James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.
The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:
[before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
[after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.
Why does this matter? Because of the old "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through American history it has not been normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. Each time press reports treat this as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.
Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.
2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. Thanks to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion that is surprising, even given everything else we've learned.
You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questions a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was not in doubt and who was not trying to leave or enter the country, based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get form any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.
I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of luke-warm water ...
3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its appealing "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China matches its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One in foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.
Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to stall or seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.
Which leads us to ...
4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.
But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:
Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.
Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.
It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.
While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the WashingtonPost's editorial page. He replies:
Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.
Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from columnists to politicians to "strategists," have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**
Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?
* To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this!" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.
** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.
1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.
And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.
It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside. (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.
Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:
In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.
But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.
I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.
2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?
This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.
Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Timesarguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline...
... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:
There will be public press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts.
This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.
When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping.
This new video by Stephy Chung, shot over the past few days of worse-than-ever airpocalypse in Beijing, is worth noticing for several reasons:
- If you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll recognize many of the scenes and even more of the details and moves. A high proportion of the people shown are foreigners, along with young Chinese dancing the way people would in any country. But the stretch from 1:10 to 1:20 is a little distillation of Chinese-style public dance and movement. On walks in Beijing I have stopped to watch the very people shown in this passage, and I've talked with the elegant woman who pops in at 1:15 (just before the pink-haired girl with Mickey Mouse sweater). Plus, where else do you see such enjoyment of haw-on-a-stick? (The red things starting at 0:47) And the heavy tarpaulins at subway and store entrances, and the little ceramic pots of yogurt, and lots more.
- The clip also shows the hunkered-down nature of winter in big city China -- the bulky coats, the hats and gloves, the general discomfort. And of course the air, which I won't belabor except to say that all the messages I've received from friends in Beijing this week center on the unendurable new level of pollution. And the willed denial of those circumstances that is necessary to get through the day.
++ Bonus policy point: In the largest sense, "sustainability" is obviously the challenge for any society or economic system. But in a very immediate way, environmental sustainability is by far the largest and most urgent challenge for China. The country's blackened skies, poisoned lands and waters, and untrustworthy food are a public health menace; they are an emerging political threat to the government; they are the main challenge that China's rise creates for the world as a whole. ++
- The video is obviously a planned and staged production, but it both portrays on purpose and captures by accident some of the individualistic spontaneity and chaos of Chinese life, which for me is an enormous part of the appeal of the place and its people.*
- It's also a complement to the Pomplamoose version of the same song I mentioned recently. If you didn't see that before, you should see it now: it's embedded once more down below.
On the other hand: yesterday the latest offering from the state-controlled China Daily arrived inside the WaPo at our house. The pages look a little wrinkled here due to exposure to yet another dose of the unending polar-vortex snow:
I've always joked that the China Daily was my favorite newspaper, because it so often rivals The Onion in the earnest preposterousness of its views.
The joke is wearing off for me, because of the crackdown on international and domestic reporters underway this past year in China. It's harder and harder for outsiders even to get visas there. (On my latest trip three months ago, I got no word about my visa until literally the day before departure, and this for a gathering that the Chinese government itself had authorized. The visa was for a single entry only, and ten days' stay.) It's riskier for domestic reporters to look into "sensitive" matters, above all involving the personal fortunes of the rulers' families. Last month, civil-society advocates in Hong Kong were alarmed when the editor of a leading independent newspaper there, Kevin Lau of Ming Pao, was fired after his paper had undertaken some muckraking investigations of the mainland leadership. A few days ago in Hong Kong he was stabbed, in a still-unexplained but ominous attack. (I discussed this yesterday on Here and Now, along with Shirley Yam of Hong Kong.)
So drollery about "my favorite newspaper" doesn't seem as droll any more. And although I understand all the logical reasons why China Daily should be able to piggyback on the Washington Post -- it's a free country, the material is marked as a special supplement, closing down info is never a good answer, the WaPo needs the money -- the contrast is grating. At a time when China is trying to keep foreign reporters from even entering its country, it's injecting a direct shot of Chinese-government perspective into our capital-city papers. This is not "dangerous" in any way, but it's annoying.
Bonus point one, the Pomplamoose cover of Pharrell Williams's Happy.
*Bonus point two, a passage from China Airborne that is relevant in weighing the always-mixed news out of that country.
The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky.
Updates from Greenville and "the upstate" of South Carolina coming soon. In the meantime, selected China readings:
1) "Is China the Next Mexico?" Atlantic readers know Jorge Guajardo and his wife Paola Sada as former Guest Bloggers in this space. In China they have been known in recent years as the face of Mexico, since from 2007 through 2013 Jorge was the Mexican ambassador there. (That's him at the right, in a news picture during a tense Mexican-Chinese moment five years ago.) Now they are living in the United States, where Jorge has delivered a puckishly provocative speech.
Its premise is not the tired one of whether Mexico might become the "next China" but rather the reverse: whether China has the hope of going through the political reforms that have transformed Mexico since the end of one-party rule. Very much worth reading, for its "who should be learning from whom?" approach. I hope they are studying this in Beijing.
Disclosures: Jorge and Paola Guajardo are close friends of our family. Also, the venue for the speech was the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the UC San Diego, where I have visited many times and feel part of its diaspora.
2) "A Field Guide to Hazardous China Cliches," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Anyone writing or talking about China gets used to a certain rodomontade. China has not simply been around for a long time. It has a "5,000-year history," which must be referred to in exactly those terms. (I burst out into admiring laughter when, with my friend Michele Travierso, I walked into Turkey's pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. The introductory plaque said something like, "For 6,000 years, civilization on the Anatolian plain..." ) China was not simply buffeted by the decline of the Qing dynasty at just the time of European colonial expansion. It suffered the "century of humiliation," which explains and excuses any touchiness now.
Ben Carlson, a former Atlantic staffer now based in Hong Kong (and a relative of mine), has a very nice brief checklist of these and other phrases to be aware of and avoid—or at least to surround in protectively ironic air-quotes if you have to utter them. As with one of the phrases he saves for later discussion: "Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people." Again very much worth reading.
3) "In China, Watching My Words." From Helen Gao—a Beijing native, Yale college alumna, and recent Atlantic staffer—a very eloquent NYT essay on how she has adjusted what she allows herself to say since moving back to China. This piece has gotten a lot of attention, and deserves it.
4) "China's International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States." Here is the full-text version of a scientific study mentioned in an Atlantic Cities item recently. Most press coverage emphasized a kind of ironic backflip whammy: U.S. factories had outsourced much of their production to China. And—ahah!—the pollution was blowing right back across the Pacific to get them. (I discussed the ramifications of this coverage in an On the Media segment with Bob Garfield today.)
To me the real impact of the study was in charts like the ones below. Here is what they show, for the pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. (There are similar ones for CO2 and other pollutants.) In the left-hand column, that China is putting out a lot more than America is; and in the right-hand column, that the U.S. puts out more per capita, though by a declining margin. The middle column is the important one, showing that per unit of output, Chinese factories are still grossly more polluting than those in America (or Europe or Japan). Thus the economic logic of outsourcing, which is powerful, has also made the world's output more environmentally damaging than it was before.
This is a big gnarly issue, which I've tried to deal with here and here and here. But the importance of this study, in my view, is underscoring how important it is to the entire world to clean up those Chinese factories.
5) Pollution take 5.5 years off every person's life. The study above got headlines for concluding that Chinese pollution (some driven by serving export markets) added one extra day, per year, to Southern California's smog burden.
A study a few months ago by a Chinese-American team calculated that for the 500 million residents of Northern China, pollution was already taking five and a half years off the average person's expected life span. This is a genuine public-health and political emergency.
6) The missing 1 trillion (or 4 trillion) dollars. Not to dwell on the negative, but reports here, here, and here detail some of the ways in which the people running China have tried to insulate themselves and their children from the environmental and other effects of actually living there. These reports are not positive indicators—any more than if the Obama family was moving all of its assets out of the U.S., to protect the daughters' future prospects.
