Today's date:
Winter 2007

New Links With China Are Key to Japan’s Security

Tsuneo Watanabe, the 80-year-old chairman and editor-in-chief of the 10 million-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun, is a legendary pillar of post-war Japan. Long regarded as a conservative, he shook up the Japanese establishment last year when he criticized then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined along with other war dead.

In this interview with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Tokyo, Watanabe explains the results of a committee sponsored by Yomiuri Shimbun to re-examine Japan’s war responsibility and offers insights into what we might expect from the new prime pinister, Shinzo Abe.

The English title of the book published from the Yomiuri re-examination is titled: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor—Who Was Responsible?

NPQ | Recently, your paper sponsored a major re-examination of Japan’s war responsibility—60 years after the war when, in America and Europe at least, Japan is more associated with Toyota than Tojo, the war prime minister. Why this re-examination now?

Tsuneo Watanabe | As you know, former Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine upset South Korea and China and prevented Koizumi from a mutual visit with the Chinese head of state for five years. I opposed Koizumi’s visits.Yasukuni was a big issue because so-called Class A war criminals are enshrined there along with other war dead. So, to start with, the reason behind these visits and their consequences for Japan’s role in Asia needed examination.

Second, my generation had direct experience with this tragic and stupid war. But the younger generation in Japan knows very little. They also think of Japan more in terms of Toyota than Tojo. It was thus important to review who was responsible for starting the war—in which Japan had little possibility of ever winning—how it could have been stopped and who was responsible for defeat. Our aim was to clarify the process of history so Japan learns from this historical folly and never again embarks on such a misadventure. The Yasukuni controversy opened a window to review this history, which was never fully considered from the Japanese side.

NPQ | What were the key findings of your re-examination?

Watanabe | The final report named names of those who should be held “mainly responsible” for key developments, including the Sino-Japanese War. It named Prime Minister Hideki Tojo as the leader who was the most responsible. It also listed the names of politicians and military leaders as well as high-ranking military bureaucrats and staff officers of the army and navy—who supported those leaders in the military—who should shoulder heavy responsibility.

Those political and military leaders whom the committee concluded had main responsibility did not exactly match the convicted Class-A war criminals of the Tokyo Tribunal as the committee pursued responsibility of some who were not prosecuted in that tribunal, such as army and navy staff officers and high-ranking bureaucrats.

The path from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 to the Sino-Japanese War was a typical case in which a nation can be thrown into crisis owing to national leaders’ misjudgment of the trends prevailing in the international community. In those days, revolutions were in progress in Russia and China while a new world order was being established following World War I under the leadership of Britain and the United States. The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which renounced war as an instrument of national policy, was signed. The following year, the Great Depression began.

Japan invaded China without foresight concerning those new developments in the world. Continuing miscalculations of its actual national strength and misjudgments of the real intention of US diplomacy, Japan entered into the quagmire of war with China and the US. We studied a mountainous chain of mistakes committed by Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and other leaders. We did not overlook that staff officers—bureaucrats in military service—behaved irresponsibly and led the nation into the wrong direction. They were never held accountable or reprimanded for mistakes.

The organizational system which allowed the evasion of responsibility was particularly conspicuous in the Imperial Japanese Army. Elite staff officers had in their hands the defacto Imperial Supreme Command under the now-defunct Meiji Constitution. The Imperial Supreme Command was unique to Japan in that it could set policy solely through the army or navy chiefs of general staff. Against the background of the Imperial Supreme Command, staff officers held dominant sway in determining government personnel reshuffles and budget allocations. Using scare tactics about foreign threats, bureaucrat-staff officers in the military ignored their superiors, who acquiesced, allowing their juniors to become influential enough to seriously affect national management.

In the face of these mistakes, the mass media failed to uphold the principle of freedom of speech while the Diet stopped functioning on behalf of the citizenry. For their part, the Japanese people overlooked the fact that the life, human rights and freedom of their neighbors were crumpled up and thrown away just like waste paper.

NPQ | What struck you most in this review?

Watanabe | What struck me most in this review was that there were many moments in which we could have stopped the war from going forward. At the time of the Manchurian Incident, for example, general staff officer Kanji Ishihara opposed the southward advance of the Japanese military beyond the Manchurian border. Others supported the advance to Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. At that early period, the southern advance could have been stopped if, for example, the US had issued the Hull Note that imposed a strict ban on oil exports from the US. At that time, Japan did not have oil and would have lost ability for further military expansion. But the US didn’t issue the Note. By the time the Hull Note was issued, Japan had already planned its seizure of Dutch Indonesia and its rich oil fields. Thus, Japan’s military thought that they could endure the oil embargo by the US and went on to the Pearl Harbor attack.

