Wednesday 2 July 2014

The Shock of the New

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything specifically about Japan, but then this categorically isn’t a blog about Japan, so I don’t know what you’re complaining about. I don’t. No, YOU shut up. Anyway, the reasons for this go beyond just a lack of time. The simple truth is that I’ve been keeping this blog for almost three years now and it really feels like I’ve covered most of the stuff in the news already.

Japan’s going to ignore the ICJ verdict and is resuming its scientific whale hunts? Done that. Toru Hashimoto’s gone and had a public brain-speak about rape again? That never turns out well, as previously documented here. The kerfuffle with the Tokyo and Osaka assemblywomen? That Japan has more than its fair share of sexist bullies isn’t really surprising anymore. Abe’s a rightwing nationalist loon? Who knew? We did. We knew. We all knew.

Let’s be clear, it’s not that I think this stuff is unimportant or unworthy of comment, it’s just that I’ve done that already, and the woeful regularity of the flaws in the Japanese body politic are now so grindingly constant that I don’t know what else to say. I’m not one of those guys who can turn the comedic outrage on and off at will, y’know? Nevertheless, because I love you all dearly, this weekend I started writing another one of those Pass Notes style Q+A posts rounding up all the latest idiocy in the hope of making a none-too-subtle point about the sheer repetitiveness of it all – ‘cos if they can repeat the same stuff over and over again, then why the hell can’t I? – and then someone set fire to themselves in the middle of Tokyo.

Well now. This, at least, is something new.

I apologise if that sounds a little callous. Actually, who am I kidding with that ‘if’? Of course it sounds callous. Sorry. But the truth is I don’t know how to process this. And neither do NHK, clearly, who at the time of writing (Tuesday) have yet to report on it at all (one more thing to add to the unsurprising list of unsurprising things that surprise no one). I’ve seen smart people whose ideas I respect rationalize this as being in line with guidelines on discretion for the reporting of suicides, and much as I wish that were the only motivation I’m not so sure. Given the unashamed stacking of the NHK deck with Abe’s cronies it’s hardly tin-foil hat territory to suspect that there might be other less laudable factors at work as well.

So Abe’s a little bent. See what I’m saying? Even the death of a man through self-immolation in front of the busiest train station in the world comes back to the same old same old. Scratched record, Groundhog Day, take your pick of the metaphors but it’s all just the same stuff going round and round.

The guy was apparently protesting against Abe’s (see?) plan to ‘reinterpret’ the Japanese constitution to allow for Collective Self Defence. Note the acronym and portentous capitals, and then please bear with me as this might take some explaining. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution (which was essentially written by the Americans after WWII) prohibits the use of force as a means of settling international disputes. It also, incidentally, prohibits the maintenance of a standing army or navy, which explains why Japan has ‘self-defence forces’ instead, named with a fooling no one flair for euphemism up there with ‘adult movies’, ‘confirmed bachelor’, or ‘extraordinary rendition’.

The upshot of this arrangement basically means it’s almost but not quite impossible for Japan to send its not a military abroad for pretty much any reason whatsoever, including humanitarian or peacekeeping missions (which at least in part led to a hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-potentially-fatal incident regarding loaning ammunition to a UN ally in Sudan). It would certainly preclude deploying its not a military why heavens no how could you possibly think such a thing overseas in support of one of its allies if they were attacked by a third party (which is the essence of CSD).

You remember how in the late eighties everyone thought that Japan would overtake Russia as the next global superpower? (What do you mean, “I’m not old enough to remember that”? The adults are talking here sonny boy; why don’t you go and watch Justin Direction on youspace, or whatever it is that you kids do with your copious free time and lithesome, ache-free physiques?) Many people, or my old geography teacher at least, trace the shattering of that perception to Japan’s inability/ unwillingness to deploy troops during the first Gulf War, when instead of shipping over its fair share of cannon fodder it just wrote out a big fat cheque and let other nations’ children do the dying. While in all honestly this seems like an eminently sensible response to the neo-imperialism of Western nations, it did rather put paid to all that ‘next superpower’ talk; if you’re going to claim any sort of power, super or otherwise, you have to be able to actually use it. And of course we’re at such a backwards stage of our development as a species that ‘power’ is still synonymous with ‘force’.

Regardless, Abe wants to ‘reinterpret’ the constitution to, in essence, allow Japan to play by everybody else’s rules and forestall the nation taking the kind of reputational damage it took back in 1991 by making it easier for it to inflict actual damage, should it so wish. On the face of it, it’s not a wholly unreasonable desire, if you can ignore the baggage* that Japan drags behind it regarding its previous applications of force and the still largely unreconciled issues stemming therefrom (China, basically. I’m talking about China. And Korea. And the Philippines. And Singapore, and, and, and…). But if you can ignore it, and to be fair most of Japan’s populace don’t seem to care all that much about what countries other than America think about them, then it arguably ranks as one of Abe’s less needlessly destructive courses of action. These include, lest we forget: passing one of the most repressive state secrets laws of any democratic country; raising the consumption tax while promising to lower corporation tax; overseeing the disgraceful misspending of Fukushima reconstruction monies; directly and needlessly provoking diplomatic incidents by visiting Yasukuni shrine; and allowing some PR minion to get overzealous with photoshop and make his face look like a child’s toy wrapped in plastic.

