Japan in the American Embrace

Client State: Japan in the American Embrace

Tamaki, Taku

Gavan McCormack Client State: Japan in the American Embrace Verso, 2007, 256 pp. ISBN: 978-1-84467-133-5 (pbk) £18

reviewed by Taku Tamaki

This book comprises one of the very first comprehensive accounts of Japan at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a period in which the country has experienced a significant and somewhat alarming transformation. Gavan McCormack cites, amongst other things, Japan’s sharp turn to the right under Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro (April 2001 to September 2006), and under his successor, Abe Shinzo, from September 2006 onwards. The left is particularly alarmed by Abe’s assertion that his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke-a ‘class A’ war criminal and a prime minister who renegotiated the Mutual Security Treaty with the USA in 1960, and was notably unrepentant of the colonial past-is his constant source of ‘inspiration’ (Watanabe, 2007). It is in his portrayal of the struggle between the right-wing shift in policies, on the one hand, and left-wing bewilderment on the other, that McCormack provides a tour de force exposition of Japan’s position in north-east Asia today.

The book begins with a description of Japan at the beginning of the new century as a ‘nervous, unhappy country’, at odds with ‘all its neighbours’ (p. 1). Koizumi’s recurrent homage to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where fourteen ‘class A’ war criminals are enshrined along with the rest of the fallen; and his postal reforms-a ploy to satisfy US demands for fiscal restructuring-coupled with his decision to participate in the US-led ‘War on Terror’, are all seen as proof of Japan’s exit from Asia and absorption instead into an American embrace, hence the book’s subtitle. For McCormack, Japan’s military assistance ‘meant [its] entry into the war against terror and submission to American strategic leadership’ (p. 64).

Japan’s awkward relationship with the rest of Asia dismays the author. For example, McCormack correctly identifies the late-1990s as a period of relative calm-and, indeed, friendship-between Japan and South Korea: the 1998 visit to Tokyo by the then-President Kim Daejung, in which he ‘accepted’ Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo’s ‘apology’ and in turn looked forward to an era of ‘future-oriented diplomacy’, marked the zenith in bilateral relations. Yet Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and Abe’s official denial-and later retraction-of the wartime existence of so-called ‘comfort women’, when he effectively called the witnesses ‘liars’ (Economist, 10 March 2007), are, McCormack writes, emblematic of Koizumi’s ‘positive embellishment’ of history (p. 93). Not only that, but McCormack suggests that this historical whitewash is also a convenient tool with which the US can tame Japan into taking a tough stance against North Korea: after all, if Japan can forget what it did on the Korean peninsula between 1875 and 1945, then it becomes easier for it to press Tokyo into criticising Pyongyang without worrying about Tokyo’s soul-searching over its wartime guilt.

Japan’s right-turn, McCormack warns, is not confined to foreign policy. The so-called ‘Peace Constitution’ of 1947 is also under threat, and this is significant given Japan’s much-vaunted ‘peace state’ identity. While Article 9 of the Constitution prohibits the waging of war and the possession of military capabilities, Koizumi felt no compunction in sending troops to Iraq. The author considers that the ‘retention of the emperor [after the war] carried the implicit guarantee of continuing American hegemony’ (p. 125). For him, this system of imperial democracy is Oxymoronic’ (p. 122). Recognising that the constitutional amendment is a sensitive issue, the government has been amending the Constitution by ‘stealth’-in other words, reinterpreting it in order to allow the deployment of troops overseas. Furthermore, McCormack identifies the amended Fundamental Law on Education (February 2006) as another instance of Japan’s sharp turn to the right. For him, this new law intended to instill patriotism through the national curriculum smacks of pre-war indoctrination (pp. 140-2). He correctly observes that the ‘revisionist agenda blended neo-nationalism with neoliberalism. As patriotic discipline and “public spiritedness” produce “simple and sincere” masses, the private sector will play a larger role in a “streamed” system to produce the technocratic and managerial elite’ (p. 152). McCormack finds this ironic: he argues that ‘compulsory patriotism is a cause repugnant even-or perhaps especially-to those who think of themselves as patriots, to whom the idea of compulsory love is both absurd and offensive’ (p. 151). He suggests that this effort is ‘unique in being undertaken at the behest, and in the interests, of a foreign government [read the USA]’ (p. 131).

McCormack’s discussion extends to the marginal status accorded to Okinawa-the most impoverished prefecture in Japan-as well as to Japan’s reliance on the US nuclear umbrella. Japan’s status as the sole victim of atomic bombs in August 1945 adds conviction to its ‘peace state’ identity. Not withstanding the resignation of the then defence minister, Kyuma Fumio, over his remark that the atomic bombing of Nagasaki was ‘inevitable’ (shouganaf), the Japanese public still harbours a strong aversion to nuclear energy in general. However, the author argues that Japan’s nuclear industry is amassing large amounts of nuclear materials including plutonium (pp. 181-7); and that tne security alliance condones the purported introduction of nuclear weapons into Japanese territory via the US navy and air force (pp. 175-80). The author criticises Japan’s support, despite the Non-Proliferation Treaty, for the Nuclear Energy Partnership (p. 187) as a contradiction: anti-nuclear Japan as a firm supporter of nuclear energy and weapons. He writes, ‘[Japanese] nuclear bureaucrats pursue the chimera of limitless clean energy, global leadership, a solution to global warming, and the maintenance of nuclear defences (whether American or Japanese)’ (p. 189). Whether chimera or deception, McCormack’s view is that Japanese civil society needs to maintain the pressure to abolish nuclear dependence and seek alternative sources of energy (p. 190).

Perhaps it is his examination of Okinawa that constitutes the most convincing set of arguments in this book. McCormack traces the recent history of protest against the rationalisation of US military facilities on the island, noting that Okinawa has been used as a scapegoat. He argues, ‘Within the modernising Japanese state, Okinawa’s status was ambiguous. It was peripheral not only geographically, but in relation to the emperor-centred polity’ (pp. 155-6). Okinawa’s position as the predominant host of US bases in Japan makes it a garrison island, hence the implicit question: has the war ever ended on Okinawa? (see p. 174). Moreover, McCormack identifies Okinawa as the locus in which the American embrace of Japan is most striking: it is here that the ‘precarious and one-sided nature of the supposedly mature and unparalleled US-Japanese relationship is palpable’ (p. 174). Okinawa was under US control until it ‘reverted’ back to Japanese rule in 1972. But, as the author points out, an agreement was made between Tokyo and Washington that the US would retain its bases on the island, and that the Japanese government would pay towards their maintenance to the tune of 235 billion yen in 2006 (p. 159). It is in this context that the protests over US military facilities took place. Here, McCormack traces civil society’s struggles in the effort to frustrate both Tokyo’s heavy-handedness and pressures from the Pentagon (pp. 161-71). It proved to be an ‘epic struggle between the central government in Tokyo,’ he writes, ‘which tried by every means to break the will of Okinawans, and a coalition of local fishermen, farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, small businesspeople and elected representatives of local governments, who lacked everything but belief in the justice of their cause’ (pp. 161-2).

The critical analysis in Client State is a welcome addition to the mishmash of media reports about Japan. However, this reviewer is not convinced by the book’s vitriolic anti-Americanism. An attempt to appreciate the Japanese experience cannot be held hostage to anti-Americanism: blaming the US for all the ills of Japanese society is bound to mvialise Japanese subjectivity. The main thrust of this book is to hold the US accountable for what McCormack calls the ‘Japan problem’: ‘the emperor, identity, the military, relations with the US and with Asia’ (p. 5). For McCormack, the Japanese myth of uniqueness, which underpins its national identity, ‘[has] been fundamental to US policy since the very outset of the occupation’ (p. 2); and the ‘US prescription for long-term subordination of Japan was the epitome of subtlety: to encourage the fantasy of uniqueness and superiority’ (p. 20). Why call this a study on the Japan problem when-in McCormack’s view-it is ultimately a problem of US hegemony? Also, McCormack’s arguments about Japan’s right turn under both Koizumi and Abe (see, for example, p. 93) fail to distinguish between the subtly different nuances in their attitudes to Yasukuni: for Koizumi, the war is a mistake that should never be repeated; while for Abe, the inspiration he draws from his grandfather does not consider the war-let alone the atrocities-as a terrible mistake.

McCormack’s criticism of present-day Japan effectively deprives Japan of a sense of agency vis-à-vis Asia and the US, thereby granting disproportionate ‘credit’ to US hegemony. Masao Miyoshi (1991: 92-3) argues that, ‘Wavering violently between self-hatred and self-infatuation, the Japanese identify themselves with and distinguish themselves from the Americans’. And Yukiko Koshiro (1999: 218) suggests that ‘the US occupation of Japan, had, after all, consciously preserved prewar race relations’. But McCormack’s discussion of Japanese identity construction (see Chapter 2) remains too simplistic to do it justice, despite ‘identity’ being defined as one of the problems. Nor is his enlisting of Masao Maruyama convincing (p. 19): Maruyama (1961: 9-10) argues that Japanese identity construction since the Meiji Restoration represents Japan’s struggle to locate itself amid Asia and the West.

Unfortunately, McCormack trivialises this Japanese struggle. Purportedly, his solution lies in Japan’s improving its relations with Asia and forming an East Asian Community as a counter-hegemonic move against US domination (p. 86). Without providing the reader with any concrete indication to this effect, he claims (p. 202) that ‘East Asia (or Northeast Asia) [is moving] inexorably towards some sort of community’. Consequently, the problem is not so much US hegemony, but the USA itself. This is unhelpful. Without defining what it might consist of, McCormack seems to suggest that a universal value exists in Asia, to which Japan should be subscribing (p. 201). This blind faith in ‘Asia’ is dangerous. And if, as McCormack suggests, Japan is to redefine its ‘Asian-ness’ in order to escape an American embrace (p. 204), how should the country do so? Divested as it is of its subjectivity in McCormack’s account, is Japan fit for purpose? McCormack’s criticism of Japan does not allow for it to realise the errors of its ways without external help. Perhaps the only, regrettable solution lies with McCormack’s archenemy-the US-to help Japan along that path.

Coincidentally, Prime Minister Abe resigned citing, amongst other things, fatigue, just as I finished reading Client State: Japan in the American Embrace. His resignation marks an end to McCormack’s catalogue of Japan’s nationalist resurgence, kick-started by Koizumi and inherited-if not enhanced-by Abe. However, as John Dower (1999: 564) aptly summed it up in 1999, ‘the lessons and legacies of defeat have been many and varied indeed; and their end is not yet in sight’. It’s important to remember, therefore, that the solution to the ‘Japan problem’ lies squarely with the Japanese people-and not, as McCormack implies here, in demonising the USA.


Dower, J. (1999) Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin).

Koshiro, Y. (1999) Trans-Pacific Racisms and the US Occupation of Japan (Columbia University Press).

Maruyama, M. (1961) Nippon no shiso (Iwanami shinsho).

Miyoshi, M. (1991) Off Center: Power and Culture Relations Between Japan and the United States (Harvard University Press).

Watanabe, O. (2007) ‘Sengo hoshu-seiji no naka no Abe-seiken’, Gendai shiso, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 112-43.

Taku Tamaki is a lecturer in international relations in the Department of Politics, International Relations and European Studies at Loughborough University. His research interests include international relations theory, social theory and the international politics of the Asia-Pacific region. He has published in journals such as International Relations (2007), International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (2004), and International Journal of Human Rights (2002).

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Summer 2008

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved