Years ago, as a correspondent based in Japan, I journeyed to the headquarters of a cosmetics company for a profile I was writing about local firms that were making products in the U.S. and importing them back home. (It was a counter-factual trend and therefore worth a story.) The plant was about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo and after interviewing the company’s directors - a stiff, gray lot if memory serves - I was offered a lift back to the station by a staff functionary.
Midway through the ride our conversation drifted to politics. I asked my escort how he and his friends felt about the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
“It is very useful,” he said. “It allows us to concentrate on business.”
This was in 1998. Japan was nearly a decade into a severe economic recession that would last another fifteen years. Over time, as Japan slid deeper into economic decay and regional insignificance, I reconsidered the leavening effects of America’s security guarantees. If Washington’s militarized empire was good for growth, as Pentagon officials often asserted, what explained Japan’s prolonged degradation?
American hegemony is purchased through a simple transaction: In exchange for a security commitment and sweeteners such as military training and arms deals, the partner nation offers Washington unconditional access to its sovereign space - its ports as depots for American arms and its sea and air corridors through which U.S. troops and material may transit. In this way, the Pentagon can deploy lethal force as promptly and efficiently as Amazon can deliver an Xbox.
For the many hosts of American empire, it is as irresistible a deal as it is perverse and corrupting. There is, after all, no more crucial civic obligation than national defense. For a state to transfer that burden to a third party is to deny itself the responsibility of setting national priorities, a cornerstone of prudent governance. There is also the inconvenient fact that bartered security is by definition temporary. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, he who gives up a little sovereignty for a little security may end up forfeiting both. He is, simply put, a chump.
In addition, the resources American clients would have otherwise invested in homeland defense are inveterately misallocated. In the late 1980s, Washington’s Asian allies manically produced cheap goods for export, creating a credit shortage that led to a foreign currency crisis a decade later. (In South Korea, for example, the country’s fourth-largest conglomerate invested billions of dollars to corner the global semiconductor market - even as the U.S. provided the financial and human backbone of Seoul’s deterrent against its northern adversary - only to go bankrupt a few years later.) A generation after the end of the Cold War, Pentagon beneficiaries in Europe - among the world’s richest countries - have yet to agree on a common defense policy to match their commercial and monetary union. In the Persian Gulf, corrupt emirs spend lavishly on U.S.-made weaponry when they should foster private enterprise as an alternative source of employment to their exhausted public sectors.
For all the waste created by America’s alliance system, however, there is something especially insidious about its relations with Japan. After seven decades of peace, the consequences of Washington’s overindulgence of its close Asian ally - this geopolitical welfare state - are beginning to assert themselves in the form of a militant, nationalist leadership over which it has increasingly little control.
The history of Japan is one of alternating abundance and deprivation. Its thin crust of serenity - the rock gardens, the tea ceremonies and origami swans - obscures molten human rage and contradiction. The Japanese are among the most self-repressed people on earth, informed by an acute and not unwarranted sense of isolation and vulnerability. Not for nothing is The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Hokusai’s early-nineteenth century masterpiece, so authentically Japanese for its fateful collision of raw might and fragility. Nor, for that matter, is Godzilla.
Few developed countries have transitioned so swiftly and violently from self-imposed isolation to global engagement as Japan. Feudal and prosperous during the seventeenth-century, the country was forced in 1853 to trade with the world under a thicket of unequal treaties signed in the shadow of U.S. gunboats at Yokohama. Liberal reforms followed. By the end of the century Japan had became a regional power, its military modernization and constitution modeled on Bismarckian Germany’s. When, in 1905, Japan emerged victorious in its brief war with Russia, Tokyo was allowed a seat alongside the western imperial powers then carving up the world into rival fiefdoms. China, Taiwan and Korea were subject to an arriviste, and therefore particularly savage, Japanese imperium.
Japan’s decision to attack U.S., British and Dutch enclaves in Hawaii and Southeast Asia in 1941 was the consequence of a western oil embargo for the slaughters it committed in China. The great Pacific War that followed represented a triumph for Showa-dynasty militarism over the short-lived but inspiring Taisho era of liberal, if leftist democratic politics. The country’s devastating defeat four years later swept away its empire but not, ironically, its militants.
Well known throughout Asia but rarely remarked upon in Tokyo or Washington is how the U.S., under the authority of Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur, protected Japanese war criminals from prosecution. While Nazi leaders were tried and executed in occupied Germany, MacArthur’s senior aides protected some of Japan’s most notorious militants for their help in the looming U.S. war with the Soviet puppet-master. After the communist victory in China, Japan was to be, according to the Pentagon, a staging area “from which to project our military power to the Asiatic mainland and to U.S.S.R. islands adjacent thereto.” MacArthur successfully resisted handing post-war authority to Japanese civilians, as had been done in the Western zones of Germany, as such action would give “greater impetus to the Communist drive to bring all of Asia under its control.”