7) Let's be realistic about China's ambitions, and problems. My line all along has been: Take China seriously, but don't be afraid of it. Take it seriously, because what happens there affects the entire world. Don't be afraid of it, because it has problems that already-rich and stable countries can barely imagine. More on this theme from the China Daily. And an interesting twist from Global Times. (Both papers are state-controlled; GT is often more fire-breathingly nationalist.)
8) To end on a positive note, a Chinese lower-pollution car.
That is all. Another Reader coming shortly, on Iran and related topics. Then: the story of Greenville, Greer, and environs.
If you are joining us late, background on why it matters so much in China -- and Japan -- that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and whether it should in fact matter, is in previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Now, additional recent readers' views.
1. "Imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington." From Noboru Akimoto:
I've been watching your back and forth on Yasukuni with some interest, and I generally agree with the commentators that say the issue is more with the Yushukan than with the shrine itself. [JF note: Yushukan is the "historical" museum near the shrine, with a very tendentious view of Japan being forced into the war by Allied encirclement.]
I do think a part that's not been mentioned is that Yasukuni Jinja [Shrine], because of the separation of religion and state of the post-war constitution, is NOT a part of the Japanese government, nor does any of the Imperial family have control over its actions.
We know from the Tomita Memorandum that the Showa Emperor [aka Hirohito] was furious about the chief priest's decision to include the Class A 14 into the shrine in 1979, but that as a matter of politics, neither the Emperor nor the government can actually compel Yasukuni, a private religious institution, from acknowledging the 14 Class A criminals nor force it to disinter their spirits.
As a Japanese individual and Shintoist, I would like to see the priests separate the class A war criminals from the others, but I also understand that as a practical, constitutional matter, having the government force the issue would be a step in the wrong direction.
If we had to have some sort of strange analogy, I would ask American readers to imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington.
2. By the way, who are these "Class-A War Criminals" anyway? From a reader in Singapore, with a point I should have clarified earlier:
In your recent posts about the Yasukuni shrine, the inclusion of WWII era Japanese Class-A war criminals is mentioned with no explanation of the term "Class-A". I've noticed that this is common in news articles about Yasukuni in recent decades, though in your article you do note that the war criminal trials in Japan held by the Allies were at least somewhat controversial as to their basis in law and morality.
It is almost natural for the casual reader (or writer of articles) to assume that "Class-A" in this context simply means the worst kind of war criminal, a sort of Japanese equivalent of an Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, Amon Goeth or some such.
As you likely know, "Class-A War Criminal" had a very specific meaning in the context of the Tokyo trials. "Class-A" war crimes were defined as "crimes against peace". Crimes against humanity, such as genocide or the Nanking massacre were "Class-C" crimes while the more usual war crimes, such as shooting helpless prisoners, were "Class-B" war crimes.
The 25 Japanese officials tried for Class-A war crimes were tried for plotting and waging war, i.e. crimes against peace. Some of them were tried additionally for Class-B and Class-C crimes, and all those multiply convicted were executed.
But at least two of those charged with Class-A crimes resumed civilian life, in the Japanese cabinet in the 1950s and as the CEO of Nissan, respectively.
In 1929, Japan signed (but did not ratify) the Kellogg-Briand Pact formally titled the "General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy". The treaty made declaration of aggressive war illegal, but not prosecutable by other signatories to the treaty. "Declaration" was the weasel word in the treaty, which many nations, including Japan took full advantage of in the years to come.
And it was on this basis that the Class-A charges were prosecuted in the 1946 Tokyo trials. Except for the Imperial Family and the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, who were protected by Douglas MacArthur, this meant that practically the entire Japanese cabinet that had anything to do with the conduct of war was thus indicted.
I think it would help if a brief note were made in the article about the terminology. I'm not suggesting moral or legal exoneration of these individuals but context matters. The term "Class-A" plays straight into the hands of the Chinese Government which has its own questionable agenda in kicking up a protest about Yasukuni every year. I would have thought that it is the inclusion of the Class-C criminals that would be more morally disturbing to non-Japanese victims of the war, though in the case of China and Korea at least, the Buddhist value commonplace in Japan, of letting go of the grudge against the sinner (not the sin) after his death, is not exactly unknown or alien. Quite the opposite.
3) An American equivalent? From a reader on the West Coast:
In “Episode Six” your “American who lives in Japan…and has a Japanese spouse” observed that "The museum (Yushukan) is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity … I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai?”
In fact, the same sort of mendacity and audacity did almost occur at the Vietnam Memorial. Then President Ronald Reagan, his Interior Secretary James Watt and their supporters were adamantly opposed to Maya Lin’s design for the memorial, precisely because it did not glorify an unjust lost war while memorializing the soldiers who fought it.
After Lin won the competition and it became apparent they could do nothing to stop it, opponents of her design tried to have a much more mundane, representational sculpture (“The Three Soldiers”) placed at the apex of the memorial. While The Three Soldiers neither lauds the use of napalm nor glorifies My Lai, those opposed to Lin’s Wall knew full well that placing the statue at the apex would reduce her design to mere backdrop, negating it’s abstract emotional power and timelessness. If not for the courage of Maya Lin (then a 21 year old Yale undergraduate) The Wall would indeed have become mere background to one more forgettable representative sculpture lost in the expanse of the National Mall . One could argue that was the objective of the right-wing opponents of the Vietnam memorial all along.
While recognizing the left is just as capable as the right at papering over history we should avoid false equivalency here. One regrettable quality of the right wing mind seems to be the unique skill it brings to the revision of history, the negation of fact and the power of forgetfulness. Unfortunately this is every bit as true here in America as it is in Japan.
I well remember that the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was bitter and intense. As it happens, I think the final outcome is the right one -- artistically, historically, culturally. Maya Lin's wall endures as a real work of genius, and it regularly has a larger crowd of up-close visitors than any other site on the Mall. Usually families or friends looking at names of loved ones. (You can contrast this with the stupid, ugly vapidity of the recent World War II memorial, a subject for another time.) The addition of Frederick Hart's "The Three Soldiers" statue, nearby but not surmounting the wall, I think adds to rather than complicates the commemorative power of the memorial. The more recent addition of a realistic statue of combat nurses also is, in my view, a dignified plus.
4) Self-identity as victim. From an American who recently visited Japan:
Last year, when we visited the moving Atomic Bomb museum in Nagasaki, I was surprised to find that the timeline on the wall gave the name, "War of the Pacific", to WWII and explicitly blamed the U.S. for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was shown only by a single photo on the wall. Apparently, the Yasukuni representation is not isolated.
I had the same impression on my first visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima back in the 1980s. Its historical account began with something like, "In the springtime of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched a campaign of firebombing against major cities in Japan..." with no mention of what might have happened beforehand.
I no longer have a photo of that account and don't see one online. I do note that the online "Kids Peace Station" run by the Hiroshima museum has a very fair-seeming account of the origins of the war.
The scholarship on how modern Japan does and does not remember its war history is vast and complex. The best single account remains John Dower's Embracing Defeat, but, for instance, you could check out a 2010 paper by Mindy Haverson, then of Stanford Law School which makes this point about Hiroshima:
The dominant postwar messages that war, particularly nuclear war, is evil and destructive serve as universalized constructions in which the aggressor/enemy is neither the colonial, militaristic Japanese state nor the US [which dropped the bomb] but "war" itself. As such, Japan can avoid both self-identification as an aggressor vis-a-vis the rest of Asia and the denigration of the U.S. as an enemy, a move that Japan's leaders have sought to avoid in light of the country's economic and security dependence on the US.
In the absence of an entity "responsible" for wartime suffering, Japan has positioned itself as the ultimate victim and articulated a role for itself as international spokesperson for world peace.