And  by way of comparison...

So, on some levels at least, the desire to allow for CSD is markedly more understandable, or at least not obviously worse, than any of the other bullshit Abe and his cronies have tried to pull. But this seemingly abtruse desire to fit in with the (depressingly) normal standards of international engagement that it’s just taken me 600 words to outline is, apparently, the one thing for which it’s worth setting yourself on fire to protest. How to interpret that? Is it just the final straw? Is the Japanese notion of itself as uniquely unique so precious that they’re willing to go all out to protect the one thing that does unquestionably render them thus? Or is it just the crazed ramblings of someone with poor mental health** which bespeaks to nothing more than the fact that there are a lot of people in Japan and statistically something like this was bound to happen eventually?

I’d like to think that in three or four months time, or whenever I next pull my finger out to write about The State of Japan, we’ll look back and see that this wasn’t an empty gesture, that it was in some small way, if not the prompt for, then at least a sign of genuine change. But in all honesty I suspect this will neither affect nor signify anything of the sort and the next post will just be another round of jaded and self-indulgent links to stuff I’ve already written. So on that note I’ll leave you with this post I wrote about a book called Blackbirds, which has no relevance to anything but does use the word bukkake multiple times. Stay safe, y’all.

* Which I recognize is like not thinking about the proverbial white bear.
**For the record, I should point out that I have absolutely no information about the guy’s state of mind.


  1. To give Japanese people credit, they do seem to see what's at the heart of this reinterpretation, which is changing the face of Japan's version of war profiteering. There were plenty of people at protests with signs saying things like "Don't send our boys off to die in foreign countries so the rich can get richer!" Unfortunately, the rich they were talking about seemed to be American rich. Somehow, the idea of Japanese rich profiting from war was inconceivable or too difficult to say out loud...

    1. About one week after this they started flogging anti-missile kits to Qatar, I think it was. Every time I hope the camel's back has been broken, it seems they find a way to add another straw.

  2. Dunno if you're interested or not, but I can go on at length about the whole Article 9 thing. Grad degree in Japanese international relations and all... The really depressing thing is that both sides approach it from totally the wrong direction.

    As for change, if the entire Miyagi coast washing away doesn't alter things, one self-immolated dude certainly won't.

    1. Please jump in with anything you think might elevate the tone of the debate (which I acknowledge wouldn't be all that hard). It's be nice to have someone who actually knows what they're talking about round these parts for a change ;)

  3. I put this on

    "All to make America happy: buy more of its weapons, and join the next 'coalition of the willing'.

    What other purpose is there? Japan cannot take on China or Russia even in self-defence, nuclear powers, nor even N. Korea for the same reason. Neither can it take on S. Korea, as both it and Japan are within American suzerainty. This move, even for the most cynical reasons, is decades behind the emerging realities in the West Pacific, but so is the LDP."

    In this in my Facebook:

    "Cue Japan drafted into America's next misadventure; and this went so well for Canada in Afghanistan? This is what it's about: not anything in Japan's own backyard."

    I am essentially agreeing with 'twodudesff', I think: "both sides approach it from totally the wrong direction."

    1. Yep, like so much else with Japanese politics you feel that they might, possibly, perhaps, be vaguely right in identifying a need for change, but then they try to bring about that change in the most cack-handed, inappropriate manner possible. See how it all keeps repeating?

  4. "All to make America happy: buy more of its weapons, and join the next 'coalition of the willing"

    I didn't take a look at, but it seems to be that Japan is looking to sell its weapons...

  5. Mr. Razor, your analysis is astute. Japan (especially the LDP) is so living in the past. After all, look how anyone who doesn't agree with the right-wing revisionists is labelled as a 'communist'.
    I thought politics in the UK was behind the times in still having parties defined by cold-war realities, but Japan still has a party that is defined by losing WWII.

    Given that China is still Japan's biggest trading partner (not the opposite), hasn't it dawned on Abe yet that all China has to do to stamp out Japan's economy and put the country back in the stone age is nationalize Japanese interests in China, and embargo exports/imports? A couple of weeks of that would finish Japan more thoroughly than any war.

    I suspect that Abe knows this, but needs China as an excuse to get his viagra (sorry, I mean 'remove constitutional constraints on the SDF), so that he can metaphorically stand in Japan's garden, in full view of the neighbors, shaking his tadger, and shouting 'I'm (Japan) a real man!'.

    1. Well, it's not like the CCP (and indeed ruling elites everywhere) don't enjoy stirring up a bit of domestic animosity against The Other when it suits them. Not that two wrongs make a right, of course.

      And now I'm rambling with the cliches and platitudes. I'm distracted. It's your fault. That image of Abe in the garden will haunt me till I die, damn you.