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Understand Abe & his right wing crew, but focus on Japan. “You’re talking to the wrong people”

ByGrant Newsham

Mar 29, 2014

This story was originally posted on the PacNet Newsletter*

There is rising concern that Japan risks entrapping the United States in a conflict with China as a result of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s “right-wing” policies.   Abe’s views should be placed in perspective: there is a genuine basis for concern, as well as a basis for progress and optimism.

Some of Abe’s actions, particularly his Yasukuni Shrine visit, are mystifying and frustrating to those who value the Japan-US alliance.  Equally difficult to justify are the routinely provocative comments about comfort women and Japan’s behavior during World War II and the decade leading up to it by NHK directors’ and other Japanese officials. These actions are less mystifying if one understands the thinking behind them, however.

Abe and a slice of Japan’s ruling class believe Japan did a noble deed with its war to throw off the white man’s yoke in Asia and free the colored races (their words, not mine).  Moreover, they believe that the Tokyo War Crimes trials were illegitimate, and the Nanjing Massacre and other “alleged wrongdoings” were just that — “alleged.”  And, they reason, if Japan did do anything wrong, everybody did such things during the war.

Abe and that small slice of the ruling class believe that as long as Japan accepts this “masochistic” view of history (again, their word, not mine), Japan will never regain its independence and respect – its own self-respect and the respect of other nations.

Thus, actions such as Abe’s Yasukuni visit convey that the current administration in Tokyo does not accept past apologies and admissions of “guilt”; these are intended to refute the “self-humiliation” that restrains Japan.  Abe considers it principled leadership to take such actions, and deems them worth doing even if they provoke criticism.

One aspect of Abe and his allies that is seldom recognized is their resentment over Japan’s loss in World War II (which, they believe, they were tricked into) and being occupied.  Equally irksome is that their Constitution (and democracy!) was foisted on them by Americans.

They hate the idea of foreigners controlling Japan – from some, I have even heard regret over US-imposed democracy. They believe that Japan is a Confucian society, run by an elite class (them) for the good of everyone else.  Although most of these people would like to continue the relationship – including the military relationship – with the United States, their resentment is a troubling undertone and must always be kept in mind. This explanation is key to the debate over “why” Abe does what he does.  It’s not that hard to figure out:  just ask him and his people.  But Americans normally fail to ask.

This apparent lack of familiarity with Japan’s conservatives is in line with my long-held observation that America’s “foreign policy class” (diplomats, think tank researchers, journalists, academics, bloggers), seems to only talk to a relatively small number of Japanese elite and media.  A prominent Cabinet minister told me shortly before being selected for his position, “You Americans always talk to the wrong Japanese.”  (I’d just told him that the Japanese always talk to the wrong Americans.)  It may seem like “Diplomacy 101,” but at times we have forgotten that communication with all elements in Japan’s political arena is vital to improving mutual understanding.

Do the ideas of Abe and hardline rightist resonate with the Japanese at large?  Not really. Importantly, in what passes for Japan’s ruling class, there are many people who do not possess this resentment about World War II, nor totally agree with Abe and his supporters.  They appreciate the US and want a sound relationship, albeit a more equal one.

The US needs to better cultivate and support these people.  Talking to them regularly would go a long way.  This would enhance their position in the Japanese hierarchy, and would help the US to better understand Japan. Japanese politicians, officials (active and retired), academics, and media often express frustration at not being able to offer their insights.  They either have no access to or are sometimes obstructed by Japanese officials bent on controlling the dialogue.  The US side — PACOM, the Pentagon, and the Washington foreign policy world – should have a reasonable open-door policy and do more to welcome this community into the conversation

Track-two dialogues, think-tank discussions, and seminars are helpful communications channels, but can be improved by a concerted effort to include scholars, officials, and others who aren’t fluent in English, which is a vast majority of this group.  Going beyond the relatively small group of English-speaking Japanese would broaden understanding in both directions. Interpreters are expensive, but the payoff is considerable.

Americans should step back and consider Japan from a broader perspective and not focus too much on a particular administration.  Prime ministers come and go, and most of them have their peculiarities.  Don’t fixate on particular comments.  Some of former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s ideas caused as much consternation as anything Abe has said.  There is more to Japan than a prime minister and his curious ideas about history.

Finally, understand that neither Abe nor Japan have any intention of picking a fight with China or anyone else.  Ultimately, Japan represents a higher manifestation of civilized, responsible behavior, individual freedom and consensual government than most of its neighbors, particularly the China, North Korea, and Russia.