5) The power of "encirclement" thinking, and other dominant images. Another Westerner in Asia writes:
In some future post or roundtable perhaps it's worth exploring the encirclement theme that has come up in the Yasakuni/Yushukan discussion. It certainly drives behavior from China and Iran today, and perhaps Russia, Pakistan, and a few others.
I agree. Because it is geographically almost impossible for America to be "encircled," many Americans have a hard time even imagining the power of this threat/concept in many other countries -- including the Japan of the 1930s and the China of today. Even enormous China? Yes, given that its sea-lane access is subject to many choke points -- and that across many of its borders it sees concentrations of American or U.S.-allied troops. More on this later; for now, an example of the kind of map I've often been shown by Chinese strategic experts. (The black plane-symbols are US or allied bases):
The same reader quoted above adds:
I'm an American resident in Hong Kong doing business across Asia for 20 years, and I don't think most Americans have any concept of just how deep and state sponsored the Japanese vs Chinese racism goes. It has ebbed somewhat in the younger generation through positive exposure - the nearest analogy I can think of is gay rights in the US - but the government uses mass media to perpetuate the most ugly stereotypes at every opportunity.
I agree with this too -- and the whole Yasukuni/Yushukan controversy may have the virtue of giving the Western public an idea of how powerful and dangerous these emotions can become.
The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, five, and six. But we may now be nearing the end.
A Japanese view. I have received a lot of contumely from readers in Japan, without much explanation. Here is one from a reader in Japan making a point about its view of the past.
Before turning it over to him, a linguistic note: it's always tricky to decide how much to alter quotes from non-native speakers. I have cleaned this up only where I thought it necessary to clarify the meaning. For another time, a discussion of the fairness and unfairness of English's emergence as a global language of discourse, with related benefits to native speakers. See Ta-Nehisi Coates on this theme from France. For now, my Japanese correspondent writes:
I want to explain the Japanese Culture's views about crime, punishment, and death.
There is a saying that " hate the crime, forgive the offender". [JF Note: In English, this is of course "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Somehow I find myself thinking of the Japanese person who once asked if there was an English counterpart for the Japanese concept of ニュアンス, or nyuansu. This was of course the Japanese transliteration of the French->English word nuance.]
Japanese people make an effort to forgive an offender after his death or after he receives punishment.
It is the wisdom which developed in long history in order to cut off the chain of hate.
This is not only for Yasukuni but is generally true.
Japan's prime minister sent funeral condolences on the occasion of the death of Roosevelt who was an enemy's president.
Japanese people have not been blaming Americans about an atomic bomb in the past and the future...
Even with Osama bin Laden's dead body, probably it is treated carefully and desires a quiet mental rest...
From the world's perspective, it may seem weak not to retaliate.
It may be difficult to be understood. There may be some persons who get angry. However, if seen from the Japanese people's perspective, the world is bound by the chain of hate and can be considered to be sad.
Which may provide one answer to the question a reader in the U.S. raises:
Here's something I've never understood about Japan and its continuing propaganda, as per Yūshūkan: why, if Japanese citizens are taught that the US forced Japan into WWII and then brutally attacked and humiliated her, are relations so good between our countries? Shouldn't there be enormous amounts of teeming resentment on their part? That would seem the natural reaction. And yet it doesn't seem to be the case. Why not?
On the different Japanese and Chinese uses of the past, from an American academic:
You posted some interesting comments from readers about the appalling War Museum at the shrine site. At least a couple of them suggested there was nothing equivalent in American life.
Well, there is. Its the pernicious myth of the Lost Cause and the nobility of the Confederacy. Go visit something like Stone Mountain in Georgia. How do a group of people who attempted to destroy the United States in the cause of preserving slavery get to be lionized? It can be objected that this is a primarily regional, Southern, phenomenon but that would be a significant underestimate of the historic pervasiveness of this myth. This myth, with the accompanying myth of the horrors of Reconstruction, dominated American thinking about the Civil War era for decades. Prominent academic historians propagated these myths, and there is an immense popular literature supporting these ideas.
While this aspect of Japanese life is deplorable, its also worth asking why the Chinese government makes such a big deal out of these episodes? Its certainly not because Japan is any real sense a threat to China. The Chinese leadership is propagating their own version of victimization, which is certainly much better justified by historical events, to boost domestic solidarity and their legitimacy.
This is a rather cynical use of the past. It could even be argued that the Chinese misuse of the past is even worse than the abuse of the past by Japanese politicians. The latter are functioning within the confines of a democratic political system and a constitution that forbids aggression. The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, is attempting to use the past to perpetuate an authoritarian regime.
As I wrote repeatedly while living in China (and in my books), I basically agree with the reader's concluding point about the deliberate -- and dangerous -- way in which the Chinese government has ramped up anti-Japanese feelings. Often, as recently with Yasukuni, the Japanese government makes that job even easier.
From another American:
I’ve been following the Yasukuni thread from the beginning.
As minimal background, I am now 75, have been married to a Japanese woman for 43 years, and have both lived in Japan several times and visited many times since 1960.
My personal experience leads me to believe that in these times, the vast majority of Japanese do not think about, or care to think about WWII, per se. To most it is an embarrassment, not to be discussed, and best forgotten. I don’t know if there are studies which provide evidence of this, but I would bet on it.
I think there was a time when the post-war pacifism, anti-war sentiment of many Japanese was more evident. One of the greatest anti-war films I have ever seen was a Japanese production released in 1959 - The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken). [Above] It is in three parts with a total running time of something like ten hours! (No doubt it is way too long and melodramatic for most of today’s audiences.) If I recall correctly, this was very popular in Japan at the time.
Finally -- for this post, and I believe for this topic -- a reader's note on one other historical angle:
I've just got one significant gripe with the last excerpt you posted in this article: it calls Midway "the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific," but the real end of Japanese naval aspirations was the Battle of the Philippine Sea two years later, which was only made possible by an extremely dangerous top-secret intel delivery mission that was completed by the submarine on which my grandfather served as an officer, the USS Crevalle.
The Crevalle was dispatched to the Philippines in order to secure documents containing the “Z Plan” which had been recovered from a crashed Japanese plane. The documents were in plain Japanese language without any code, resulting in a quick (although initially difficult due to the frequency of unknown naval terms) translation. This intel allowed the Americans to inflict a devastating blow on the Japanese fleet in June 1944, in which 3 Japanese carriers and somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 Japanese aircraft were destroyed while the Americans lost just over 100 aircraft.
The battle was so one-sided that it became known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” It effectively eliminated Japan’s ability to wage carrier-based warfare for good.
Even better, the same mission by the Crevalle also secured the safe rescue of 40 American refugees from [the Philippine island of] Negros. I will always be proud of that.
The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, and five. Now, another angle: that the real object of attention should not be the famous Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead and a handful of "Class A" war criminals, are honored. Instead, by this logic, it should be the nearby Yūshūkan, 遊就館, or war-history museum, that presents an incredibly tendentious "Japan as victim" interpretation of 20th century events. I mentioned my visit there in the first installment of the series. But let me now turn it over to the readers.
First, from an American who lives in Japan, is fluent in and works in Japanese language, and has a Japanese spouse:
Now that everyone is eating their osechi [holiday treats] and I am not getting any more emails on my blackberry, I would like to emphasize again something you pointed out in your original post:
"As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement."
I think that the discussion of Yasukuni by foreign media outlets presents the shrine itself in a far more anodyne way by just referring to it as a place housing the souls of Japanese war dead that also (almost incidentally) includes Class A war criminals. Thinking about Yasukuni this way makes comparisons to Arlington sound far more reasonable, particularly if one is sympathetic to the sort of "victor's justice" criticisms about the general legitimacy of some of the post-war trials for the crimes of starting the war (ignoring for the moment the crimes of how the war was subsequently fought or those crimes carried out against civilians, which were less the focus of the trials led by the US).
