Pop Culture and Politics Collide in Japan

Why does the war issue refuse to go away in Japanese politics? An opinion piece by AGI columnist Tim Holm

Earlier this week, two controversial stories have grabbed headlines in Japan and around the world, causing a stir and followed by heated debates.

First, animation master Hayao Miyazaki (whose son’s animated film, ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is in UK cinemas now) released his newest film ‘The Wind Rises’ [風立ちぬ Kaze Tachinu] in Japanese theatres, which revolves around the true-life story of a man named Jiro Horikoshi, a World War II aircraft designer. This partly fictionalized biography which is leading the box-office at the moment, is in itself a sensitive topic, as some people believe it glorifies the main character who could be seen as a war hero. But the director Miyazaki – who is often called Japan’s Walt Disney – is a well-respected figure in Japan and a known pacifist with a love for nature. He is aware of the potential upset his film may cause (although anyone who actually watches it will find it far from pro-war) and has since released a statement which reads in part: ‘Some people might want to insist that pre-war Japan wasn’t wrong. But we were wrong.’

Miyazaki, without directly naming any names, clearly is referring to the current government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although Abe is leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, he holds right-wing nationalist views which lean more towards the convervative side than many liberals are comfortable with. Abe has been leading a call to revise Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution’ – in particular, Article 9, drawn up by US Occupation forces after the end of World War II, which requires that the Japanese people ‘forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.’

Abe has been leading a call to revise Japan’s ‘Peace Constitution’ – in particular, Article 9, drawn up by US Occupation forces after the end of World War II

In regards to proposed changes to this article, Miyazaki wrote: ‘I’m exasperated by the sheer lack of historical insight and principle of those at the top of government and political parties… People who don’t think enough shouldn’t meddle with the constitution.’ Not surprisingly, the director’s comments have been dismissed by conservatives, as have similar anti-nationalist thoughts from shy but outspoken author Haruki Murakami, another popular public figure.

In related news, Taro Aso, Deputy Prime Minister (and former Prime Minister) of Japan, was reportedly caught out making the highly inappropriate remark that Japan ought to ‘learn from’ Nazi Germany if they want to change Article 9 quickly and without public debate. He was quoted as saying ‘Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?’.

Quickly, these comments provoked concerned responses. South Korea’s foreign ministry said ‘Such comments definitely hurt a lot of people’. The Chinese government suggested that countries need to ‘step up their vigilance over the direction in which Japan is headed’. Human rights groups including the Jewish Simon Wiesenthal Center in the US demanded an apology, which Aso has yet to provide. He has said only that he has ‘retracted’ the remarks and has no plans to resign from his post.

Putting all of the headlines aside for a moment, is this anything new for the Japanese government? Well, clearly, they are not headed in the right direction in terms of making amends over Japan’s troubled war history, unlike in Germany, where leaders have made many public apologies, days of remembrance are common, and museums reflecting on Nazi war crimes are fully supported. The question is, why does the Japanese government continue to make concessions to nationalist right-wing groups, when the number of their members only amounts to around 100,000 (according to the National Police Agency)? Their influence upon political leaders’ attitudes in Japan seems to be out of proportion to their size, considering the population of Japan is well over 125 million. But this is not a question that can be easily answered in one article. It is something that should be openly discussed in Japanese society, but that is unlikely to happen in the near future as delicate war issues tend to get swept under the rug (even in school textbooks) rather than faced directly.

On the bright side of things, at least it looks as though Prime Minister Abe will not be making a visit to the Yasukuni War Shrine in Tokyo anytime soon, in an apparent effort to appease the leaders of China and South Korea.

Tim Holm

Japanese trailer for ‘The Wind Rises’ [YouTube]

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