Japan seldom explains itself well; it can use US help.  For example, Chinese and Korean assertions that Abe has taken Japan to the verge of 1930s militarism have been allowed to take hold. The US government should help Japan challenge this false assertion. Instead of publicly expressing “disappointment” over Abe’s Yasukuni visit, US spokespersons might have highlighted Japan’s last 70 years of exemplary behavior and declared our relationship will not be undone by the Yasukuni visit. If necessary, complaints should be made in private.

If the US is serious about achieving its national security objectives in Asia, it must look beyond the quirks of the Abe administration and build a relationship with Japan similar to the “special relationship” we’ve had with the British.  Japan has its quirks, as do we, but our two countries are still the best hope for freedom and prosperity in Asia.  The key is to focus on Japan, rather than Prime Minister Abe.



Grant Newsham (gnewsham78@gmail.com) is a Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, with over 20 years of experience in Japan as a diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. He is well-known for not pulling punches in his writing or his conversations or in bar-room brawls.  

*PacNet is the online newsletter for CSIS Pacific Forum.  CSIS is Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC.  It’s regularly rated as the world’s #1 foreign affairs think tank. Pacific Forum is its Asia-Pacific branch, based in Honolulu.

A translation of this article into Japanese can be found on JB Press. We have reproduced most of it here:


(米「パシフィックフォーラム CSIS」ニュースレター、2014年20号)

By Grant Newsham















安倍首相や右翼タカ派の考え方は多くの日本人に共鳴されるであろうか? それほどでもあるまい。重要なことに、日本の支配階級と言ってもいい人たちの中には、第2次大戦に関する上記のような憤激の感情を抱いていない人や、安倍首相や彼の後援者たちと完全には意見が一致しない人々が多数存在する。彼らは米国を評価し、より平等な関係とはいえ、しっかりとした関係を望んでいるのである。

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グラント・ニューシャム(Grant Newsham)・・・20年にわたり、外交官、ビジネス・エグゼクティブ、それに陸上自衛隊に対するアメリカ海兵隊連絡将校として日本に滞在した。現在は日本戦略研究フォーラム上席研究員。



7 thoughts on “Understand Abe & his right wing crew, but focus on Japan. “You’re talking to the wrong people””
  1. Dear Mr. Grant Newsham:

    In your essay you write of “…Japan’s last 70 years of exemplary behavior…” and tell us, “Ultimately, Japan represents a higher manifestation of civilized, responsible behavior, individual freedom and consensual government than most of its neighbors…”

    Though I admire your resume and the scholarship you undertake, I disagree with your assertions.

    It is true that Japan has not waged war in the last 69 years, but not surprising – given that there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the country.

    Though the U.S. is supposed to be a beacon of democracy and human rights, and hard at work “protecting” Japan, the corruption I’ve seen here in China (a country that does not pretend to be democratic and which the U.S. is not “protecting”) pales to that which I saw – and was victimized by – in Japan.

    My employers in Japan (who were also my visa sponsors, and who I was thus totally dependent on for my livelihood in the country), showed through their actions that they cared little about basic human rights when they withheld their employees wages for months at a time and accused me of crimes they had themselves committed. The role Japan’s legal system and press played in these disturbing affairs made me question those “democratic” institutions respect for human rights as well.

    At one point, after I’d worked for an employer (and my visa sponsor) in Japan who had not paid us for several months, I wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, asking for help. In the response I received I was told the Embassy would relay the experiences I’d outlined to the office that puts together the U.S. government’s human rights report on Japan. However, I saw no mention of abuses by Japanese employers against Americans or other Westerners in subsequent human rights reports (between 1998 and 2001 – when I left Japan for several years). So, I could only conclude the U.S. government was far more interested in protecting the status quo in Japan than it was in publishing human rights abuses. Perhaps Japan has done an exemplary job of protecting U.S. corporate interests and military bases (though even that’s questionable), but it has failed me and many other individuals in the areas of democracy and human rights.

    Because of all this, I am not surprised when Japanese politicians deny atrocities in Japan’s past (and keep getting re-elected).

    There are other issues that have been covered in the press over the decades, such as racial discrimination against Americans and other foreigners in Japan, adversarial trade with the U.S., etc. None of these seem the actions of an exemplary ally.

    My first contact with Japan began in 1982, when I was in the U.S. Navy. During that short port visit I became fascinated with the country and in 1991 I moved to Japan. Since then I’ve spent 11 years in the country.

