INTERVIEW/ Carol Gluck: Change in Japan is a long-distance run

September 17, 2013

By HIROKI MANABE/ Correspondent

By their very nature, media organizations tend to focus on what's happening at the moment and often neglect to offer a longer time frame or wider geographical perspective when reporting on pressing issues.

Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University in New York, has spent years studying and writing about Japan. She says the global media could offer value-added content if it looked at contemporary issues the way historians do.

She was asked her views about the administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and recent controversies between Japan and its neighbors over historical recognition issues as well as moves to amend the Constitution.

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Question: How do you view reports in the U.S. media that have raised concerns about a rightward tilt in Japan, especially since the Abe administration scored a landslide victory in the July Upper House election?

Gluck: I'm rather tired right now of what people are saying about Japan in the international press in the U.S. and Europe. The words "nationalism" and "militarism" have been repeatedly mentioned together in the past several months.

This coupling does not adequately reflect Japanese popular opinion and leads to views of Japan that can be both shallow and extreme.

I don't think that "militarism" is the right term for what is happening now. Nor do I think the support for Article 9 has eroded to the extent that is frequently suggested.

I don't know how to fix this situation except to find other words beside these "easy labels" to describe the policy shifts underway.

(Osaka Mayor Toru) Hashimoto's (comment about the "comfort women") went viral in the United States, to the point that people know about Hashimoto but not about the polls that showed that many Japanese disagreed with what he said.

News about Japan in the global media often appears in extreme terms.

During the economic surge of the 1980s Japan was going to take over the world. During the recession of the 1990s, Japan was finished. After that for a while Japan disappeared from the front pages.

Then Abe is re-elected (as prime minister) and announces "Abenomics," which sends commentators in the opposite direction.

Now Japan is adapting policies for an economic turnaround that the EU should adopt and cannot, and so forth.

As a historian I know that history doesn't work this way. It doesn't careen from extreme to extreme.

History is not a sprinter, either.

Q: What do you think about Abe's moves to amend the Constitution?

A: (Governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party) have long wanted to change the Constitution. This is nothing new.

But if you look at the role of the Self-Defense Forces, you can see how much it has changed since it was established, all the changes taking place under the same Constitution.

Japanese forces went abroad to Cambodia in the 1990s, then to other places on sea and land, including Iraq, impelled by geopolitical factors in Asia, by U.S. pressure to shoulder more of the costs of defense, by changes in the post-Cold-War world order.

It almost seems that if and when Article 9 is revised, by the time of the revision, most of the changes in defense policy will already have happened.

The Constitution is like a pot in which the stew is cooked. It's the stew that matters as much as the pot.

If constitutional revision is undertaken in earnest, it is likely to suck all the political air out of the room.

Just when Japan should be considering its foreign policy toward China, Korea and Southeast Asia, and what role it wants to play in the world, political eyes would be focused on constitutional revision instead.

Q: During Abe's first stint as prime minister, he called for breaking away from the postwar regime. What do you think about that?

A: People have been talking about breaking away from the "sengo taisei"

(postwar structure) for decades. It is a fact that no other country involved in World War II still talks today about being in, or breaking away from, the "postwar."

Most countries stopped being "postwar" sometime during the 1950s, so this suggests something particular to the stability of Japan's postwar.

One reason for this is the role of the United States, which froze Japanese memory of the war and the origins of the postwar Japanese system in an immediately postwar shape in 1945-47.

Many Japanese found this shape comfortable, accepting the emperor is a symbol and Japan as a peaceful, democratic country.

When Abe and others before him have talked about Japan becoming a normal nation, it has a lot to do with Article 9.

There are clearly parts of the postwar regime he does not want to change, including the general framework of the American relationship.

When the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, suggesting a change in that framework was one of the first things that caused trouble for them.

So I have my doubts about whether Abe really wants to break away from the postwar regime in any large-scale way.

Q: In his speech on Aug. 15 at a ceremony to remember the war dead, Abe made no mention of the wartime damage Japan caused to Asian nations.

A:The LDP, including Abe, have been using war memory and nationalist issues for a long time as an instrument in domestic politics.

The latest refusal to acknowledge wartime atrocities is the LDP once again playing to its political base.

LDP politicians don't seem to be aware that people outside Japan can understand them even when they speak in Japanese, and that when they say something people will hear it in Seoul, Beijing, and Washington.

There is a kind of deafness to the geopolitical consequences of such comments, or what I call "geopolitical blindness."

Q: At the same time, there are many people in Japan who have doubts as to why Japan has to continue apologizing.

