Thursday, June 29, 2006

Koizumi is Riding With the King

The following was written in response to a question posed by Earl Kinmonth on the H-Japan listserve. Kinmonth asked why seemingly intelligent liberal or progressive media outlets seem to actively promote egregious errors of fact and reason in their treatment of Japan.

Dear Earl Kinmonth,
Writing from the US in 2006, it is quite difficult to see utterly moronic, pejorative journalism as remotely unique to Western attitudes toward Japan. For three years now, most US press coverage of domestic US politics has essentially towed the Bush administration line that anyone who disagrees with the Bush administration's Iraq policy for any reason is an immoral, defeatist, pro-appeasement traitor. It has largely been immaterial whether that opposition has been based on knoweldge of geography, history, military strategy, human nature, or addition and subtraction. Any disagreement with official policy for any reason, rational or otherwise, has led to hysterical scapegoating of the person in question by the press as a defeatist, pro-appeasement traitor. So it's a little hard to be all that shocked by ignorance in journalistic discourse on Japan given the stupefying ignorance that characterizes so much journalism on so many subjects in the US today.

My first inclination in response to your question is to consider the Chomsky/Hermann model of public opinion being distorted by self-censorship (Manufacturing Consent). When you see absurd discrepancies in standards or rationality applied by the press regarding nearly indistinguishable matters (for example exit poll discrepancies in the Ukraine that demonstrate obvious election fraud as opposed to exit poll discrepancies in the "election" of George W. Bush that demonstrate obvious flaws in exit poll protocols), ask yourself if there are significant official policy objectives in play. Chomsky and Hermann's model suggests that more often than not press coverage will track official government positions and distort opposing positons to the point of unrecognizability. A similar assumption can be made regarding economic interests. Regardless how "high-brow" or "left" The Guardian or the New York Times may be from the perspective of right-wing propagandists, unrecognizable distortion of economic affairs to conform with official government policy is a daily occurrence at both papers that it is again very difficult to be surprised by or to consider a phenomenon particular to material concerning Japan.

I strongly suspect the statement you cite involving immigration in Japan is closely tied to the nearly 150 year old British jihad on behalf of neoliberal "free trade." When state policies oppose offical dogmas, reason is typically turned off. The neoliberals see Japan's lingering Keynesian and state economic management sympathies as not only unfair, as Japan being a free-rider on the back of the states that allow more immigration, etc., they essentially see divergence from neoliberal free market fundamentalism as sinful. Once you see the Japanese as political economic lost souls, considerations such as the obvious fact that most immigrants to Japan come from E. Asian and S.E. Asian countries fall by the wayside. If you have already determined that Japan will burn in economic policy hell, history and facts start to look like trivial details by comparison to their predetermined theological status. Right-wing dogmas of this sort have long since been internalized by journalists at purportedly "left" newspapers such as the Guardian and the New York Times.

If breath-taking ignorance were a sign of racism, eight out of ten stories in up-market US newspapers would be racist. As profoundly central as racism is to contemporary US social structure, racism is probably not why demands to prosecute the New York Times for treason get a serious hearing when the same story was published by the Wall Street Journal with nary a complaint and when the New York Times story itself didn't go into as much detail as prior press releases from officials of the Bush administration itself. Much of this US press refusal to believe what's in front of their faces has as at least as much to do with power, profits, and pressure as it does with race.

Having said that, I have seen presentations to Comparative literature departments and English departments in the US where the most virulently anti-essentialist scholars suddenly seem to forget all the theory, history, and skepticism they have ever known when the topic turns to Asia. Somehow they seem to put their critical faculties on standby when the subject turns to Asia or the Middle East.

I see at least four things at work here as this problem relates to Japan more particularly. First, the perspective of international law suggests that Japan has consistently been discriminated against, but it is important to distinguish between when they have been treated as quasi-civilized, non-Europeans subject to neo-colonial exploitation (1852-1910 under unequal treaties), when they have been discriminated against as a second class imperialist power (1910-1945, to say which does not mean they did no wrong or that I approve of their actions), when they have been treated as a protectorate subject to the will of their military occupier (1945-1952), or when they have been treated as a second class neoliberal economic power that does not have much say over the international terms of engagement and does not have a vote on the UN security council (1960-present). Under S. African laws, the Chinese and Japanese had honorary white status. That tells you something about how power can trump race.

Secondly, liberals drawn to identity politics who embrace cultural essentialism in non-majority, domestic ethnic groups often naively extend that frame to their thinking about non-European nations, regardless of the nation's actual standing in international society. Thus we get much well-intended cultural essentialism from the elite US press when it comes to Japan in a misguided attempt to be liberal and multi-cultural.

Third, Japanese neoconservatives actively promote Japanese cultural essentialism in the same way and for the same reasons that US Republicans promote "traditional family values." It is reactionary political polemic decked out in cultural historical drag.

Fourth, there are still astonishing swathes of Euro-American societies that insist on seeing Asians in general and Japanese in particular in an evolutionary frame. After all, the neoliberalism that passes for common sense in the media is ultimately Social Darwinism in denial, so why not? For Social Darwinists, Asians are either little colored brothers and sisters who need a paternalist helping hand (Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Bush) or a Yellow Peril threat to the survival of Western civilization (Lothrop Stoddard, Samuel Huntington). The image can flip on a dime and it almost always ties in with whether or not Japan's policies reinforce or conflict with the clear strategic and economic interests of elites in the nation from which the journalism originates.

For me the question would be why neoliberal Social Darwinist common wisdom more easily drops the reflexive disavowal of racism when the subject turns to Asians or Japanese. Given that, over the last fifty years, the right has practically rehabilitated inequality as an inevitable byproduct of meritocracy, my priority would be to challenge Social Darwinism in all its forms, whether culture or race-based. Nineteenth century evolutionary theory did not distinguish very clearly between maladaptive traits passed on by race or culture (they believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics). As a consequence, the distinction between prejudice grounded in race and prejudice grounded in culture is almost meaningless for contemporary variants of Social Darwinism. They can jettison race and carry on almost indistinguishable discrimination in the name of cultural difference as cultural failure.

At the moment, US neocons tend to save the Yellow Peril demonization for the Chinese and smother the Japanese with kisses. Tomorrow, George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi are touring Elvis Presley's home, Graceland, as a sign of Bush's personal fondness for Koizumi as he leaves office. Junichiro Koizumi's neoconservative Japan "gets it" from George W. Bush's perspective. Koizumi publicly pretended to believe all the nonsense about permanent US bases in Iraq being related to the spread of democracy. He was willing to subject a few hundred Japanese Self-Defense Forces to potential attack from the Iraqi resistance as a gesture of support. He recently announced that Japan will install the US anti-ballistic missile defense system that doesn't work as soon as possible. Koizumi has been a feisty Akita to Blair's bouncy poodle and he is getting his reward, such as it is, for having been a good boy.

Tomorrow, Koizumi will become famous for paying his respects to "The King" in Nashville, as well as for his public displays of affection for the Japanese Imperial line at the Yasukuni shrine. Absent an overthrow of the Bush II dictatorship and Republican one party rule, from the perspective of the US state that means that, as fellow neoconservatives, the Japanese are made men and won't get thrown a whole lot of organized flak in the US media for the next several years, just as they've pretty much had a US press holiday for the last five years.