This situation reminds me of what is happening with North Korea today. If the US had taken limited military action to check North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons several years ago, then it would not have had a successful nuclear test and we wouldn’t face the new threat of proliferation which we have today. Instead of acting forcefully, President Clinton sent Jimmy Carter to arrange a compromise with North Korea. This was really a form of appeasement.

Similarly, if the US had stood up firmly against Japan’s expansion in the 1930s, war could have been avoided. This led to a misjudgment about America’s will.

Also, because the Tokyo Tribunal was administered by the victors, it did not consider actions carried out by the victors—such as the Soviet Union’s detention of Japanese prisoners of war in Siberia after the end of World War II, the US’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and indiscriminate air raids on Japanese cities, which were clearly egregious.

NPQ | Where was the Emperor in all of this?

Watanabe | The Emperor was not responsible because the Showa Emperor was completely isolated. He was not in a position to make critical war-related decisions. He did not have the relevant information and had not been trained for such decisions, as the emperor in the Meiji era had been. The Showa Emperor had been elevated to a God-like status beyond decisions of state.

According to the principles of penal law, where there is no competence—that is, the informed capacity to make decisions—there is no culpability. In this sense, the Showa Emperor was not culpable for Japan’s acts of war.

For example, the younger brother of the Showa Emperor, Prince Takamatsu, had much greater information available to him. A duke, Morisada Hosakawa, who was an aide to Prime Minister Konoe, kept a reliable diary. He had many acquaintances with generals in the navy and army. He got lots of information, much of which he fed to Takamatsu, expecting Takamatsu would relay that information to the Emperor. However, around the Showa Emperor, there were many close aides who prevented the information from reaching him. The Showa Emperor himself was not willing to listen to the views of his younger brother, but only talked with his staff.

Because the Emperor was cut off from information, Prince Takamatsu took part in a plan to assassinate Tojo in order to stop the war in 1944. In the end, the plan had not materialized because there was not an appropriate person to execute it. The fact remains that the brother of the Emperor, based on what he knew, he tried to stop Tojo. But the Emperor himself did not have the information Takamatsu did. This is something that even today is not widely known.

NPQ | I once witnessed an exchange over the Yasakuni visits in which a Japanese diplomat infuriated his Chinese counterpart by saying “Tojo was no Hitler.” Was Tojo like Hitler?

Watanabe | In the human suffering he caused, Tojo was indeed as culpable as Hitler. He did not pursue an ethnic cleansing as Hitler who tried to exterminate the Jews, but his policies did in the end leave many dead in and outside Japan. His mistakes were as bad as Hitler’s, pushing for suicide attacks and sending young men to the front line when there was no chance for Japan to escape defeat.

At the same time, Tojo was not a dictator in the way Hitler was, though it is true he had immense authority. Tojo had the Emperor above him and a complicated line of command beneath him. It was not possible even then for someone to reach the status of Hitler in the Japanese political system.

Also, there were others with influence around him in the cabinet. For example, Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, opposed Tojo during the war, ultimately causing the cabinet to fall.

NPQ | Given this re-examination, do you approve of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambiguous position on the Yasukuni Shrine? Though he has a reputation as a nationalist, he won’t say whether he plans to visit or not as prime minister, leaving room to repair relations with China and South Korea for the moment.

Watanabe | Abe is now trying to apply the brakes slowly in order to change course from the confrontational trend nurtured by Koizumi with his visits to the shrine. Abe knows if he applies the brakes too suddenly his political power base might topple just as a car might by abruptly stopping.

A couple of months before he became prime minister, Abe and I met for dinner alone and had a talk. At the time, I told him I was opposed to him visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. If he was going to visit the shrine to pay respects to his grandfather, Kishi, who was a member of Tojo’s cabinet, then he would be making a mistake since Kishi’s opposition led to the collapse of the Tojo government. Although Kishi was held as a suspected war criminal for two or three years after the war, he was not ultimately indicted by the Tokyo Tribunal.

A few days before Abe went to China right after he became prime minister, he phoned me. I asked him what he would say to the Chinese about Yasukuni. He told me that for six months he had been having under-the-table negotiations with China about this, so there needn’t be any worry.

So, at this point, I believe he will not visit Yasukuni at all as prime minister. However, if he makes that clear at this particular point, it will antagonize the conservative nationalists within the LDP and alienate the Association of Bereaved Families.