I wish instead that every article about this issue would mention, as you did, the "historical" museum at the shrine, which I visited for the first time when I was studying abroad at [a leading] university here in Tokyo as an undergraduate. Aside from various military memorabilia (e.g., a Zero fighter plane), it portrays on exhibits along the walls of the museum a timeline of the entire war period (which for Japan includes, of course, the fighting in Manchuria and China before the US was involved).
This amounts to a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing. The vast majority of the wall space is taken up with detailing Japan's military victories, with only the last few panels tying up how the US dropped the atomic bombs (causing the Emperor to make the judicious decision to end the war in the interest of the people). As I remember it, not only is there no mention at all of the atrocities committed in China and Korea by Japanese forces, but forces arriving in China are described as being welcomed by the people with open arms. [JF note: that is my recollection as well.]
The museum is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity (in that it is in both Japanese and English, and thus not just for Japanese consumption). It is entirely different to create a memorial to pay somber respect to those who died in a war -- irrespective of the justice of the particular cause the soldiers died for -- than it is to create a memorial that recasts an entire war in a glorified light, including over the widely recognized atrocities committed in that war.
I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai? Or maybe if there was a museum at Arlington that talked about how the slaves were better off under the Confederacy? I think it would be easy to see how the existence itself of any such museum would leave lots of people justifiably furious, let alone patronage of the museum or any associated place by a sitting head of state.
I think any reasonably objective person who visited the museum would realize that, whatever it was intended to be or was in the past, Yasukuni itself has since deliberately and absolutely been made a political symbol of a very specific view of history by certain people in Japan, and is not at all a neutral place that incidentally is shouldering the blame for some past crimes of those interned therein. There is no way that any Japanese politician could visit the shrine without endorsing this same view of history, and be doing so deliberately. I don't think that this is clearly explained in most articles about this topic for international audiences, which I think muddles the issue and allows sympathy for the actions of Abe which is not at all merited.
Similarly, from another Westerner with experience in Japan:
I visited Yasukuni about 1998 I think. It was Golden Week and there were the usual ceremonial displays of old war vets in uniform. The Emperor's Nephew was visiting, I have a photo of the Imperial Police shoving me out of his path while I was trying to take his picture.
I went into the Yuushuukan, the war museum, and was horrified at some of the things I saw. There were displays mapping out Japan's foreign military campaigns, but no mention of the hundreds of years of civil war inside Japan. Japan's naval battles in the Sino-Japanese wars were emphasized as the beginning of Japanese modern military power in Asia. This is a fact, but the display's assertion that this was right and proper, seemed propagandistic.
So I went into the theater that shows a film on 20th Century Japanese military history. The film is pure propaganda dating back to before WWII. It clearly explains the "ABCD Theory," that the Americans, British, Dutch, and Chinese forced Japan into a war it didn't want, by colonizing Asia and monopolizing all the oil, rubber, and other products Japan needed. Japan is clearly laid out as the victim here, they would starve if they didn't fight for "what was rightfully theirs.".
Oh but the war itself is portrayed as liberating the oppressed people from the ABCDs, there is actually a scene in the film of Japanese soldiers advancing into China, handing out rice balls to starving orphan children. What a civilized war! This propaganda absolutely enraged me, particularly when I realized this was exactly the same propaganda forced on the Japanese civilians during the war.
When the film ended, I felt like I was an intruder, witnessing a conspiracy that everyone thought was dead. And the Japanese people who exited the theater were surprised to see a gaijin [literally "outside person," foreigner] had watched the film, some of them seemed embarrassed. One of them saw my angry scowl and asked me what I thought about the film. He talked to me about it at length, saying it was the crazy uyoku [right-wingers] that still promote these ideas, but that the mainstream of society has rejects them. But the uyoku still have influence.
My experience of the presentations in the yuushuukan was entirely negative, even for a Japanese history student like me, although there was a single solitary moment I will never forget. In the display of military gear, there was a tarnished old clip of ammunition. It was a row of about 8 cartridges about 5 inches long, clipped together at the base, ready for insertion into a gun. But these bullets were hit by another bullet. The bullet penetrated through the middle of the first cartridge, then through the second with less power, going right finally coming to a stop at the very last cartridge. One bullet shot perfectly down the length of the clip, taking out the entire clip. I thought that was the perfect symbol for war, bullets being destroyed by a bullet.
Similarly, from yet another Japan-observing gaijin:
I've seen a couple of your commenters saying we should just let Japan mourn like any other country, and the world should not interpret Yasukuni as anything more provocative than shrines to war dead everywhere else.
What they're missing is something that is obvious to anyone who visits the place: it is the Japanese who continue to make Yasukuni an offensive symbol. The approach to the shrine is thronged with militaristic right-wing groups and their banners and loudspeakers that glorify Japan's militaristic past. The shrine itself is beautiful and dignified, but next to it sits a well-funded war museum that's run by those right-wing groups. And that museum is as slanted as anything I've seen in a totalitarian country. The "US forced Japan into war" part is quite something -- but I actually found the stuff about the Japanese efforts to bring stability and development to Manchuria and Nanking (!) much worse.
And, just to establish the point, from another outside observer of Japan:
Japanese (right-wing) politicians often compare Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery, since they insist they are simply honoring Japan’s war dead, something that all nations do. I think they have a valid point. The vast majority of Japanese killed in WWII were unfortunate draftees and it is proper to honor and memorialize them, even if the war they fought in was wrong. (Iraq II and Vietnam are widely considered bad wars in the US, but no one would ever consider not honoring the soldiers who died fighting them.)
The fact that war criminals are enshrined in Yasukuni is often cited as the reason why Japanese leaders shouldn’t visit it. I disagree with this. The Tokyo trials that convicted these “war criminals” are widely considered a joke (unlike Nuremberg) and while the people who were convicted were certainly bad, the trials were extremely arbitrary in who was targeted and many people who had been arrested were quickly given amnesty by the US when the Cold War heated up...
The main problem with Yasukuni as I see it is the fact that on the grounds of the shrine is a museum that offers an extremely revisionist view of WWII. The museum’s perspective would be extremely offensive to almost anyone, not just Chinese or Koreans, and does not represent the commonly held view of the war among Japanese. In this sense, the shrine is indeed a place that glorifies Japan’s actions in WWII.
Yasukuni, therefore, is not an appropriate site for a national leader to visit. However, there is probably a catch-22, in that any Japanese leader who proposed building a memorial for war dead that could actually be compared to Arlington would at once be denounced by China and Korea (and probably the Japanese public) as promoting militarism.
To end this on a more constructive direction, consider this note from a well-known pilot and writer, about one of the under-appreciated aspects of Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942, mentioned here.
I too for decades and decades thought that the main benefit of the Doolittle Raid was the morale boost that it gave the U. S. public, but Winston Groom's new book "The Aviators" gives a fascinating new insight into the most important fallout from that mission.
Yes, America was thrilled to read that we'd bombed "the Japs," and yes, it did cause the Japanese high command to shuffle troop and naval units around to protect against the eventuality of future raids, but the game-changer was that the Doolittle mission unleashed an absolute torrent of semi-hysterical Japanese radio comm while it was underway, some of it in the clear and some coded, and that all of this was read by the cipher geeks in Hawaii and Washington who were soon to break the Japanese Imperial Navy code. And because of that trove of radio messages to work with, they broke the code in time for the Battle of Midway, when as a result we knew in advance what the Imperial Fleet's movement would be.
As I'm sure you know, the critical 10 minutes of that battle, when the unexpected SBDs sank three Japanese carriers and crippled a fourth (later to be sunk) were the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific. We can thank Doolittle for that, it seems.
It turns out that there is more to say on the Yasukuni Shrine/ 靖国神社 / history's-burden theme. For background see previous installmentsone, two, three, and four.
"I knew Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a friend of mine..." A very large proportion of the reading public wrote in to question or complain about this sentence in a previous reader's message:
Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.