    I am grateful to the U.S. military and Japan for having given me the opportunity to experience the wonderful things Japan has to offer, and giving me a rich alternative to the life I had in the U.S. Midwest before I joined the Navy. However, both the U.S. and Japanese governments have a lot of work to do to make Japan an exemplary democracy that respects human rights.

    For more on my experiences with corruption and the human rights abuse I witnessed and experienced in Japan, please see the following links:

    A letter of mine published in The Japan Times, 14 December 1997:


    Published essays of my experiences in Japan’s courts (in Wilderness House Literary Review, spring and summer 2010):


    Thank you.


    Don MacLaren
    (Resident of Jiangsu Province, China since August 2010)

    1. Seems like you’re trying to view Japanese cultural norms through an American lens which is resulting in your view of what you’ve deemed human rights abuses in the workplace. This is quite common among foreigners working and living in Japan. The hive mindset of the Japanese nation gives rise to what individualistic societies would call these abuses, but to the Japanese this is business as usual. Self-sacrifice for the collective good is ingrained in every aspect of their life; anything positive is as a result of collective actions while anything bad is a result of weakness within the individual. It’s polar opposite from what many other nations hold to be true and most foreigners never wrap their head around that.

      This also helps explain their opinions on any other race, culture, or people. They have no interest in changing or accepting others beyond the assimilation of anything that will benefit their society without changing the establish power structure. They’re as close to a monolithic super state as one could imagine. It’s not that they are particularly racist in a selective fashion it’s just that they honestly believe that their people and ways are inherently superior to those of other nations. And maybe we should first begin by looking at our own society. Do our own nations not have enough of our own problems to fix first? The idea that America (or any country in the world, for that matter) is a free glorious state full of racial equality is one of the greatest lies of our lifetime. In fact it is anything but. The country was founded on the destruction of the indigenous peoples and the exploitation of imported slaves. The current situation on the surface may look that way but it is, in fact, a lie. The freedom and democracy is a façade. The only real difference here is that America hides it while Japan openly admits that there is an elite ruling class that makes the decisions and that the greater mass of people are essentially born into serfdom.

      And really, who are you or I to directly oppose that? Nobody forces anyone to stay in Japan and try to integrate into their society. It’s a personal choice made by foreigners to make that attempt. If you go to a restaurant and are upset with the food you don’t keep going back and complain until the cooking changes; instead you find another restaurant. As long as Japan’s actions do not encroach on those of other people then why are we concerned with what they are doing? And even then, look at China, or the much more militaristic Russia. Japan’s biggest deal right now is a small set of completely insignificant islands that nobody outside of Japan or China even really know exist. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to America’s actions in South America and the OPEC nations, or Russia’s attempted annexation of the Ukraine.

      As for ACTUAL human rights violations, maybe more focus should be put on things like the fact that the rate of female genital mutilation is near 100% in sub-Saharan African nations like Guinea and Sierra Leone. Not being paid for a while is a bit weak in comparison to the state-sponsored butchering and rape of an entire nation’s female population. See, that’s a real human rights violation worth of international inquiry. And when it comes to past wartime human rights violations things really need to be cleared up. Ever heard of the firebombing of Dresden and how many innocent civilians were slaughtered by the Allies? Such things were common to both sides but we don’t hear anything about it because the Allies won; history is written by the victors. All of these actions (such as the Nanjing massacre) are of course heinous, but every country has done their fair share and denied they were ever committed. Ever read about the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s? Hitler was actually convinced that nobody would care about his eradication of the Jews based on the fact that nobody cared when the Armenians were almost entirely wiped off the face of the earth; and yes, even America knew about it. Political alliances have never been based on these concepts. If it were actually like that there is no way that the WW2 Allies would have ever allowed themselves to ally with Russia under any circumstances after their systematic attempted genocide of the entire Ukrainian people through planned starvation. That must have slipped the American history books final edit; oops.

      The whole discussion of what Japan as a nation should and shouldn’t do with regards to its own policies is exactly that; it’s own.

      1. Dear Colin[1]:

        Thank you for your comment in reply to my own (though I was hoping for a reply from Grant Newsham – as that’s who I addressed my comment to).