It is true that Abe has been considered a hawk. He may be. But now he is trying to apply the brakes at the same time as he is trying to turn the steering wheel gradually to the left. His sudden visit to China while distancing himself from Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni are an indication that he sees Japan’s relationship with China as critical to our future.

Nine days before he visited China, he told me that there were moves in North Korea to prepare a nuclear test. So, he said, he has to go to China as soon as possible. Therefore he decided upon the visit very quickly. I believe he is a much more capable and intelligent prime minister than Koizumi.

NPQ | At the same time, Abe has long been known for wanting to revise the American-imposed pacifist constitution. Do you agree with this?

Watanabe | Yes. I believe the Japanese constitution—Article 9—needs to be changed. What should be done, as soon as possible, is to clarify that the collective self-defense is not anti-constitutional.

It is true, as we have discussed, that many Japanese political and military leaders are responsible for taking the country into a disastrous war. But it is also true, as we’ve discussed, that there were those who opposed the war and tried to stop it—and that is not taught in the schools.

For too long, an unpatriotic atmosphere had been created in our education system dominated by the Japan Teacher’s Union, which stresses the importance of the pacifist constitution and diminishes pride in Japan as a nation. They say we should not love the nation. For them, patriotism is a dirty word.

In what other country is there opposition to students singing the national anthem or hoisting the national flag at school? There should be nothing wrong with patriotism. Everyone else can love their country. Why not Japan? This spirit of loving the nation is very much blurred and compromised in Japan today. It is wrong.

If Abe is a hawk because he favors patriotism, then so are the leaders of the US, Great Britain, China and other proud nations.

NPQ | On top of these efforts to revise textbooks and the constitution, some of Japan’s Diet members are now suggesting that there should be a discussion whether to go nuclear in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test—which is equivalent to the Cuban Missile Crisis for the US during JFK’s administration.

In this circumstance can Japan trust the credibility of the US defense umbrella, especially after the debacle in Iraq? Or is it time for Japan to rely more on its own capacities, including nuclear weapons? Indeed, might Japan be headed back toward militarism as its neighbors fear?

Watanabe | There is no chance Japan will become militaristic. Absolutely not. One hundred percent no. To start with, Japan has no military strength. The current self-defense forces have no war-fighting capacity. They may not have the guts or courage to fight like Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Although I am often called conservative and a hawk, like many Japanese, I hate militarism for what it did to my country. I hate it in the past, in the present and for the future. I will not allow remilitarization of Japan.

Given this, the best practical course for Japan is to trust the US-Japan Security Treaty and remain under the nuclear umbrella of the US. At the moment, only the US can effectively defend us against North Korea’s threat.

If, however, the US were to conclude under the new power of the Democrats that, given its other troubles like Iraq, it can’t focus on Japan’s defense, then we need to make a very speedy move to collective self-defense so our military has real war-fighting capacity. That would strengthen the treaty from our side.

If the credibility of the US defense umbrella genuinely comes into question, Japan has two options. First, Japan can go nuclear. We have enough plutonium to produce 3–5,000 bombs. It is said that North Korea has 200 Nodong missiles that can hit Japan, but we have the ability immediately to produce more than 1,000 to hit back.

However, if we start arming ourselves with nuclear weapons, that would lead to full-fledged proliferation across Asia in response. So, I’m deadly against this option. So is Prime Minister Abe.

The other option is strengthening Japan-China relations so China can restrain North Korea. If China would stop the supply of petroleum and food to North Korea it could constrain their behavior. It is for this reason that the role of China is very important to Japan in the future. Koizumi did a very bad job by visiting Yasukuni officially and worsening, instead of deepening, our ties with China.

Abe won’t make that mistake. He has freed himself from the shackles of Koizumi’s policy. What he is trying to do is strengthen ties with China so we can work effectively together on all fronts. This is why, in the last analysis, I believe he will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine.

Very close to the Yasukuni Shrine is the Chidorigafuchi Cemetery. At this cemetery the ashes of 350,000 war dead are enshrined, while in Yasukuni, it is only a symbolic register of names. If we expand this cemetery, this could be the place where our political leaders can honor the war dead without encountering Yasukuni. As long as the Yushukan Museum, with its distorted history of the war and war responsibility, exists on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, there is no way a Japanese prime minister should visit.

Koizumi’s foreign policy contributed to the good of Japan by strengthening ties with the US. But he made our relationship with China worse. Abe is rectifying that mistake and correcting the damage. Japan’s interests in the years ahead dictate not only that it be an ally of the US, but a friend of China.