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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #145: November 22, 2004

The Dangers of Japan's Modernization Discourse in Asia

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

There has been much written about Japan's struggle to define an international role for itself over the past twenty years. However, ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, those supportive of the Koizumi administration's decision to involve Japan militarily in the "war against terror" have come to agree upon an overarching "mission" for their country. Representative of this view is professor Watanabe, Akio (president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo) who claims that Japan's "transformed military posture" and solidarity with the United States is part of a "historic task of modernizing developing nations." (All references are to his article "What did 9/11 Change?" The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4, p. 137)

Professor Watanabe's analysis provides insight into the notion that Japan's uncharacteristically rapid decision to participate in the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and in the occupation of Iraq was representative of a clear desire among prime minister Koizumi and his supporters to outline a well-defined mission for Japan in the 21st century and to position the trans-Pacific alliance between the United States and Japan as a more effective and responsive security apparatus than the US's trans-Atlantic alliances. In essence, in responding to US demands with unprecedented swiftness and despite domestic and regional opposition, Japanese decision makers sought to regain their status as the US's most important ally "bar none." In contrast to a Europe that was largely unwilling to contribute to the US invasion of Iraq, Japanese leaders, despite constitutional limitations, went the extra mile to put boots on the ground and demonstrated an unwavering steadfastness despite the horrendous murders of several Japanese nationals in Iraq by terrorist groups demanding a Japanese pullout.

While Japanese policy makers and advisors supportive of this vision may be encouraged by a favorable US response to their commitment, Japan's "new found" enterprise is worthy of caution for many throughout Asia. An analysis of the language used by Watanabe, Akio to justify and clarify transformations in how Japan engages the world since 9/11 will demonstrate the reasons for this assessment.

Professor Watanabe's conceptualization of Japan's future role may be best represented by his following statement, "... the United States will need Japan as an indispensable partner for the historic project of creating peace and stability in Asia and the Pacific region. The September 11 attacks and their aftermath have increased, not reduced, the importance of the development missions of the United States and Japan in regions where Islamic extremism might fester" (emphasis added). He goes on to claim that,

    The historic task of modernization remains unfinished in Asia. This task involves not only domestic issues such as economic development, nourishing constitutional democracy, and spreading the rule of law to every corner of social life, but also external challenges such as settling territorial disputes, creating a sense of community among nations, and constructing regional organizations for international cooperation. A robust alliance between the two largest economies in the world - the United States and Japan - will continue to be an essential condition for the successful achievement of that task. This task is so huge that, notwithstanding temporary aberrations due to the pressing needs of the time, the core agenda remains unchanged, and the mission of developing Asian states gives the US-Japanese alliance more of a sense of purpose than US-European alliances.

Professor Watanabe goes on to frame the "war on terror" as a modernizing mission. He positions Southeast Asia as "a second front in the war on terrorism" and characterizes the numerous armed struggles on-going in the region as "problems of nation building." In his mind, "instability" in Asia signifies "an unfinished task of modernization" that requires the "presence of a strong and reliable United States." In essence, the struggle is between the "practical wisdom" offered by Japan and the United States and the "traditional" Muslim "ethos" that "repels" it.

Evident in this view is the insistence upon the tutelary "obligation" of Japan to guide Asia toward modernity. In Watanabe's words, this is a "pivotal role" that Japan is well placed to fulfill. "Apart from money and technology, Japan served as a non-Western modernization model" since the mid-1970s and is very likely to "continue to play its role as a catalyst of modernizing developing nations."

As I have written in previous articles, this discourse is reminiscent of the rhetoric used to validate Japan's imperial expansionism in the 1930s (see Media Report #143). To give one example, officials in the South Manchurian Railway Company repeatedly justified their colonization of Manchuria as a developmental mission intended to aid Manchurians and Mongolians into modernity. In his book entitled, "The Development of Science and Culture in Manchuria: Japan's contributions," M. Matsuo, a member of the South Manchurian's Railway's Committee of Pacific Relation claimed that, "it is not too much to say that civilization in Manchuria and Mongolia was born out of scientific institutes" created by Japan (1933: 1). Under this rhetoric, the Japanese military proceeded to "subdue" what it described as Chinese "bandits" (resistance to Japanese imperialism) by employing brutal and violent force.

In highlighting the parallels in terms of discourse between Manchuria and the current "war on terror", I am not suggesting that Professor Watanabe is supportive of what went on in Manchuria and of Japanese imperialism in general. Rather, I am simply trying to point out that on the level of discourse many parallels are evident and therefore worrisome. This is particularly the case when all resistance movements in Indonesia and the Philippines are equated and characterized as problems of "nation building." Absent from this analysis is recognition of the fact that many people involved in these struggles have been victimized by authoritarian and military governments, often supported by Japan and the United States. For good reason, individuals involved in these conflicts do not think that their plight will improve through development and modernity guided by Japan, the US and their central governments precisely because their suffering has to a large extent been caused by the very developmental models put forward by countries such as Japan. Farmers and peasants in Mindanao, Philippines work (if they are lucky) for multinational corporations that have dispossessed them of their land and livelihood in the name of modernization. Furthermore, innocent civilians are subjected to everyday violence as a result of the "war on terror" being conducted by the Philippines government and aided by the US. Although the Japanese government and others claim to be addressing the root causes of terrorism, such as poverty, social discrimination and political oppression, the truth is that the rhetoric they use has been employed for the purpose of conquest and subjugation in the not to distant past and the models they propose have served to worsen the plight of most of this world, as is evidenced in the increasing number of conflicts, refugees and instances of poverty over the past half a century. Proponents of the modernization model and of Japan's development mission in Asia, need to be reminded of history and should be wary of defining Japan's current and future role in the same terms as those used to colonize Asia between 1910-1945.

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