will counteract the growing influence of the four powers on the peninsula.


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The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

by Yoon Young-Kwan

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