Here is a sample of the many WTF?? responses I received, this one from a Westerner who has lived and worked in both Japan and China:
The person who wrote the above [about Doolittle] gained far more space in your column than he deserved. Curtis LeMay yes (by his own admission), Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb] maybe . . . but Doolittle?
I should have flagged this to begin with. This reader is exactly right that the original sentence would have made sense with Curtis LeMay's name, but not so much with Jimmy Doolittle's.
Sez who, about Curtis LeMay? Sez LeMay himself, along with Robert McNamara. As McNamara put it to Errol Morris in the wonderful film The Fog of War:
I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. [This is McNamara speaking, but my emphasis added below.] The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?
LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
The background here is that McNamara was part of the wartime civilian planning team, and LeMay was the bomber commander, for the horrific Allied fire-bombing campaign against Tokyo and other cities in the final year of the war. More people are thought to have been burned to death during one of these raids on Tokyo in 1945 than were killed by either of the atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More details here.
Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid against Tokyo in 1942, for which he won the Medal of Honor, was of strategic and symbolic importance as the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese home islands, just four months after World War II. But it did relatively little collateral (or direct) damage and in no way marked Doolittle for opprobrium. He was an impressive and accomplished figure in many other ways, including as a pioneer in the science, technology, and practice of instrument-guided flight. Sorry not to have caught this earlier. [Update: After his famous 1942 raid on Japan, Doolittle was commander for the much more morally questionable Dresden firebombing in 1945, as here.]
Let's dig once more into the mail bag. Another reader writes in response to the original passage about Arlington and Doolittle, above:
First, U.S. Presidents must walk on eggshells around the memory of the Civil War. We all know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but Grant’s Tomb is not in Arlington. Sherman is buried in St. Louis. You won't find Forrest, or Longstreet, or Hooker, or McClellan in Arlington. Nor Robert E. Lee, whose home it was, Kit Carson isn’t there, nor his superior James Carleton who ordered the Navajo internment.
Why Jimmy Doolittle? He is remembered chiefly for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. This was, to be sure, a largely indiscriminate attack on a civilian target. It may have been ineffectual and unfortunate. But if this is a war crime, what of Curtis LeMay, or Arthur Harris, or Capt. Yossarian? (Yossarian comes to reject the war, you may recall, after Snowden spills his guts.)
The odd thing is that, for this rhetorical purpose, any arguable US War Crime — preferably WW2 and ideally against Japan — would serve. The assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto in 1943 seems far more appropriate. This was authorized in a meeting between FDR and Frank Knox, and was recognized at the time as an act whose dubious morality could only be excused as an absolute necessity of war. I am surprised that this decision has not been more widely discussed in recent years, as it is the evident precedent for our current drone policy.
But the point [this reader] misses, or deliberately ignores, is that postwar Japan is not a nation like any other. It is, or was, raised up as a city on a hill, a nation that was sovereign but that had, now and forever, abjured war. This may have been imposed by the victors, just as abolition (and, a hundred years later, integration) was imposed upon the South. It was an acceptable solution. Others had been envisioned: a few years earlier, William Halsey has looked across Pearl Harbor and predicted that, by the war’s end, "the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."
Another view of Arlington:
You can see the Japanese perspective that we are being a little selective.
Arlington holds 482 confederates and has a big monument build by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Let’s be clear: these people actively engaged in war against the United States, for the cause of slavery. The number of war criminals at Yasukuni is less than 1/10 the number of Confederates in Arlington, and Yasukuni also holds many millions of regular soldiers, far more than Arlington. Yet Presidents manage to visit Arlington to honor all the dead of all the wars without it being seen as a justifying slavery and its many horrors.
If some African Americans made a visit to Arlington about slavery, you could see that some politicians would use visits to Arlington as a way to rile up white support. Yet we all chose to make Arlington just about war dead. I think this is good: it allows the fight to be over clearer symbols like the confederate flag and schools named after Klan leaders. And, over the past few years, I think we have seen some notable successes against Southern revisionism.
Now, if we can stop making Yasukuni about war criminals, we can perhaps focus on issues that are much clearer, like the rape of Nanjing, the modern treatment of Koreans in Japan, and the like.
I cannot escape the feeling that atrocity is frankly a function of the State. The US and other liberal (in the proper sense, not the colloquial American sense) nations are no different.
Natives are still on the reservation. Blacks are still in the ghetto. Millions of families across mid Asia are mourning sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers devoured for the sin of geo proximity to "terror." Et cetera.
Finding an accurate analogy to Mr. Abe seems almost pointless. He is a smart, competent leader surrounded by smart, competent advisors and likely knew what China would think of his visit during a time of regional stress.
And yet the sins of Japan are, tragically, par for the course.
Finally, from another American living in China:
I often wonder why comparisons are even needed for events that can be read as offensive, including Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni.
Writers should reject the carelessness inherent in "as bad as Hitler in a KKK robe" sentiments. Hiding behind "not quite as bad as" probably rings hollow to some and not quite distancing enough for others.
Crimes committed during war are horrific -- without comparison. Writers should name these horrors rather than rely on false comparisons that muddy truth.
Slavery is as bad as the peculiar institution. The Holocaust is as bad as the Shoah.
My original purpose in introducing these comparisons was simply explanatory. For the majority of Western readers who might never have heard of Yasukuni, analogies were a way to suggest what the visit meant within the Japanese domestic context, and how they might be read in other parts of Asia. For the underlying crimes, tragedies, and destruction, no comparison is possible, or needed -- as this reader says.
I hadn't expected to devote so much space to the ramifications of Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. For a catchup on previous discussion, see installments one, two, and three. But messages keep pouring in, and before turning back to American Futures and Redlands, Calif. this afternoon, here is one presumably final installment.
Ambiguous -- like the Confederate flag. From a friend who is a professor of Chinese history:
In terms of analogies, what’s struck me as the best one to convey the response that visits to the shrine elicits in East Asia isn’t a visit to a site located elsewhere, but rather displays of Confederate flags...
An effort is made then, by those who use it that way, to assert that it is a complex symbol that can mean many things, including a form of local pride, and that those aspects of it should be separable from slavery and from racism. Yet there is no way for many of us in America to see it as separable from precisely those detestable things.
From another student of Asian history, "a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state":
I don’t think that there is an analogue [to Yasukuni] in the United States, or perhaps even in Europe.
Yasukuni, beyond enshrining those Japanese who fell during World War II, enshrines all of those who fell in the Emperor’s service. So all of those soldiers who died in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I are there as well.
Beyond the issue of the war criminals there, the shrine is a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state. When the large metal, rather than typical wood, torii gate was erected, it was the largest free-standing structure in Tokyo and towered over everything else in the city. It was a profound embodiment of the nation.
It’s also worth noting that the modern Japanese nation-state largely defined itself in terms of “not China.” The Japanese modernization project was prompted by the desire to avoid being carved up into European cantonments like China. [JF note: Yes, and this was one of the big themes of my book Looking at the Sun.] And quite early the Japanese began playing the imperial game in Korean, Taiwan, and China proper. These led to the above-mentioned conflicts.
Thus, Yasukuni is inextricably intertwined with Japanese modernity and cannot be separated from the often-brutal colonization efforts abroad. Of course, the scale of Japanese atrocities during World War II, and the war criminals, makes things a bit different, but in a sense, the shrine is a representation of what any modern nation-state does.
Japanese conduct in the Pacific War was indeed particularly barbaric, but the overall gist of things wasn’t that far different from their earlier imperialism, for which they were often praised by European nations (during the Russo-Japanese War, for instance). And insofar as the Japanese nation-state colonized its neighbors, and thus was antithetical to their existence as independent states, Yasukuni can never be acceptable to them as it is a symbol of their oppression. The war criminals are just an intensifier.
I think that the modern outcry against Columbus Day in the United States might be approaching a good analogy. For many Native Americans and American Indians, Columbus stands as the progenitor of European colonization; for this reason, any celebration of him would be offensive. There cannot be a “clean” celebration of Columbus.
