The Islands That Have Not Learned

A few week ago, a group of nationalist activists including several German parliamentarians encroached a piece of land which changed possession from Germany to Poland after World War II, and erected a German flag. The members of the group “Vorw√§rts Deutschland” (Let’s go Germany) vowed to retake possession of East Prussia. Just yesterday, Germany sent fighter jets circling about the disputed territories. Meanwhile in Berlin, a minister of Angela Merkel’s government visited a chapel dedicated to the SS, further straining the French-German relationship. On top of that, a holocaust denier was recently re-elected as the major of Berlin. Trouble is brewing in Europe.

This scenario is, of course and fortunately, fiction. Dr. Merkel’s government and all of German society but the bald & drunk small rightmost fringe embrace an anti-fascist consensus. The German vice-chancellor is ethnically Vietnamese, and a major opposition party is led by the son of Turkish immigrants. Hardly the type of people to stoke hardcore “German lands and German blood” nationalism. A large memorial dedicated to the victims of the holocaust in a prominent location in Berlin warns of past insanity. Far from denying the 1940s mass murder of Jews, Gipsies, political opponents and homosexuals, the major of Berlin is an openly gay Social Democrat.

But something very similar to such a scary alternative history is happening at the other end of the gigantic Eurasian land mass: Take this tense scenario and exchange Germany with Japan and France and Poland with Korea and China, and you have a situation as it is currently unfolding in East Asia. Recently, activists of a group called “Gambate Nihon” (“Let’s go Japan”) landed on Diaoyu islands, which are disputed between Japan and China. Incredibly, some of the members of the group were members of the Japanese parliament. This week, Japanese fighter jets are scrambling above the islands. Just a week prior to the island visit by “Gambate Nihon”, two Japanese government ministers visited the infamous Yasukini shrine, where the Japanese war dead, including class A war criminals, are honored. A statue of a proud Kamikaze pilot stands in front of that shrine, next to a disgustingly revisionist war museum downplaying the murderous Japanese policies in the 30s and 40s as the propagation of a “Greater Asia Prosperity Zone”. The regular high-level visits to this shrine are a well understood signal to the nationalists at home and to Japan’s World War II victims abroad in Asia. In the past, the statements of apology read by Japanese heads of government were often followed by visits to the Yasukini shrine, raising justified doubts about the sincerity of these apologies. And the governor of Tokyo, where this shrine is located, consistently denies the Rape of Nanking, a horrible massacre of Chinese civilians in World War II, where the Japanese imperial troops entertained themselves with bayoneting competitions. In 2011, he got re-elected to his office by the majority of Tokyoites. And not just in Tokyo, but in most Japanese cities, vans with mounted speakers of a far-right organization called the “Jojaku” regularly circle the streets to blast nationalist paroles for everyone to hear. Japanese society has largely failed to come to terms with its fascist past, that is clear.

Take that together with the fact that Japan is maintaining a high-tech military as the 5th largest military spender world-wide, and we have to ask if the country is again, or rather, still, a threat to world peace? Does the world community have to be afraid of a still very much nationalist Japan? I think not, and the reasons have to do with the Japanese demographic development during the last decades. Japan is one of the fastest shrinking societies in the world, with a birth rate of 1.1 per woman. And, in contrast to Western European societies with low birth rates, Japan is reluctant to accept immigrants and xenophobically unattractive to the few who want to migrate. No newcomers fill the shrinking spots as immigrants do in Europe. In rural villages, schools close. As one of the most aged societies on the planet, Japan needs no new space.

Additionally, quite frankly, I don’t think that today’s Japanese youth is invasion troop material. The young men I saw in the several years I spent at a Japanese university were some of the frailest and most immature young people I have encountered in four decades of travel and cosmopolitan life. Men in their 20s and 30s would wear shirts with utterly childish Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse cute-eyed cartoon characters; Social conformism goes to such extremes that underlings frequently rather drive themselves into a mental health crisis than to take a stand against their superior. A life spent cramming for extremely competitive University entrance exams, followed by long hours at Uni, and even longer hours in office cubicles (you can’t go home before your boss as a good Japanese employee) have left many of them with skinny, un-athletic bodies. Most young Japanese men I interacted with had a surprising lack of initiative and were afraid to take any responsibility on their own, even for the most trivial tasks. This afraid and weak youth particularly stands out in Okinawa, in the south of Japan. There, it contrasts with the muscled-up and self-confident US Marines who populate the American military bases there, ready to storm whatever third world town or desert village the Nobel Peace Prize laureate orders them to. One can have different opinions about US militarism (I think the world would be a better place with less of it), but it is clear which country’s young people would do well in a war, and which wouldn’t.

The youth of Japan in 2012 simply is not the raw material to make soldiers to retake first the Diaoyus and then Manchuria, Luzon and Seoul for the Japanese motherland, even if some senior politicians in Tokyo probably very much harbor such wishes. I saw University graduates too fearful to introduce themselves to a foreign guest without breaking out in a panicky sweat; these are not the men to charge a foreign machine gun position. Fortunately.

Is the persistent Japanese nationalism disgusting and should the country be held to a higher standard by its Western political and economic partners? Yes! Will we see a new effort at the Japanese military subjugation of surrounding Asia? Fortunately, I believe not.