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The Mirage that is Japan …

I came across an article in Asia Times on Japan’s WWII surrender that I thought was very well written.  It is important because within that surrender lay the seeds of today’s historical revisionism.  But more important than that, it is a good case study on what Japan is NOT.

Too often, many in the West think of Japan as this enlightened, modern, forward-looking, peace-loving society.  But when the West seems to have misunderstood Japan’s nuanced and conditional surrender for a real unconditional one akin to Germany, then perhaps it is time re-evaluate to what Japan is in reality, and what Japan is headed to be.

Here I offer two articles, first as a context, and second as a case study.

First is that article in Asia Times on Japan’s WWII surrender.

August 1945: Japan’s Hirohito conceded, he did not surrender

Recently, Japan’s Imperial Household released a DVD set containing a re-mastered and digitized version of Emperor Hirohito’s speech that was recorded for national broadcast on the eve of Japan’s surrender thus ending WWII. The actual broadcast was made on Aug. 15, 1945 marking the official end of the war.

While the release of the improved quality of Hirohito’s speech was widely reported, I could not find any official explanation as to the reason for making this version available now. Presumably, it is part of Japan’s contribution to celebrate or commemorate or memorialize the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, depending on one’s personal perspective.

Having now read the text of the Emperor’s speech, I have a better understanding of why the self-image of post-war Japan can be so vastly different from the view of Japan by others. I was a child in China during the war. If I grew up in Japan and heard the Emperor’s speech, I could easily have concluded that Japan was a victim of WWII. Nothing in his speech would suggest that Japan was the aggressor and guilty of provoking the devastating conflict.


August 1945 Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri

The Japanese language is characterized by nuanced, indirect expressions. I recall reading one the old popular business books written to educate gaijins (foreigners) on the subtleties of communicating with the Japanese. The title was something like “Japanese have 16 ways of saying “no,”—none as simple as a straightforward no. Interacting with my Japanese friends, I found that they have many ways of expressing apology and regret but never with seamless candor.

Indeed, we can see by deconstructing the Emperor’s speech that “telling it like it is” is not in the Japanese make-up.

First, Hirohito said: “We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.” What he meant was, “We have to surrender unconditionally.”

Next, he said, “We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.”

The Western powers interpret this statement to mean that the Emperor accepted the terms of unconditional surrender as outlined in the Potsdam Declaration. Yet can anyone expect the ordinary people in Japan to make the same connection from his speech, a speech where “surrender” and “Potsdam” were conspicuously absent? Thanks to the way post-war textbooks are written, most people in Japan have not even heard of Potsdam Declaration.



Then he said, “It being far from our thought either to infringe upon sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.” He obviously was not referring to Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria as early as 1931 and certainly not the occupation of Korea since the latter part of 19th century.

And he said, “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japans advantage.” Certainly a masterful understatement under the trying circumstances he was facing.

Approaching the end of his speech, he said, “We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.” This statement neatly encapsulated the myth of co-prosperity Japan used to justify invading and occupying East Asia countries.

The raping and pillaging as the Japanese troops moved into each country was for their own good, to free them from the shackles of white man domination. Politicians in Japan today continues to perpetuate the idea that Japan invaded rest of Asia for their own good, that the Japanese soldiers snatched the possessions from the local people in order to share the wealth with them.

The media simply adored the statement the Emperor made toward the end of his speech, “… to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The poetic meter of the enduring and suffering tugged their heart strings and was often quoted and repeated in documentaries and films about the war.

Unfortunately, the context of that quote was to portray the hapless Japanese people as having to endure and suffer the post war trauma of a defeated nation — in others words, another reminder of Japan as a victim of WWII. The Emperor was certainly not referring to the Chinese people having to endure and suffer the eight years of the brutal occupation by the imperial troops before the war ended.

It’s customary for victors to write the history. Japan is proving to be the exception to the rule. Whether deliberate or simply inhibited by his cultural upbringing, the ambiguity of Emperor’s concession speech –certainly not a legitimate surrender proclamation — has allowed Japan to begin revising history. It’s as if denying all the brutalities committed in the past can exonerate the present from any collective guilt. Just the opposite is true. The people of Asia will continue to remind Japan until there is only one version of the tragic history of World War II.