On the matter of the Japanese not being repentant enough for their actions during World War II, I think it is worth contextualizing that within US actions. The US desire to see a self-sustaining Japan that could serve as bulwark against Communism led to the US overseeing the completion of the Japanese economic expansion that had been aimed at during World War II by the Japanese, often using the same personnel and experts who had been movers and shakers during the Pacific War.
As Andrew Gordon has argued in The Modern History of Japan, it makes sense to think of a “transwar” period. The end of World War II, rather than marking a radical divergence, instead marked a continuation, albeit by different means. The retention of personnel, and the Emperor himself, by MacArthur created a sense of continuity. The end goal of the Pacific War (ie, a robust, industrialized Japanese nation-state within a quasi-autarkic economic sphere) had not been wrong, only the means that the Japanese went about achieving it. It is somewhat startling how much US policy documents, such as NSC 48-2, echo the goals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
I think there are some parallels with this in Germany, too. But in the German case the Holocaust, card-carrying members of the Nazi Party and the SS in particular could serve as finite and concrete examples of bad acts to be repented. I don’t think the Japanese can separate their atrocities in the same way.
As noted above, I agree about the messy legacy of the Occupation years -- messy within Asia, messy between the U.S. and Japan, and messy most of all within Japan itself. In contrast to the situation in Germany, the wartime symbol of the state -- the Emperor -- remained in place; for this and other reasons, the contrast between pre- and post-war regimes was not as clear-cut as in Germany. Because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's dominant imagery of the war emphasized its own status as wartime victim. And much more, about which there is a vast literature led in my view by John Dower's Embracing Defeat.
The point is: as with anything involving race in America, the layers of history, symbolism, emotion, and paradox here go very deep.
Next, from a Westerner with experience in Asia, an argument that few outsiders really fear militarism from Japan, but they think differently about China:
A quick note on my background. I was an exchange student in Japan for a semester in college, spent two years in South Korea in the U.S. military, and have studied both the Japanese and Korean languages, as well as East Asian history and culture.
My overall take is that this situation is being exacerbated on all sides, in part because it serves the interests of the leadership in each of the respective countries for various reasons.
China’s leadership, for instance, has been quite active in trying to cultivate anti-Japanese resentment among China’s populace well before any of the present series of confrontations. [JF note: Yes, as I've noted repeatedly in my own reports from China.] Abe has clearly been interested in reversing or at least easing the restrictions imposed by the postwar constitution on Japanese military power, and I suspect that absent the current atmosphere of confrontation, he would have much less of an excuse for this or other steps...
One thing that stands out to me in all this, though, is that (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) only China and South Korea have made any particular response. The lack of response from other countries that Japan conquered and occupied during World War II, who suffered as well from Japanese war crimes, is somewhat telling to me. These are predominantly Southeast Asian countries that border the South China Sea, and are involved in a dispute there with China — Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia. I suspect it may indicate that they are much more concerned about China than they are a potentially re-militarized or active Japan.
I find myself in much the same situation. My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, my great-uncle died on Iwo Jima, and my great-grandmother (as an U.S. military nurse) witnessed firsthand the results of the horrific treatment of POWs by the Imperial Japanese military — and yet, the prospect of a rearmed Japan, even one with unrepentant conservatives like Abe in power, does not worry me to the same degree that the actions of China’s leaders, particularly its military leaders, do.
I find it difficult to believe that modern Japan, and its culture, lend itself easily to open political acceptance of the use of military force to impose its will on other nations as it did during and before World War II.* I do not see significant support for it in the popular culture and attitudes. I cannot say the same for China, at least not with the same degree of certainty. (And in fairness, I’d say the same of the U.S. as I do China — our track record isn’t exactly great even as recently as Iraq.)
*I was going to say that the U.S. Japan alliance acts as a check here as well, but then I thought better of it — if anything, our track record indicates we would probably press a remilitarized Japan to participate more in future actions such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Victors' justice. From another reader with a Western name:
You stress the timing issue with the Yasukuni visit. I’m not sure why you think that now is such a critical time in its relations with China. It’s not like the countries are on the cusp of some sort of reconciliation.
The Yasukuni visit is something that should happen every year, or rather three times a year, according to Japanese custom, near New Year, in the spring, and around the summer Obon period. Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.
Abe is just asserting Japan’s right to be a normal country, with the chief executive honoring the nation’s war dead, just like any other country. Japan has been infantilized since the end of the war, but those days are over....
I don’t think it’s clear that forcing generations unborn during the war into guilt trips is effective, however morally necessary one might think it is. Japan has a remarkably non-nationalistic, peaceful population, who on the whole are more puzzled by Chinese and Korean hissy fits than angered by them. Perhaps if China’s geriatric leaders would end the country’s hate-inducing educational curriculum, and let its children grow up in the present day, without wallowing in the past, Chinese might be as mellow as most Japanese are, and everyone would get along.
Let me also point out a particular bias on your part. The scare quotes and the use of the word “nationalist” here: “the power of the ‘victors’ justice’ concept among some Japanese nationalists.” Do you seriously think that any post-war war crimes trial could result in real justice? And in practice in the U.S. the word “nationalistic” implies hard right-wing, even fascistic politics.
Any time you feel tempted to use it in reference to Japan, ask yourself, “How does this compare to the U.S? Is ‘uppity’ the word I’m really looking for?” For instance, is changing the Japanese constitution to be more similar to the U.S. constitution nationalistic? For the most part, politics in Japan that are labeled right-wing or nationalistic by U.S. commentators are closer to centrist politics in the U.S. There are no real right-wing political parties represented in the Diet, while there are many Diet members from socialist and communist parties. The entire Gaussian curve of Japanese politics is considerably more left-wing than the U.S.
I agree that Japanese politics (like those in most democratic countries) are to the left of America's. I disagree that this invalidates terms like "nationalist," as useful distinguishers within the Japanese spectrum.
What about American war crimes? Another reader:
The only difference between this and Presidents visiting Arlington or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that the Japanese not only lost the war, but were occupied and had their leaders tried for war crimes rather than hide behind victory or at least not total defeat.
You could argue that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and certainly the military command under those Presidents, would likely have faced some sort of war crimes trials had Vietnam invaded and overtaken the US. Frankly, those responsible for the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian targets, or drone strikes against civilians in another context, should have been prosecuted as well.
"Don't give a damn about the outside world." From a foreigner living in Japan:
One of the main issues I see with it all is that the Japanese do as they wish and don’t give a damn about the outside world and what they think. It seems that slowly they are trying to close their doors on the outside world but yet, want the benefits of trade. Abe is nothing but a sick right wing nut and many foreigners are packing up and going “home” because of his activities and our freedom slowly being threatened.
I am a [North American] female married to a Japanese man and we can’t discuss Abe,Yasukuni nor Abe’s government without it turning into an argument. And he’s one of the more open-minded and enlightened, needless to say. The Japanese see themselves as the victim of the Second World War and the rest of the world allows them to get away with it. Every year American politicians attend Nagasaki and Hiroshima memorial ceremonies. The same can’t be the same for the Japanese with regards to places like Nanking, Pearl Harbor and many other places Japan destroyed during the war. They don’t send anyone anywhere to try and atone for their past behaviour.
The public, and government, is very well aware of how visits to Yasukuni upsets China and Korea but they don’t care. They bleat on about Japanese victims but fail to understand that THEY caused the deaths of millions in Japan and abroad. They go on and on about how Japanese has apologized but fail to understand that apologies (and money) mean nothing if the current government makes inflammatory statements about the war, ‘comfort women’ and try to white wash history but changing their textbooks.
I am a university professor here; my current students do not have a clue what Japan did during the war. They think they were solely the victims of the Americans and have no idea why China and Korea hate them. They do not understand why Yasukuni is an issue. They do however, know that China and Korea get upset but they don’t care. My students, at a very well known university, openly bash Chinese, Koreans and anyone who dares voice an opinion about how Japan was an aggressor. They simply do not know their history. It isn’t covered on entrance tests to high schools and universities here.
