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Commentary (February 2, 2005)

Feeling Lost in 'Post-postwar' Era

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Soul-searching, nervous about future, Japan needs vision for 21st century

The mood of Japan at the beginning of 2005 is one of intense soul-searching about its own future. Major newspapers printed New Year's Day special pages full of articles and columns that reflected a sense of loss of direction, into which Japan seems to have strayed, coupled with a feeling of creeping decline.

This sober self-reflection is customary in Japan when every new year begins, but the nation is gripped with that mood particularly intensely this year, owing to a coincidental fact of calendar associated with 2005, which Japanese are being told to mark with special significance.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Japan's defeat and surrender in the Pacific War in 1945 and subsequent rebirth as a changed nation. In Japanese custom, a 60th anniversary is attached special importance to mean the completion of the first cycle in one's life and the beginning of a new one.

Such a tradition aside, it is a passage of time long enough to take stock of the decades that have passed and set out to look for a new direction in the future. For Japan, the 60 years have been characterized by portentous changes that have taken place in herself and the world.

New meanings

It is about time for the nation to reconsider the meaning of "postwar," or even to part with the customary usage of the word. In the prevailing lexicon, "postwar" means "after World War II," that war having been such a decisive dividing point of modern history for the world and particularly for Japan. But there is the emerging notion that Japanese should now cease to be bound by this frame of reference.

In essence, in the "postwar" period Japan has witnessed a spectacular recovery from the total devastation of war followed by growth into the world's second-largest economy, which was capped by a seemingly incomprehensible slump in the last decade, whose pain and numbness are still lingering; politically it has been an era of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party in collaboration with the formidable bureaucracy; diplomatically and in terms of national security, it has been characterized by total dependence on the U.S., the victor in the war, subsequent occupier, and builder of postwar Japan.

In a sense, Japanese ability and willingness to think in search of realistic alternatives to the status quo has withered because the American predominance and the ruling party's governance that has been so firmly in place.

But events in the past appear to have lost immediate relevance to guide Japan into the future. Japan apparently needs a new framework of thinking to chart its future course. Economic success and prosperity can no longer be taken for granted because of Japan's own internal factors, the prospect for a shrinking population among other things, and because of unfolding circumstances in the rapidly globalizing world.

Politically, the conservative LDP is clearly losing ability to govern because its structure interlocked with vested interests and the archaic system to guard them has lost touch with reality and relevance. In the changed economy and society, the political system which is disproportionately geared to protection of special interests, which often are weak sectors without competitiveness and increasingly exposed to threat from abroad or declining demand. What is urgently needed is an reinvented domestic political system.

But by far the most challenging task Japan faces is to chart its course in national security and foreign policy. Needless to say, the overwhelming reality is its alliance with the U.S., which to many Japanese looks too close, too total and too domineering to allow them to imagine a realistic alternative. One nagging concern that haunts Japanese is whether such total alliance with America, which seems to keep deepening, will guarantee Japan's well-being in the future. The concern increases in view of the George W. Bush administration's seemingly unstoppable way of conduct of world policies.

Sense of loss

The deeply rooted resentment that underlies the concern is a sense of loss of independence, given such alliance with the U.S., which Prof. Takashi Inoguchi of the University of Tokyo said has its roots in an ultimatum, an all-out war, complete disarmament, occupation and regime change. This persistent underlying psychology is something the Japanese themselves don't know how to deal with, but it will not go away easily and will continue to haunt them. It could be a source of smoldering nationalism. How future leaders of Japan can manage to keep this under control may be a major issue that should not taken lightly.

Along these lines is the question of constitutional amendment. It is undeniable that there persists a sentiment among Japanese that the postwar constitution was written by the occupation forces and, irrespective of the lofty ideals it embodies, it symbolically represents an emasculated Japan. One of the cores of the prospective amendment concerns more than anything else the constitutional status of military forces and collective defense.

In considering the nation's mood about the future, what is remarkable is the tendency to depend on the nation as a framework for personal security, welfare, identity, and indeed survival. Popular attention is intensely focused on the nation and closed to the possibility of further integration with the globalizing world. To the extent that the sense of insecurity and decline intensifies, people seem to be clinging to patriotic, nationalistic ideas. Internationalism seems to have been forgotten as a means to advance Japan's future.

Obsession with the shrinking population, which physically and palpably symbolizes decline and fuels a pessimistic mindset, is one good example. But people's eyes are shut to the possibility of opening the country to foreigners and recreating the country. A grandiose vision of that kind, even if it may look like a fantasy, is something this country needs at the start of the "post-postwar" era.

(Originally appeared in the January 31, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications