National Colors

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Nearly every day, a bizarre brand of political theater unfolds on the streets of Tokyo. Buses painted with the Rising Sun flag and patriotic slogans park alongside government buildings, foreign embassies and television stations. The drivers bark out battle cries for Japan to take back territory lost to Russia, to make schoolchildren sing a national anthem that honors the Emperor, to rearm the country's military, to stand up to foreigners, to silence the allegedly liberal media. Tinny martial music blares from loudspeakers. Nationalistic die-hards in white headbands thrust their fists in the air and yell things like Return the northern territories! and Russians, get out of Japan! ALSO IN TIMESins of the FatherA teacher faces up to history Big DealSoothed by time and billions in economic aid, Japan's neighbors no longer get alarmed PaybackAmerican slave laborers sue for compensation To the uninitiated, these sideshows conjure up visions of the Imperial Army marching through Manchuria and kamikaze pilots sacrificing themselves in the Pacific. But to the office workers, laborers and shoppers who encounter them, the displays are a benign component of the cityscape, no more remarkable than the white-gloved taxi drivers, pachinko parlors, crowded subways or love hotels that foreigners notice but locals don't. Ignore it, a cashier at a Starbuck's coffee bar tells an American as a nationalistic parade passes by. That's what we do. Comforting themselves with a latte is in fact what many urban Japanese are doing to get through these troubled economic times. But disregarding the jingoistic racket outside isn't so easy nowadays, and not just because of the irritatingly loud music and speechifying. The almost comic doggedness of these true believers masks an unsettling reality in today's Japan: nationalism is on the rise again. Even if you ignore the sound trucks, there are plenty of other signs. Mainstream politicians of Japan's ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, have absorbed and promoted issues that could have come straight off a right-winger's wish-list. The country's most prominent nationalist, the fiery writer Shintaro Ishihara, co-author of The Japan That Can Say No, was elected governor of Tokyo in April. A historically revisionist comic book promoting the view that Japan's Army invaded Asia to free it from white colonialists is a bestseller, especially among college students. Rabble-rousers accustomed to operating on the fringes now find themselves strangely in tune with the status quo. There is no clear target to fight against, says Kunio Suzuki, leader of a conservative group in Tokyo. Many right-wingers feel things are going favorably so it's not wise to make a fuss now. Japan periodically experiences outbreaks of nationalistic fervor, but this time the backlash from pacifists and liberals has been unusually quiet. A few newspaper editorials have denounced the nationalist rise, but much of the press itself is conservative, and the progressive politicians who would normally raise the caution flags seem dispirited and rudderless these days. A general feeling of insecurity--over the economy, over North Korea's missile-rattling, over Japan's lost place in the world--shields the Obuchi government from criticism and gives it a lot of leeway to push an aggressive agenda. (The disarray of opposition parties helps, too.) Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who engaged in his own nationalistic rhetoric when he was in office in the 1980s, says the conservative program of the Obuchi government is part of an effort to re-establish Japan's identity. The public is either too tired, too busy or too cynical to say what it thinks that identity should be. That lack of scrutiny has allowed the government to push several measures long considered taboo: sanctioning the flag and the national anthem; revising the pacifist constitution; ratcheting up the military's role; giving police invasive investigative powers. The current situation is very dangerous, says Kazuhide Uekusa, senior economist at the Nomura Research Institute. The ruling party is monopolizing policy issues, and there's no opposition power to counterbalance them. There's a risk of igniting emotional nationalism. Nothing sells like patriotism--except perhaps war--during an economic downturn, whatever part of the world you're in. Japan is especially susceptible to a nationalistic sales pitch, for the country is like a high-soaring eagle that's long had its wings clipped. Obuchi is trying to do for Japan what President Ronald Reagan did for the United States when it was a crippled giant back in the early 1980s: make the country feel better about itself. If so, the patriotic feel-good campaign begins with raising the flag and singing the national anthem, two seemingly harmless exercises that are weighed down with historical and emotional baggage. The flag, the Hinomaru, is the simple image of a red circle on a white background. It is used for official purposes, at international summits, at the Olympics. But because many Japanese associate it with their country's militaristic past, it rarely appears outside homes or shops, schoolchildren don't salute the flag and it was never officially sanctioned as Japan's standard. Neither was the national anthem, the Kimigayo, although it too is routinely used at official functions. Its references to the Emperor, in some minds the embodiment of Japan's World War II debacle, have made it the subject of a tug-of-war between pacifists and conservatives. A high-school principal in Hiroshima killed himself last February rather than enforce orders that the anthem be sung at graduation ceremonies. Despite these controversies, Obuchi this summer decided to push the two national symbols onto the political agenda, and this week the Diet probably will give them both legal status. Score one for the nationalists. In