Actually, people in Japan are grappling with their history. From another Westerner:
Your depiction of Japan’s attempt to grapple with its past elides a great deal of necessary detail. In defending the US and UK from charges that they have also attempted to whitewash their own histories, one of your readers seemed to imply that controversies like the one surrounding the statue of Arthur Harris don’t exist in Japan.
In fact, nothing is farther from the truth. Japan is deeply divided over the issue of apologies and reparations for misdeeds during the Second World War. Several well known Japanese historians, including Hirofumi Hayashi, have spent their lives exhaustively documenting Japanese atrocities during the war and many Japanese politicians, such as Yohei Kono, have lobbied for greater public demonstrations of contrition and regret.
While I agree with many commentators that Japan has not done enough to come to terms with the crimes it committed, it also seems clear to me that Japan is being held to a double standard. After all, Japan’s failure to adequately apologize for its aggressive colonial past is hardly unique. The British have certainly never delivered an adequate apology to their former subjects in the Middle East or India. In fact, in Britain, the old British Empire still evokes a great deal of pride. The French, Dutch, Spanish, and Belgians are just as guilty of colonial abuses and have failed just as badly to come to terms with them.
As an American, I have first hand knowledge of the fact that the United States has never quite reconciled its “Manifest Destiny” with the near genocide of the continent’s Native American inhabitants. My middle school and high school history books very effectively championed the American “frontier spirit” while largely ignoring the impact our westward march had on the native peoples already living on the so called “frontier”.
Despite this, none of these controversies have resulted in the type of geopoltical problems like those between Japan and China. I can’t help but conclude that the current diplomatic problems have less to do with a lack of Japanese contrition and more to do with nationalist manipulation. Japan is a convenient target of Chinese hatred for a regime in need of one.
As an illustration of the kind of within-Japan debate this reader is referring to, consider this editorial, "Abe's Yasukuni Visit Isolates Japan," by the well-known diplomat and scholar Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather was the wartime foreign minister. It begins:
To those who are general supporters of Abe’s economic, political and foreign policy initiatives, including myself, his visit to Yasukuni on 26 December was a bombshell of disappointment and helplessness.
On the other hand, from a reader in Japan:
You, Mr. Fallows, have made a lot of enemies here.
OK. Thanks to all for views and for reminders of the complexities of this important topic, and that is enough for now. Next up, more on the pluses and minuses of our own country.
For those joining us late: two days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a well-publicized visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is where more than two million of Japan's war dead, including a number of "Class A War Criminals" from World War II, are honored. To many people in China and South Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggression and of pacifist post-war Japan's relative lack of interest its wartime record. ("Relative," compared with post-war Germany.) To some right-wing and nationalist groups within Japan, it is a symbol of national dignity and strength.
The Yasukuni story is surprisingly tangled. For more on why Hirohito -- the wartime and post-war leader known in Japan as the Showa Emperor -- initially paid visits but stopped after war criminals were added to the list of enshrinees in 1978, you can start here or here. For the power of the "victors' justice" concept among some Japanese nationalists -- the argument that the main mistake Imperial Japan made was to lose the war -- see books like this and this, or academic articles like this and this or this. It is a deep and controversial theme.
But for practical purposes, the point right now is that visits to Yasukuni always fray tempers between Japan and (especially) China, and relations between Japan and China are already as dangerously frayed as they have been in decades.
What's the right non-Asian analogy for the impact of such a visit at such a time? I offered a quick, flawed suggestion; readers pointed out why it was wrong. Herewith one final installment.
Reagan in Mississippi. A reader writes in with the same suggestion that the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with at just the same time:
Wouldn't Ronald Reagan opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain sixteen years earlier, be a closer analogy?
Yes, it would be. That's the moment shown above.
Reagan in Germany. Many readers also wrote in with another Reagan suggestion:
I am not sure why you are struggling so much for an analogy. It seems that Bitburg (where Reagan had a shameful moment) is the best analogy – a cemetery which includes World War II war criminals visited controversially by heads of state.
Another reader offered a refinement on Bitburg:
Not so much Reagan visiting it, but any German chancellor visiting it, and honoring the Nazi dead. No?
Reagan’s visiting it was insensitive enough, but a different kind of insensitive.
What about Gitmo? We get more into thought-experiment territory here. But an expat living and working in Japan writes:
How about this: an American president visiting Gitmo on 9/11 anniversary (maybe with special section still active ... in perpetuity)...
To give a slightly more nuanced response to the problem of Japan and its responsibility / lack of acknowledgement for the barbaric acts committed by the imperial army, I see Yasukuni as a symptom to a very messy cultural conundrum ... to be honest, let`s get some of the other, easier problems of the world taken care of first: such as the middle east and gun control in the US.
Luckily, no sacred cows there.
I guess I should not revert to sarcasm but I really do not see any way to solve this problem that reoccurs like clockwork. The above started out as a sincere attempt to further the discussion in a positive manner but I have been down this road countless times ... our voices [those of outsiders] do not count.
That reader went on to say that he agreed with someone I had quoted previously, who argued "Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on."
Another reader writes to disagree specifically with the idea of "moving on" and offers a less sympathetic view:
I'd like to provide a little push-back to your last quoted emailer:
"Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.” ...
This sounds suspiciously to me like false equivalence.
Japan has had 70 years to "ask hard questions". The result is that, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Yasukuni has enshrined Class A, B, and C War Criminals (those guilty of starting the war, as well as those who committed atrocities), and members of the Japanese government regularly visit the shrine.
Shinzo Abe, the current PM, rather than "asking hard questions" and "moving on" has actually *backtracked* by renouncing claims that Japan had done anything wrong to "comfort women," saying that Japan's Class A war criminals weren't really criminals, and questioning just how aggressive Japan's role in World War II was. Many ministers in his cabinet are just as bad, or worse. This is actively making things worse, not moving on.
Yes, other nations have honor countrymen who are guilty of crimes. But in the case of the US and UK, two of the countries your emailer refers to (the People's Republic of China and Mao is a whole different ballgame), there are many public efforts to discuss and analyze the crimes of such people. The Arthur Harris Memorial *is* controversial [see this], for example, and has had to be under guard for periods of time. Let me know when Nathan Bedford Forrest is re-buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and when US presidents routinely visit his grave.
The problem that your emailer fails to see is that Japan is quite happy to remember Japanese victims of World War II, but actively denies the existence of victims of Japanese forces in that war (and waffles over the role that Japanese authorities played in causing that war in the first place).
Admittedly, this seems to be a very human trait (it's reminiscent of the Turkish government's prickliness over talk about the Armenian genocide), but just because other peoples and countries are guilty of this and have their own obstacles to overcome in facing their history does not mean that Japan is doing exceptionally poorly at the task. And the fact that Japanese inability to deal with its own recent history is aggravating tensions between it, South Korea and China (these three countries being some of the world's biggest economies and militaries) makes it worrisome for everyone.
For the record, I also got several messages from people in Canada, Europe, and Japan saying it was pretty insensitive / offensive for any American, like me, to complain about militarism from any other source, given the modern U.S.'s record for sending troops everywhere and thinking about the consequences later. American hyper-militarism and related security-state mentality is indeed a problem, but it's a different one from what we're discussing here.
Last night I was so amazed/regusted by news that Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that I batted out a quick item that used the wrong analogy. In the item I said:
For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.
As many people have written in to report, Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren't the right comparisons. Those and other former Nazi concentration camps have become memorials to the suffering and sacrifice of their victims and, as anyone familiar with Germany knows, symbols of the country's introspection through 60+ postwar years. For some other time, more on the difference between Germany's (comparatively) unflinching awareness of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and Japan's averted gaze from that era. For now, a sample message from a reader with a Chinese name:
The "but it's close" implies that the Yasukuni visit is not as inflammatory as a Auschwitz or Buchenwald visit by a German chancellor.
