Published in the Nikkei Asian Review 22/7/2015
The great cinéaste Hayao Miyazaki is the latest celebrity to slam Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose re-interpretation of the Japanese constitution he terms “stupid.” Weeks earlier Tadashi Murakami, the contemporary artist who is Japan’s answer to Damien Hirst, accused Abe of leading Japan to a Nazi-like catastrophe. Another famous Murakami, novelist Haruki, has also made derogatory remarks.
Possibly the lowest blow came last December when Abe took his wife to see the Southern All Stars, a legendary soft-rock band, only for the lead-singer to criticize him from the stage.
The immediate cause of controversy is the two security bills which the Abe administration put through the lower House of the Diet. These enable the Japanese military to co-operate with the US and other forces in operations that do not involve Japanese security directly.
The bigger picture is the Abe project of “normalizing” Japan’s security posture – moving away from the pacifism enshrined in the US-imposed post-war constitution and enabling Japan to protect its interests in the same way as every other nation-state.
Should Abe be disconcerted by this chorus of disapproval? Not at all. It comes with the territory. In fact, if the left-leaning intelligentsia, represented by Miyazaki, the two Murakamis and the rest was perfectly content with Abe, it would be a sure sign he was getting nowhere.
Transformational leaders are, by definition, disruptive and divisive. In contrast, if no change is occurring, there is no need for any pushback. During Abe’s first term in office, in 2007, there was little pushback because he never looked like achieving anything. His second term in office, starting in December 2012, has been a very different story. Dramatic, once-in-a-generation change is on the menu and those wedded to the status quo are getting jumpy.
The Abe-bashing is mild compared to the treatment meted out to another transformational leader, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was loathed by academics, writers and artists. Acerbic singer-songwriter Elvis Costello raged about “tramping down the dirt” on her grave and indeed when Thatcher did pass away in 2013 a Facebook campaign propelled the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” high into the charts.
Just as several hundred Japanese scholars, including a Nobel-prize winning physicist, recently lambasted Abe at a press conference, so 364 British economists published an open letter in 1981 slamming Thatcher’s policies and demanding a return to the approach of the inflation-plagued 1970s, when Britain was dubbed “the sick man of Europe.” Some years later her alma mater, Oxford University refused to confer an honorary degree on Britain’s first female prime minister.
Since Thatcher’s political opponents detested her policies so much, you might think they would reverse them at the earliest opportunity. Far from it. The British Labour Party took power in 1997 and retained it for twelve years, the longest period in the party’s history. During that time it did not reverse a single one of the reforms it had castigated when in opposition.
The reality is that Thatcher was blamed for phenomena – notably the de-industrialization of the British economy – that had started many decades before and were structural in nature. By accepting them, rather than trying to turn back the clock, she laid the groundwork for the prosperous and confident society Britain is today. On the numbers, economic recovery began almost from the month the eminent economists penned their open letter.
Much of the hostility towards “Thatcherism” was hostility to the necessity for change from an unsustainable status quo. The same could be said for the hostility towards “Abeism” today. Structural change in the geopolitical environment makes a reconfiguration of Japan’s security arrangements inevitable. Turning back the clock to the comfortable US-protected “pacifism” of the Cold War years is not an option
In today’s society artists and celebrities have a status that guarantees them a hearing, but that does not mean their views are more valuable than anyone else’s. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests, the main purpose of moral reasoning is not to uncover the truth but “to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to.” Directors of anime films, best-selling novelists and wrinkly rockers have their own agendas too.
The same goes for the academics – indeed more so, according to English writer Paul Johnson. “Beware intellectuals,” he wrote. “Distrust public statements issued from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders and important events. For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and non-conformist people, follow certain regular patterns of behaviour. Taken as a group they are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value.”
CHINA’S HELPING HAND
Whereas Abenomics, Abe’s programme of economic revival, had widespread public support from the start, changes in security policy were always going to be controversial. For decades Japanese public opinion has been split between pacifists and realists and for many people this stalemate has been perfectly acceptable. Abe’s task is to persuade them otherwise and opinion polls indicate he has yet to succeed.
Even so Abe has at least two factors working strongly in his favour. The first is the political capital accreting from Abenomics. With the Japanese labour market the tightest since the early 1990s and the suicide rate down 30% from peak, there is no comparison between economic conditions now and the dark days of 2008-12.
The second factor is the increasingly assertive posture of China, which has been busily creating “facts on the ground” in the South China Sea and building bases close to the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands. According to Pew Research, only 7% of Japanese trust China whereas 75% trust the US. It should not be hard to make the case that A) the US-Japan alliance is crucial to Japan’s long-term interests, and B) since it has much more value to Japan than the US in the twenty first century, greater active engagement from the Japanese side is essential.
In the meantime the intellectuals and celebrities will have their say, as is their right. Thatcher’s response to her critics was three decisive general election victories and the longest continuous spell as prime minister for 150 years. In due course Japanese voters will deliver their verdict too.