July, the Diet voted to establish a committee to consider revising the pacifist constitution, drafted by U.S. Occupation forces and enacted in 1947. In the ensuing 52 years, not so much as a semi-colon has been changed. The critical article that bans the country from rearming is cherished by many who never want to see the military run amok again. But it irritates conservatives, who find it humiliating that the country's guiding legal document was dictated by what they consider a neo-colonial power. In January, Justice Minister Shozaburo Nakamura blurted out at a party that his countrymen are writhing in pain because Japan's constitution prevents it from going to war or even defending itself. He also blasted American-style capitalism: It is a kind of freedom that lets loose atom bombs and missiles just when another country appears to gain advantage. Nakamura's comments, among other gaffes, cost him his job. His sentiments have not been exorcised so easily. In June, a 15-year-old high-schooler briefly held a college student hostage in a dormitory of the National Defense Medical College. Abolish the constitution! he wrote in a note which he threw at a teacher. Reject U.S. and foreign intervention in domestic affairs. Says political analyst Minoru Morita: There are people who insist that Japan should get out of the position of being used or being ordered around by the U.S. Their influence is quietly but steadily growing. Score another for the nationalists. And they're not finished. There's a proposal to revise, for the first time, the fundamental principles of the education system, which--like the constitution--is a product of the American era of General Douglas MacArthur. Measures giving more power to the government will probably be passed soon too; they will allow police wiretapping and the establishment of a national registry of citizens. And regional instability, exemplified by North Korea's testing of a ballistic missile over Japan last August (and another one expected to be launched within a month), as well as China's stand-off with Taiwan, have raised the military's profile without setting off the usual alarm bells. A new pact with the U.S. gives defense forces an expanded role overseas, Japan plans to launch its own defense satellites by 2002 and, last week, Japan and South Korea engaged in war games together for the first time. In March, Japanese naval ships fired warning shots at two North Korean fishing boats suspected of harboring spies. That was the first time since World War II that a prime minister called out the Self Defense Forces against a naval threat. Many Japanese people would like to keep that record of pacifism intact. There's no better place to find them than Hiroshima, the city almost wiped off the map after the U.S. dropped its atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Keiko Ogura celebrated her eighth birthday two days before the bombing. I saw the flash and heard the loud noise, and everything shook and glass flew from the windows, says Ogura. Then it became so normal to see people die. Today, Ogura finds it strange to see young Japanese wearing Army khakis and boots as a fashion statement as they file through the city's Peace Memorial Museum. She worries that they don't understand the horrors of war--and don't know what Hiroshima was like before the bombing. It was a very, very nationalistic place, she says. Military headquarters were eventually relocated there from Tokyo, and troops headed for Asia and the Pacific were deployed from Hiroshima. Ogura remembers her own family welcoming soldiers for a final home-cooked dinner before they were dispatched to the battlefront. We only talk about Hiroshima as a victim's city, Ogura says. We need to talk about it as a militaristic city too. Five years ago, the museum opened a new wing that does just that, illustrating Japan's imperialism and the role of Hiroshima before the bombing. Last week, as they do every year, survivors and residents rang a solitary bell on the morning of Aug. 6 to remember the bombing. Across town, another kind of ceremony, equally solemn, honored Japanese soldiers who fought in World War II. The two groups of mourners have little to do with one another. Even in Hiroshima, there's nothing simple about Japan's war-time legacy. We made a big mistake 50 years ago, says Kazuo Yabui, a newspaper editor. It's our responsibility to the world to prevent the same mistake. If we have a strong military or strong nationalism or strong diplomacy, it may lead us to make the same mistakes. Tsunehiko Miyake, 84, eagerly went off to war more than half a century ago. Whatever his commanding officers ordered, he did without question. Then one day in China he saw a woman's body, impaled with a bamboo spear, floating down the river. She was a victim, he surmised, of rape and murder at the hands of Japanese soldiers. I wanted to speak out, but I did not know how, says Miyake. I'm afraid the young generation won't know how, either. We shouldn't be involved in any kind of war. In the Army, they always told us, 'We need this war. It gives Japan prosperity.' Leaders will always hide the true meaning of war with flowery words. That's true even today in Japan, where there has been a long struggle over how to portray Japan's wartime role in school textbooks. After revising the texts to include a more critical evaluation, there are now renewed efforts to whitewash history. For many young Japanese, their education comes not from a schoolbook, but from the fevered drawings of a nationalistic cartoonist, Yoshinori Kobayashi. His cartoons, compiled into a book that has sold 560,000 copies since publication last June, depict Japanese imperialism in a flattering and heroic light. Can I be arrogant? he writes. Let's be proud of our grandfathers who fought against white imperialistic Europeans and Americans. The comics are so popular that Chiba University decided to hold history seminars to help students