With the stage set on how the West can mistaken a nuanced and conditional surrender for an unconditional one, here is a letter from a former Financial Times editor on how Japan is not the democracy and peace-maker that many deems it.  The following is an excerpt of the letter the editor – who has lived 27 years in Japan – to the current chief editor at Financial Times in the wake of Nikkei’s recent announced takeover of Financial Times opposing the deal:

Dear Lionel:

I refer to your public assurances that the Financial Times’s independence will not be compromised by the Nikkei takeover. You are misinformed. Frankly, I concur with the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston who has tweeted that this is a “desperately sad” moment.

As you know, I have spent 27 years covering finance and economics from a base in Tokyo. It took a few years to get my bearings but eventually I began to piece together the real story. The truth has turned out in many crucial respects to be the opposite of what my previous reading of the Anglophone press had led me to expect.

For a start, Japan is not a pro-Western democracy. On the contrary it remains a bizarrely authoritarian society that in many respects is tacitly anti-Western. Much of what is presented in the West as democratic activity is merely Gilbertian theatrics. Indeed for an introductory guide to latter-day Japan’s age-old tradition of cast-of-thousands make-believe, you might usefully consult the libretto of W.S. Gilbert’s Mikado.

Critically for the future of the FT, in few areas of life is Japan’s otherness so pronounced as in the media. As the prominent British commentator Alex Brummer has pointedly asked, “do we really think that the editors and managers of Nikkei understand the values of independence of thought that distinguish British financial journalism?”

Not only is the Japanese press not free, but Japanese editors quietly rejoice in a role as principal apologists for the Japanese establishment, and in particular for an all-powerful, if virtually invisible, higher bureaucracy. When such editors attack Japanese companies, they are typically not acting autonomously but are merely performing their appointed role as pit bulls settling scores for the bureaucracy.

The “special” nature of Japanese journalistic ethics is readily appreciated if you ask yourself a few questions. When, for instance, did Nikkei last publish a serious account of Japan’s mercantilist trade policies? I am not aware that it has ever done so.

And where was Nikkei on the “ comfort women” sex slavery issue? Nowhere, of course. The issue was first raised in the Dutch press, which focused on the brutalization of brave Dutch women captured in the early 1940s in the then Dutch East Indies. The Dutch women were the tip of an iceberg but their allegations inspired East Asian victims (principally Koreans) finally to find their voice in pressing for an apology and compensation. The Japanese press was eventually embarrassed into breaking its silence but only after the story had become a cause célèbre in the West.

All this is the more piquant for the fact that the FT’s coverage of Japanese economics in recent decades has been remarkably naive. The FT has led the global press in presenting Japan as a basket case. In reality given its demographics, Japan has done remarkably well (more on the counterintuitive truth of Japan’s demographics in a moment).

In publicizing the basket-case story the FT has fallen for a characteristically brilliant Japanese propaganda initiative. Japanese officials see major advantages in pretending their nation is weak and dysfunctional. Certainly in the 1980s they learned the hard way that clear evidence of Japan’s success created a hornet’s nest of diplomatic problems. Most notably trade tensions with the United States became so explosive that a trade war seemed imminent. Meanwhile victims of imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities – and their families – began pushing in earnest for compensation (they had previously been fobbed off by claims that Japan was too poor to make amends). Then there were countless Third World nations begging for a share of Japan’s foreign aid budget. Finally there was the matter of the rising Japanese yen. As an exporting nation, Japan – like Germany – has consistently sought to keep its currency as undervalued as possible.

All these problems were quickly neutralized when, with the stock and real-estate crashes of the early 1990s, the basket case story took hold. For a nation noted for its capacity for make-believe, the message was clear: act out various routines that emphasized Japan’s weaknesses, real or imagined, and hid its strengths.

The strategy has proved spectacularly successful, not least in reining in American pressure for market opening. A chivalrous United States, faithful to the principle that you should not kick a man when he’s down, has not pressed Japan on trade in more than two decades. Yet the Japanese market remains as closed as ever. In the car industry, for instance, even Volkswagen, which is a match for Toyota in any other market, has yet to achieve more than a token presence. (No wonder therefore that with the benefit of big profits in a large sheltered home market, Japanese carmakers have out-invested most foreign competitors during the lost decades – so much so that the Japanese industry has almost doubled its unit output since 1989.)

All the doom notwithstanding, Japan is not only one of the world’s most prosperous nations but has made remarkable strides in recent decades. The point is obvious to foreign visitors the moment they arrive. For a start Japanese airports are state-of-the-art and invariably these days enjoy fast public transport links to downtown areas. Meanwhile the Japanese people are among the world’s best dressed and they drive some of the world’s best cars – in particular Lexuses and Infinitis that are a world away from the tinny little three-wheelers of the 1980s.

