Contradictions of a client state

13 September 2007
Shinzo Abe has resigned as PM, but the country still has to work out how to reconcile subordination to the US with nationalist sentiment.
So the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has resigned after a "string of damaging scandals" for his government and a "humiliating electoral defeat" in the July elections, say the wires today. Both explanations are true but they don't go to the heart of Japan's predicament. The clue lies in the immediate issue which, according to Abe himself, has provoked his resignation: he is quitting "to pave the way for ruling and opposition parties to work together to approve the extension of Tokyo's naval mission in support of the US-led operation in Afghanistan." Abe himself blamed scandals over some of his ministers' remarks and over political funding and pension records for his defeat in the Upper House elections, where his Liberal Democratic party lost control for the first time. He promised that he would "boldly examine" the constitutional system in place ever since the end of the war, and deliver "a fresh start on the creation of a beautiful and new country". But the key to his problem - which has essentially been Japan's problem for 50 years - is how to reconcile subordination of the Japanese state to the US with nationalist sentiment and pretensions. To quote Professor Gavan McCormack in the latest issue of Japan Focus: "Since he replaced Koizumi in September 2006, Abe has been torn between his desire to serve and to please Washington on the one hand and his nationalist pretensions on the other. The greater his efforts to meet American demands, the more he stresses the beauty and integrity of Japanese history and tradition and calls for a break with the American-inspired postwar system, and the more in turn that irritates the US. The contradictions of the postwar state are not new, but in the post-cold war context they surface in plain view like a giant iceberg." The latest example of this is Abe's attempt to force Okinawa - where he was heavily defeated in the elections - to accept the building of a new military complex for US forces. McCormack's argument is set out fully in his new book Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (Verso), where he characterises Japan as the "schizophrenic state". It is one shared by serious scholars of Japan's history such as Chalmers Johnson (Japan Policy Research Institute), Bruce Cumings (University of Chicago) and Glenn Hook (University of Sheffield). When we look at east Asia today, we readily identify Taiwan and North Korea as the two salient problems left over from the postwar and cold war eras, and both potential causes of regional disturbance and danger. China is often cast, in spite of its post-Mao transformation and economic dynamism, as a possible source of future instability. We have just as much reason to include Japan which still has to resolve the legacy of its past - a retarded political system, a dependent relationship and frustrated neo-nationalism.