Arguably, it is more so. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are widely understood
to be sites dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany; when German chancellors visit Nazi concentration camps, as they often have, they are sending a message of contrition. Yasukuni, on the other hand, is dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Imperial Japan, and a visits by Japanese politicians send the opposite message....
The rest of your blog post is, alas, all too accurate.
And from a reader with a non-Asian name:
I suspect many readers are writing to protest your attempt to create an analogy to Abe's visit to the shrine of war criminals.
A German chancellor visiting Auschwitz is not glorifying Nazi atrocities, but more likely acknowledging the historical reality in the face of increasing denial.
Likewise, an American politician visiting a lynching site (though this has room for more ambiguity, depending on the politics of the individual and other factors).
But this rather than just bitch about this, it raises a more interesting question as to what a really good analogy would be. There are no doubt plenty of places in the American south that are unambiguously tied to Confederate and Jim Crow history, making a visit there a clear statement about the Civil War or civil rights. Maybe Jefferson Davis' tomb? Perhaps in Germany a visit to someplace significant in the life of Adolph Hitler?
The difficulty of finding a good analogy points out the relative uniqueness of the Japan enshrining an event or people that is offensive to so much of the rest of the world.
I would take issue with your comparison to "a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald" in any context. The central difference is that Auschwitz and Buchenwald are recognition of the wrongs committed by German troops, not a recognition of imagined heroism. It's difficult to imagine any German political figure visiting those places with an intention of honoring the perpetrators, which is what Mr. Abe seems to have done at Yasukuni.
It's difficult to construct a plausible analogy in Western Europe. Perhaps a French president visiting Napoleon's tomb before visiting Russia, but even that lacks the historic immediacy of Yasukuni. Perhaps if the Stalin museum were in Russia, rather than Georgia, there could be a comparison with Putin visiting there before going to Ukraine.
And, for a little twist:
Both of my grandparents fought against the Japanese during WWII and many of my mother’s relatives were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese. I used to agree that Japanese leaders should not visit Yasukuni.
Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.”
First, while Yasukuni holds war criminals alongside many regular service men and women, it is not some outlier. Many war memorials not only include the names and graves that others regard as war criminals, but directly honor these figures. The UK has a memorial to the man who ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden. The Chinese still have a cult around Mao, who oversaw terrible slaughters. In the USA, we still have high schools and monuments to Confederate generals 150 years later. Entire cities and states are named after slave owners, more so than the early abolitionists. (How many Washingtons and Jeffersons vs Adams and Hamiltons?)
Second, while the Japanese acted barbarously in the 1930s to 1945, they were also terrible victims at the end of the war, and they have been the model of peaceful world citizens for the past 70 years, even in the face of serious provocations, including from those who criticize Japan now.
Finally, the East Asians of all people should be most sensitive to the issue of “face.” The main East Asian nations still gripe loudly about each other’s sins and defects, but reserve special criticism about the Imperial Army. The louder the Chinese and everyone else shout about the sins of the Imperial Army, the more that a Japanese leader has to do something to save face. A visit to Yasukuni is less belligerent than many alternatives, like lobbing missiles or sinking boats.
All in all we, the rest of the world, are the ones making a visit to Yasukuni about war crimes. Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on. Better yet, we take the issue away from the neofascists and warmongers on all sides, just as East Asia heats up.
Heating up indeed. I'm watching CCTV [China Central TV] right now, which is wall to wall about Yasukuni -- and P.M. Abe's comment that he is "sorry" he didn't make the visit earlier. Thanks to readers for the corrections. [Update: Please see additional item, with comparisons to similar gestures in U.S. history, here.]
At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right?
It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.
Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.
In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.
What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:
When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao.
Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:
What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.
Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s.
Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
“Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States.
In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.
Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway.
The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
It is the policy of the United States …
(4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
(5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
(6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
(5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;
To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.
Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.
And Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s.
So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.
A few days ago I recommended an article on China by Shlomo Ben-Ami and one on Iran by Robert Hunter, both of which hold up well and which, if you missed them, I again suggest you read. And if you'd like a little more in Ben-Ami's vein, you might check out this dispatch today from China's state-controlled Global Times, about why Westerners should stop lecturing China about press freedom and so on:
Information security is among China's core security concerns. China is willing to communicate with the world, but it won't yield its own agenda-setting rights to the Western media...
Chinese authorities are breaching their duty if they allow Western media to work in China unchecked.
Wow. Or Sigh, depending on your mood. The "reform" administration of Xi Jinping really is digging in its heels. It is going to be a tough time ahead.
In that same earlier post I also quoted a reader, Carlyn Meyer, who was worried that North Korea's rush to nuclear armament was being used as the main historical analogy for thinking and worrying about Iran. The situations were different for many reasons, she argued, importantly among them that Iran had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and North Korea "never had."
That last claim is wrong. North Korea had in fact signed the treaty, but then withdrew as part of advancing its nuclear plans. Here is a sample of many messages I received on that point:
This is just to add a small - but EXTREMELY critical - correction. North Korea did in fact sign the nuclear NPT in the mid eighties, but then withdrew during the tensions of the mid-nineties. They are the only country to have done this, a point which extremely undercuts the argument your reader was attempting to make....
For what it's worth, I doubt there will ever be anything remotely like a 'next North Korea.' Another rogue state with weapons of mass destruction? Sure. But one that kidnaps actors and actresses from other countries in order to make domestic films, reverse engineers Mercedes for the ruling elite, and invites Dennis Rodman to visit? I don't think so.
And, from another reader who is in the nuclear-policy business:
Perhaps Meyer's point is right overall, even though the reason is wrong. Others have pointed out the differences in the two situations. But at the time of the Agreed Framework, North Korea was a signatory to the NPT. It withdrew because of US failure to hold up its end of the bargain, as you will see if you click that link, or perhaps it would have anyway.
In response here is a note from Carlyn Meyer:
I apologize for the factual mistake. But it doesn't change my premise. The comparisons by some politicians equating the current Iran situation with the current N.Korea status are still invalid.
North Korea is not a current signer of the NPT. Iran is. North Korea has no inspectors on the ground, Iran does. North Korea is open about having a nuclear weapons program. US intelligence says Iran hasn't made that committment. Iran, like North Korea, could certainly pull out of the NPT, stop the current negotiations and kick inspectors out. Then the situations would be comprable. But that doesn't seem to be Iran's intent.
It is still my understanding that the sanctions and P5+1 negotiations are legitimized by Iran's signing and continued acceptance of the NPT. The situations are not equal.
This is to close an open loop. Tomorrow morning, will dig into more updates on what's really on my mind, the surprises that await when you visit, as a reporter, a place you thought you "knew" by virtue of having grown up there. It turns out that you Can Go Home Again, mainly to discover that the place is not exactly what you thought. More ahead.
On the bright side, another barrier removed as China progresses toward aerospace eminence! As reported by a writer for my favorite newspaper, the China Daily, more people will soon be able to learn to fly:
The report also pointed out the opportunity China has to close the gap in this field as in so many others:
Fewer than 100 Chinese people are receiving training for private licenses, and the relaxation will unleash a market that has huge potential, [aviation spokesman] Qian said.
Zhong Ning, a spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Administration, said only 345 people in China have private licenses.
As a benchmark for the 345 private pilots in China, there are about 600,000+ active certificated pilots in the U.S.
For more, naturally see China Airborne. And soon: how we should feel about the testimony today of an Asiana pilot that he was "very concerned" at the prospect of making a visual landing without instrument guidance at San Francisco Airport, before the fatal "landing short" episode this summer.
(Initial reaction: What??? Visual landings are what pilots first learn to do -- and what you do in most instrument approaches, once you finally break out of the clouds and are relieved to see the runway. And what about the other pilots in the cockpit, at least some of whom should have been comfortable with visual landings? But all this is what the NTSB will look into.)