Japan’s continuing success in exporting is rarely alluded to in the Anglophone press. For details of how the Japanese have highly effectively targeted a host of “chokehold” industries (in advanced materials, key components, leading-edge production machinery), I commend you to my books, particularly Blindside and In Praise of Hard Industries.

What is not in doubt is that all through the lost decades Japan’s trade success – and consequent preeminence as a capital exporter – has financed an impressive array of foreign acquisitions. In the United Kingdom alone in the last few years we have seen such mega-deals as Hitachi’s $1.2 billion purchase of Horizon Nuclear Power and Olympus’s $2.2 billion purchase of Gyrus. Then there has been Sompo’s takeover of Canopius, Toshiba’s of NuGeneration, Dentsu’s of Aegis, and Brother’s of Domino. For a fuller list click here.

In many ways Nikkei’s $1.3 billion purchase of the FT is likely to be remembered as the most consequential of them all. The deal values the FT at a remarkable premium to earnings even by the highly inflated standards that have become common in recent years on the London stock market (particularly given that the FT’s headquarters building in central London is not included). Commentators have suggested that Nikkei is paying far too much. Actually from a Tokyo point of view, the deal is a steal. What the commentators fail to understand is that for Nikkei this is not about profits. Rather it is about power. Nikkei is fronting for the entire Japanese economic system in seeking to control one of the world’s most influential Anglophone news organizations.

There is much, much more that could be said. I hope at least I have convinced you that you need to take a closer a look at what a critical geopolitical development you are leading the United Kingdom into.

If on reflection you still feel confident you are doing the right thing, I would be happy to invite you to a public discussion in a prominent forum. The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London might be appropriate or perhaps the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. As an inducement for you to come forward (and as an earnest of my confidence in my analysis), I will be happy to make a donation of $10,000 to your favorite good cause.

All the best,


This is a bold letter, and it contains many truths. Far from being a meek nation with an open vibrant civil society, Japan is more a conniving, scheming, powerful oligarchy that needs to be watched, if not feared.

In my own research on “freedom of speech” in Japan, I have come to learn that all is not what it appears to be Japan.  For example,  despite legal rhetoric, “freedom” in Japan is limited by its byzantine regulations and suffocating cultural norms.  Just because you may be “free” to say what you please under the law (which in fact don’t mean much as the Japanese courts have never struck down any laws limiting freedom of speech in its post-war history – for more see e.g. link to “Critical Issues in Contemporary Japan” book below) doesn’t mean you  have “freedom” of speech in Japan.

In my recent research, I am amazed to find how contrary to popular misbelief, modern Japan (post WWII) has always arrested reporters for publishing or digging too deep into sensitive political topics (see e.g. this article from Japan Times on a reporter’s experience relating to Okinawa’s recent “handover,” or a small excerpt from this book on contemporary Japan issues.)  Its museums routinely shies away from displaying political art it disdains (see e.g. this Asahi article titled Fearing controversy, museums shy away from political art). Japan – as scholars have pointed out – is at most a “pseudo democracy.” Draconian control has always been an art in Japan (see also Negotiating Censorship in Modern Japan).

Even if one chose to blindly believe that post-war Japan is a shiny beacon of Asian democracy, it appears to be but a historical aberration made possible by a nation at peace, undergoing an unprecedented economic growth, with no external enemy, and whose security is 100% guaranteed by the world’s biggest military hegemony in history.  As soon as it feels threatened – however indirectly and slightly – as it seems to have with the continuing rise of China and become more “normal,” it seems to be reverting to its innate authoritarian ways (see e.g. this Guardian article or this article in the Diplomat or this article in Japan Times or this or this article in the New York Times or this slightly older Asia Times article).

The world has been wrong about Japan for so long.  It is time for the world to do a complete rethink on Japan – especially as Japan continues to vie to gain a leadership role in Asia.  Purchases like Financial Times may not merely be just another corporate transaction where an asset is bid to astronomical level,s but in reality an important tool for Japan to expand its power – in this case by seizing a platform to bend people’s norms and views.

  1. October 3rd, 2015 at 10:06 | #2

    Japan is still the foremost creditor nation.
    Credit Nation Ranking

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