When the back-pull of bourgeois charm
Kept from your ears the soaring sound
of the people singing.
You are still prisoner under the claws
of a fierce eagle.
– Bangla Poet Shamsur Rahman, translated by Kabir Chowdhury
A scion of arguably the most prominent political family of Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama did not really need to resort to sloganeering to win an election, in August, given that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was sure to lose. After over a half-century of nearly uninterrupted hold over the resources of the state, the LDP had become prisoners of outdated policies that prioritised businesses over citizens. All that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) needed to tell the voters was that they were ready to take over. But Premier Yukio is no ordinary politician. He aims for nothing less than “creating history”.
The Hatoyama family has been active in Japanese politics since the mid-19th century. But Yukio chose as his role model grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama, the three-time prime minister who argued that there was no reason to regard communist China as an enemy. Premiership was denied to Ichiro twice, first by militarists of the imperial court and then by US General Douglas MacArthur. But Ichiro persevered, and eventually made history by initiating the process of normalisation of Japan’s relationship with the then-Soviet Union. The US overlords may have disliked Ichiro’s tendency towards charting an independent course for Japanese foreign policy, but they needed his nationalist credentials even more to counter the rise of the socialists in this strategically important island nation.
The Western press has not taken the emergence of Ichiro’s grandson Yukio in Japan particularly kindly. “Hatoyama’s Fantasy Island”, mocked the Tokyo bureau chief for Forbes magazine in a write-up dripping with acid. The Economist, the old guard of conservatism, was even more acerbic; it asked Yukio whether he was a poodle (the purported national dog of France) or a Pekinese, a Chinese breed of cuddly canines. There must be something about Yukio, a distinguished alumnus of Tokyo and Stanford universities, that makes Anglo-Americans finally recognise that the Japanese flag has a rising red sun emblazoned on it.
Yearning to be free
Despite being the world’s second-largest economy, Japan is still in many ways a colony of the US geopolitical empire. It is hardly free to choose its friends, or even to have enemies of its own. Yet after more than six decades of subservient existence, a new generation of Japanese has emerged that does not relish the prospect of forever living under the American thumb, especially since the most powerful empire being run from the Pentagon has begun to unravel.
Thus, Prime Minister Yukio has promised to uncouple Japan from the American yoke by doing at least three things: challenge free-market fundamentalism, rekindle the spirit of togetherness in Japanese society and begin to lay the bricks for the creation of an East Asian community. The underlying theme of each of these aims is what he calls the philosophy of yuai. This is a concept borrowed from a book by an Austrian diplomat and count named Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, which Ichiro Hatoyama translated during his years of enforced political hibernation. In Prime Minister Yukio’s view, the term refers to the idea of fraternity – as in Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the slogan of the French Revolution. But mention the French, and some within the Anglo-American community begin to gobble up Freedom Fries; hence The Economist allusion to the poodle.
The idea of fraternity is closely tied with that of equality. Although the Japanese too are considered ‘honorary whites’, no Asian other than the Chinese is believed to be worthy of Western admiration. China was once considered something of a realm of the gods, which every aspiring empire wanted to be; but all others must know their place under the dominion of the Star-Spangled Banner. Prime Minister Yukio thinks that US President Barack Obama is his equal. Nothing enrages Americans strategists more than heads of subservient states claiming equality of status with the supreme commander-in-chief of the largest and most powerful armed forces of the world.
Family legacy in politics is as much a responsibility as a privilege. Scions of influential families do get to begin far ahead of others in their race for political power; but whether they make it to the finishing line well before their more agile competitors depends upon their ability to adopt and nurture emerging ideas of their time. Diagnosing the ills of Japanese society, DPJ leader Yukio concluded that the global economy had damaged traditional economic activities, and that market fundamentalism had destroyed his country’s local communities. He thus recommended restructuring government finances and rebuilding of its welfare systems.
As much as many free-marketeers become livid upon hearing about ‘welfare’, it is Yukio’s aspiration of building an East Asian community that has set some alarm bells ringing. With the Chinese economy likely to overtake those of Japan and Taiwan combined (closely followed by the possibility of a unified Korea), the locus of global economy will almost certainly shift towards the East. When he finally managed to head the post-war government, Yukio’s grandfather appealed to Japan’s reawakened pride as a nation – “Able once-more to stand on its own, free to make foreign friends and commitments as it pleased.” The grandson has now been given a historic opportunity to make peace with China.
It is an open question, however, as to whether Japan’s overlords will approve of any such rapprochement. Hemmed in by entrenched bureaucracy and enraged zaibatsu at home, and military hawks from abroad, Premier Yukio has already been forced to retract some of his confrontational rhetoric. He now talks instead of building an Asian-Pacific community, fully knowing that this is just an apologia for giving continuity to the status quo.
The middle path
In fact, Japan probably needs to become a bridge between China and Southasia if it wants to claim its rightful place in the community of nations. In the centuries before the division of the world into spheres of influence, cultures intermingled and civilisations evolved through conflicts and cooperation. Indochina was an area where two great civilisations of Asia met to create a unique way of life. It was destroyed by the hot flashes of Cold War rivalry. Japan has slowly found enough acceptability in the region to moderate conflicts of interest between China and India, in places such as Burma and Thailand. Even in West and Central Asia, Tokyo would probably be a better bridge-builder between Beijing and New Delhi than Moscow or Washington, as the two most populous countries of the world compete with each other for larger share of mineral resources.
When Buddhism entered Japan sometime in the sixth century from China via the Korean Peninsula, it had already been tempered for centuries by the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tse in the Middle Kingdom. That could be the reason that Shinto Japan embraced Buddhist traditions without any inhibition. In any case, other than in isolationist Burma and segregationist Sri Lanka, Buddhism today survives only in pockets in the rest of Southasia. Southasians and Japanese are as similar as people of any two continents, and nearly as different. And that has the potential of creating grounds for complementarity, rather than competition.
With the Chinese, Japan would almost certainly need to weigh its options, and be fearful of being overwhelmed by an ancient but resurgent civilisation. Southasians would merely add one more colour and voice to the spectrum and cacophony that already exists in this part of the world. Japan needs to take a fresh look at Southasia for a very obvious reason, too. At least in the near term, Japan-Southasia relations are unlikely to alarm minders of the US hegemony in the region. Grandfather Ichiro tried to mend fences with China in order to extricate his country from the US embrace – and failed. The grandson may have to risk accepting the suzerainty of Beijing in order to throw the shackles of the Pentagon into the Pacific. A closer tie with Southasia is a middle course that could well take Japan towards its destination of leading Asia, but without rocking the boat too much.
Apart from The Totalitarian State against Man, the book that Yukio says inspired him to come up with the philosophy of yuai, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi also wrote Pan-Europa, an impossible dream 85 years ago. Today, the emergence of a pan-Asian community may appear equally improbable, but the Wise One aimed for nothing less than the entire universe as one family.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.