Though Germany was encouraged to process its war guilt through a very public ventilation, Washington demanded no such exorcism from Japan. Washington’s post-war strategy for Europe would be different for Asia. There was no Chinese de Gaulle, no Japanese Adenauer to broker rapprochement between the region’s two largest powers and the Americans conspicuously did not cultivate any. Nor was Japan encouraged to play an active role in Asian diplomacy, the way post-war German leaders traveled throughout Europe, to engender trust and goodwill. Instead, foreign ministers waffled through state visits with vague references to their wartime atrocities without taking responsibility for them, a studied equivocation that only hardened the postwar reputation of Japanese leaders as unfeeling, shifty, and irredeemable.
Tokyo had only to rebuild its economy and remain a steadfast American ally. And it did. Over the years the Pentagon would coax Japan military to enhance the reach and capability of its military, but not so much as to make itself redundant. Demand for Japanese goods soared during America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam, which fueled the country’s decades-long economic boom. Yet, objectified by Washington as little more than “an unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as Pentagon planners often called it, Japan failed to develop a unique post-war identity or bold executive leadership. Unlike Germany, its political institutions remained weak and corrupt, capable of building roads to nowhere but not a fresh vision for the future. The dominant Democratic Party of Japan, more a patronage system than a political movement, ran the country along with huge conglomerates and a hidebound bureaucracy - an iron, unholy trinity - consecrated by the United States government.
By the early 1990s, after the bursting of Japan’s enormous property bubble, the country had become politically, economically and culturally inert. Once a high-tech powerhouse, its industry was stale and aimless. A revolving rotisserie of risk-averse prime ministers had spawned a national nihilism, particularly among the country’s youth; teenage boys - known as “Otakus,” or house dwellers - retreated into Manga or computer-animated virtual worlds while schoolgirls, some barely in their teens, traded sex with adult men for designer handbags. During my last year in Tokyo, the package of stories my bureau chief submitted for awards consideration was bundled around a theme of sclerosis - the slow degradation of Japan’s civil society. (It ended up winning an Overseas Press Club award.)
Nearly a quarter century later - the “lost two decades,” as some call it - Japan is shaking off the rust of stagnation. Its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has invigorated the economy with an easy-money policy. The country will be hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020. Last week, Japan delivered a humanoid robot to the International Space Station, the first country to ever to do so. Kirobo, as the robot is called, is capable of making spontaneous conversation and may ultimately replace human labor in everything from nursing to chauffeuring cars.
If Kirobo is the new Walkman, the electronic device that defined Japan’s high-tech dominance in the 1980s, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe represents an altogether unique species of Japanese leadership. He displays none of the discomfort shared by his postwar predecessors about Japan’s imperial past. Indeed, he has paid homage to the remains of war criminals interred at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, provoking outrage among Japanese neighbors and a simpering demarche from Washington. He has spoken dismissively of claims that Korean women were coerced into working as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers and he has said that Class A war criminals “are not criminals under Japan’s domestic law.”
A day before Tokyo announced its triumphant delivery of Kirobo, the Abe government declared it would significantly increase military spending and readiness in response to what it describes as China’s aggrandizing claims on tiny islands Japan regards as its own. As the Financial Times put it in an opinion column last week, “Mr. Abe is working to transform the Japanese premier from a legislative manager into a commander-in-chief, perched atop a more robust defense establishment.” An arms race between Asia’s two great powers, which this space has argued was triggered by the United States a decade ago, is well underway.
Abe himself is the grandson of a right-wing politician and wartime industry minister who was arrested by the Allied Occupation forces under suspicion of committing war crimes. His maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a senior official in Japan’s colonial Manchurian administration who served wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo. Kishi became prime minister in 1957 and, according to The Japan Times, was derided by the political left as a ghost of Japan’s past militarism and prewar political system.”
Is Abe, with resources at his disposal far greater than those available to his ancestors, himself the spectral return of Showa-era revanchism? Is Asia’s isosceles troika of great powers, with the U.S. and Japan allied on one end and a solitary China on the other, doomed to make war?
Certainly Washington would prefer to avoid squandering its military resources in a clash with its largest creditor over a ringlet of uninhabited rocks. It has, however, developed a fetish for far-flung military deployments that fuels a destructive logic and power of its own. If Japan’s future belongs to Shinzo Abe and a generation of Japanese who know little of the atrocities committed decades ago in their name, America’s security establishment has only itself to blame. Having bombed Japan’s great cities into rubble in 1945, Washington could have rebuilt the country into a genuinely sovereign state held to account for its sins through rigorous self-examination. Instead, it satisfied itself with an impenetrable aircraft carrier, its hauls filled with sleeping demons ready to awaken themselves to the martial drumbeat of a resurgent China.