A: That may well be, but there is something in the world today that I call a "global memory culture." This refers to the new international norms that have developed over the past half-century about what a country is expected to acknowledge about its past actions.

A main factor in the evolution of this global memory culture was Europe's coming to terms with the Holocaust. What we now routinely call the "politics of apology" is itself almost completely new.

Heads of states in the 1950s were not expected as a routine matter to say "I'm sorry" to other countries, even when reparations were involved.

Over the years Holocaust memory became a common memory for countries in the EU, as they each established a Holocaust Remembrance Day and introduced Holocaust education in the schools.

When the EU expanded in the late 1990s and again a few years later, that same memory culture was extended to the new members in Eastern Europe.

So the Holocaust became what I call a "memory solvent" for the EU, something they had in common and something that hid other more divisive national memories of the war.

As an example, look at the way EU countries are critical of Turkey for not officially recognizing the Armenian massacre as a genocide. It is as if to gain entrance to the EU, Turkey must adhere to its now accepted "memory culture."

Q: Have those new norms also spread to East Asia?

A: Japanese politicians avoided public acknowledgment of Japan's wartime past in Asia for a very long time, partly because of the Japan-U.S.

relationship, which had frozen memory of the ""Pacific War" with little emphasis on the China War or indeed on China, which of course was Communist and thus in the other camp.

But after the end of the Cold War, the Japan-U.S. relationship was no longer the only relationship that mattered. Japan had increasingly to deal with Asia and China and their demands, which compelled the Japanese government to face war memory in a different register in the early 1990s.

And when the government did so, it encountered a world where the norms of war memory had changed since the 1950s.

The LDP may want to make domestic political use of the wartime past, but the international context has changed rather dramatically.

One evidence of this is the series of U.S. congressional resolutions that have been passed since the 1990s demanding that Japan deal with the issues of the comfort women, the Nanjing Massacre, compensation for victims, and so on.

And this is the United States, not South Korea or China.

Q: At the same time, Abe did not visit Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15.

A: Yasukuni remains a problem because it is the shrine of the war dead, which may help to explain why roughly half of the public supports visits to Yasukuni. They are thinking of the war dead, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They're not thinking of the Class-A war criminals enshrined there.

But Yasukuni, like all war memory, is both a domestic and an international issue. It requires finesse to deal with it, a finesse that the LDP doesn't seem to have. Certainly if Abe had gone to Yasukuni this summer, it would have been a big mistake in international terms.

Yasukuni also matters because it is connected to the defense question. When Chinese and Koreans say "We don't want a re-armed Japan," they often link this prospect to the Asia-Pacific War.

When they assert that (the Senkakus and Takeshima) are not your islands, it is now common for the Koreans to bring up the "comfort women" issue, and the Chinese bring up the wartime past. This is part of the geopolitics of memory.

Q: Are there other issues that concern you besides "geopolitical blindness?"

A: There are what I call the dangerous nationalisms such as "hate nationalism," which is even more serious than Abe nationalism When Chinese youth hate the Japanese, Japanese youth are likely to hate the Chinese back.

Hate is a boomerang that never stops zinging back and forth.

If young people in East Asia grow up hating one another because of events that took place seventy years ago, what will that mean for the future?

This is ugly unthinking nationalism, not pride in one's country.

It's true that after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s neo-nationalism flourished in many places. An uncertain, changing world order, with economic difficulties mixed in, was a recipe for rising nationalism.

The major change in the world that affects post-Cold-War Japan is the rise of Asia and the rise of China.

And although economic relations between Japan and China, Japan and Korea, have never been so deep and broad, it's also true that the combination of geopolitical and economic change is unsettling and that nationalism is one response to this.

I have said for a long time that Japan should put a great deal of effort into being more of a global player than it already is.

I can recall saying this since 1990: Japan is non-nuclear, not an arms seller to the world, and the second-largest economy -- now third, but still huge.

Why not find an international role to play that suits Japan's position? Think of Norway's repeated actions to broker peace in trouble spots, and Norway truly is a small country; Japan is not. One might do it with soft power, not only with J-pop and anime but with soft multilateral power, which can be incredibly influential.

Economics and soft power may well be the way to deal with a changing East Asia, considering that Japan is not going to go missile-for-missile against China.

In any case, something more than territorial claims and SDF-rattling would be good.

By HIROKI MANABE/ Correspondent
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Carol Gluck during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in New York (Hiroki Manabe)

Carol Gluck during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in New York (Hiroki Manabe)

  • Carol Gluck during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in New York (Hiroki Manabe)
  • Carol Gluck during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in New York (Hiroki Manabe)

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