set the record straight. Students have so little knowledge of the war, says Cho Kyeungdal, a professor of Korean history at Chiba. They are easily persuaded by strong opinion like his. For him, individuals are to solely serve the nation. It is very dangerous. His idea is nothing but totalitarianism. Of course Japan isn't headed into battle anytime soon, and the defense forces still have a hard time finding recruits. (Even with its pacifist constitution, Japan has managed to build up a formidable military.) But Japanese are expressing more anxiety over the possibility of armed conflict than they have in a generation. More than 70% of people surveyed by the daily Yomiuri Shimbun last month said they were interested in defense issues; 57% think Japan is going to come under military attack. The country still depends on the U.S. to defend it, and many people have a hard time believing the Americans would really come to their aid. What Japan's own self-defense forces can do is limited to the point of absurdity. A labor union in Hokkaido once reportedly stopped a tank battalion from training, saying it would damage the roads. Japan is not America's squadron, Shintaro Ishihara told Time shortly after being elected Tokyo's governor. One of his campaign pledges was to have U.S. military airfields in Tokyo returned to Japan--or at least shared by the two countries. Says Kyoto University professor Keishi Saeki: There is a feeling Japan has to open more space between itself and the U.S. Is that such a bad thing? The pieces of Obuchi's nationalist agenda, when considered individually, sound reasonable enough. Why shouldn't Japan have an official flag? Other countries eavesdrop on criminal suspects' telephone calls, so why not Japan? And why shouldn't a navy be able to defend Japanese shores? Every other country patrols its borders. The more important question is how the country will go about tinkering with institutions at the heart of its postwar identity. Change in Japan typically occurs slowly, incrementally. Nakasone says it will take at least 10 years before the Japanese define what kind of country they want. Their politicians don't work quickly. But they don't work transparently, either. And that's why people are afraid there won't be the kind of debate such fundamental changes deserve. So politicians will avoid actually rewriting the constitution, says political analyst Morita; instead, they will interpret the existing document in vague ways. Then they will make laws that enable them to do whatever they want to do, he adds. For example, Article 21 of the constitution says ...nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated. Yet the Diet passed a wiretapping law that gives the police limited power to eavesdrop. Together, these measures took many Japanese by surprise. As a reader named Ibuki Yamamura wrote in the daily Asahi Shimbun last month: You get things done, but aren't you overdoing it, Mr. Obuchi? Maybe, though Obuchi is following a long line of world leaders who have engaged in a bit of nationalistic chest-thumping. Japan certainly needs something to perk up its collective psyche. The news has been cheerier lately--a soaring stock market and surprising economic growth in this year's first three months--but there's still much to mope about. Unemployment remains at a postwar high of nearly 5%. Consumer spending is still nearly flat. Land values continue to plummet. The government will likely have to spend billions more to jump-start the economy. Again. Japanese are not happy over losing their position as an economic superpower and, as a consequence, their global influence. China's rise, even as Japan's own population ages and dwindles, could well diminish the country's international standing for years to come. The ongoing liberalization of investment laws has introduced a new blow to Japan's national pride: the foreign boss. Companies are under pressure to install American-style management, particularly with regard to putting shareholder interests at the top, says Ichiro Katagiri, director of the consulting firm Watson Wyatt K.K. Employees are feeling this pressure. There is a fear that people can be easily fired, and Japanese consider the place they work to be their family. Ultimately, a rise in nationalism may be just what Japan needs right now. People want to change the negative atmosphere, says Yoichi Inose, senior manager of the newspaper division at Dentsu--the advertising firm that created the Let's Praise Japan campaign intended as a national pep talk. The first ad in the series features, significantly, a photograph of Shigeru Yoshida, the post-war Prime Minister who led Japan when it negotiated its independence from U.S. Occupation forces--in other words, a national hero. Japan could use a hero or two right now. But an innate sense of cohesiveness in this homogeneous nation has been effective in rebuilding before. The Japanese have such a strong sense of identity that we don't need a national flag or anthem, says business consultant Shu Ichikawa, co-author (with Ishihara) of the book The Declaration of War: The Japanese Economy That Can Say 'No.' During the last two periods of major reform--the Meiji restoration of the 19th century and the postwar reconstruction--national pride stirred Japan to remarkable achievements. There's a sense of national mission that Japan can be successful economically, says Glen Fukushima, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. There is a sense of Japan being unique, of Japan being peculiar in a positive way. Even in the younger generation, there is a very high sense of pride in things Japanese. That may explain why Japanese in Tokyo can so easily tune out the war music and jingoistic rhetoric spewing out of the right-wing bus caravans. They don't need to hear it: they are already 'nationalists' at heart. With reporting by Donald Macintyre, Sachiko Sakamaki and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo