Japan’s neo-imperialists

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Japan’s neo-imperialists

There is a contrite and penitent network in Japan. It was identified by Japanese political scientist Masao Maruyama in 1967. It is a group of intelligentsia who live with a sense of guilt for failing to stop Japan from going to war. They feel personal responsibility for not preventing the country from making that mistake. It is a kind of emotional pact among Japanese intellectuals enlightened with democratic spirit.

There is another group also immersed in regret about the past. But they regret in exactly the opposite way of the first group. They are ashamed about losing the war and angry that Japan was stigmatized as a nation of war criminals in an international tribunal.

They hide rage in their heart, humiliation for their defeat, and live in resentment and self-delusion that they can restore the country’s dignity. They are Japan’s extreme rightists. The Japanese politicians ranting and lashing at Korea come from the rightist league.

They do not really remember imperialist Japan. Their prewar ancestors were scrupulous in designing and constructing a theory of military imperialism and expansionism.

Yamagata Aritomo, the field marshal in the imperial Japanese Army who was dubbed the architect of prewar Japanese military-political complex, adopted prescriptions from Prussian scholar Lorenz von Stein to protect the country and at the same time earn respect from Western powers.

In his inauguration speech as prime minister in 1890, Yamagata argued, “There are two ways to secure national independence and defense. The first is to protect sovereignty and the second the line of interest.

“The line of sovereignty means the nation’s borders and the line of interest includes the area closely related to the safety of the line of sovereignty. To maintain our independence against the Western powers, defending the line of sovereignty is not enough. We need to protect our line of interest as well.”

The “line of interest” referred to Korea across the sea. Japan needed Korea for material and strategic interests.

When the Japanese Army first marched into Manchuria in 1931, few imagined Japan’s grand ambitions for China and its hegemony in the Far East. Lt. Col. Kanji Ishiwara argued for the Manchuria campaign, saying it was necessary to liberate and bring happiness to the Chinese people. Japanese militarists were that self-righteous, believing that what they were doing was helping free the Asian people from Western powers.

But the Japanese could not hide their real intentions for long. The Japanese people and media went into a collective hallucination and frenzy over a succession of victorious battles and invasions and the idea of standing equal to Western powers by dominating nations around it. When Japanese won Qingdao in China, which had been occupied by Germany, the Asahi Shimbun’s headline in its Tokyo edition on Nov. 8, 1914 read, “Can Die Of Exhilaration.”

What twisted people describe the seizure of another nation’s land as a blissful delight? The media snubbed any diplomatic civility and unilaterally declared sovereignty over Qingdao regardless of Chinese and international opinion. We can guess what kind of insanity gripped Japan at the time.

After the invasion of Manchuria, the Japanese would joke about moving to the northern tip of China. They thought the mass of land in northern China would provide new opportunities for the hard-living Japanese.

Many actually moved there in pursuit of gold, an escape from poverty, and to chase their dreams. The Japanese immigrants turned the land into their own without awareness that their actions were at the expense of other people’s home and dreams.

Avid right-wing proponents fanned ultranationalism, urging the Japanese military to take on the United States. Okawa Shumei argued that the rising sun on Japan’s flag was destined to eclipse the U.S. Stars and Stripes.

It was bizarre propaganda, but pleasing to the public ear. Such collective and mob sensationalism amounted to bottom-up imperialism. It cannot be forgiven and forgotten merely through punishment of war criminals. The masses played their role, too.

But unfortunately, there are still many Japanese who live in the delusion that they are war victims. The rightists jump whenever they can to ignite nationalism. They argue that regrets and remorse are self-destructive. How are they any different from the militarists of a century ago?

But we should not be entirely dismayed. Today’s Japan is surprisingly vibrant, diverse and sensible. The rightist voice dominates the media, but it is a small part of Japan. They are many who do not care about claiming sovereignty over Takeshima, or Korea’s Dokdo islets, and are ashamed about their ancestors’ cruelties in forcing Asian women into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war.

We hang on to the hope of a conscience in these sensible and diverse Japanese people that will restore a better sense to the nation.

* The author is the political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Yoon-ho

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