        Your reply is like many I see in response to criticism of Japan, in that you:

        A: change the subject
        B: blame the victim for not “understanding” Japan

        You tell me, “The whole discussion of what Japan as a nation should and shouldn’t do with regards to its own policies is exactly that; it’s own.” No, Colin, it isn’t – not if the Japanese government wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, wants to continue trade with the outside world and wants The United States to protect and defend it. (And I believe it does want all of the above.)

        As for what you claim I have “deemed human rights abuses in the workplace,” in fact, this is not something I have “deemed.” Please take a look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2] for what the United Nations has deemed human rights and human rights abuse. Also, the US Embassy in Tokyo mentioned “human rights” in a letter I received from one of its representatives, in reply to a letter I had sent the Embassy – which outlined some of the events I mentioned in my previous comment (above).

        As for what YOU deem “self-sacrifice for the collective good” in Japan,” when I was working for an employer (the American Club, based in Utsunomiya, Tochigi) I was told the president of the company was blowing money he should have been paying us on women in “snack bars” (スナック) while we (Japanese and foreign employees) weren’t being paid – not “for a while” as you wrongly state, but for a total of six months! It seems our “self-sacrifice” was not for the collective good, but solely for the good of the president and the snack bars he frequented.

        Colin, it seems you haven’t read the links I noted in my previous comment. If you do, you’ll see I not only wrote about not being paid (for a long time) by one visa sponsor in Japan. I also wrote about being ordered to participate in fraudulent schemes, then being falsely accused of a crime and taken to court by another visa sponsor – a trading company I was working for (USC Limited, of Fuchu, Tokyo) which does business with some of the largest companies in the world, as well as with the Japanese government.[3]

        Now, I’ll have to go off on a tangent – but only to address the questions you asked me when you changed the subject (Japan) and went off on tangents in your comment:

        You asked if I’d ever heard of the firebombing of Dresden and the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s. I have, Colin, because I took History 101 and read the papers. (Though these horrors are not taught in all history classes, they are taught in many. It is also easy to find material on them in a library or on the Internet.)

        I am also aware of genital mutilation in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Though this atrocity is certainly a human rights abuse, the last time I checked the US government didn’t have nearly 50 thousand troops in Guinea and Sierra Leone (as it does in Japan), protecting the status quo of those countries. Nor have I ever read any essays by anyone at the Center for Strategic and International Studies noting those governments’ “exemplary behavior.”

        You mention other atrocities that many countries, including the US, have committed in history. Though nothing can make the atrocities of the past less atrocious, I believe evils in history assume an even more hauntingly wicked form when high-level politicians and bureaucrats in Japan deny – again and again – the atrocities their country committed. (I have not witnessed a similar phenomenon in the US.)

        Now that that’s taken care of, I am still very curious as to what Grant Newsham considers Japan’s “exemplary behavior” to be. In addition, I’d like to know who it is in Japan that Grant Newsham believes the US should be talking to.

        In closing, please accept my apologies for not addressing your comment earlier. I have been quite busy with other matters.

        Sincerely yours,

        Don MacLaren

        [1] I’m wondering if “Colin” is your real name, and if so, what your last name is. It would be nice if you would do as Grant Newsham and I have done: provide a full name, along with website/contact info in your comments. Otherwise, I feel like I’m debating with a ghost.

        [2] http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

        [3] Here’s one of the links (again), regarding litigation with the American Club and USC Limited, which should suffice:
        Please let me know if you desire further information.

        cc: Grant Newsham/Center for Strategic and International Studies
        Human Rights Watch, Tokyo branch

  2. I look at the rise of the right wing not only in Japan, but as a global phenomena in the 21st Century. In the US, Europe and Asia, there seems to be a dangerous trend of right wing nationalism provoked by a complex series of economic and social causes. The “Abe” ruling class in Japan have very similar DNA to that of the political right wing in the west, in that they’re facing the issue of economic stagnation, the perceived loss of national identity, and general wish to rewrite or white wash the ugliness of their national history; much like how some in the US are attempting to rewrite the Civil War or the South’s complicity in fighting against the Patriots during the American Revolution.

    I guess what sets Abe’s administration apart is their direct connection to those involved in the decision making leading up to and during WWII. Japanese political class is very much dynastic, by white washing their national history they are cleaning the slate on their own family history. I haven’t done extensive research on specific politicians, but from what I have read, Abe’s own grandfather was a staunch opponent of Japan’s aggression into China and Korea, and had some knowledge of the military tactics used to take over the provinces. I’m not sure how true that is, but it would be fascinating to find out more about the history behind these modern day right wingers like Abe family and the that of the Mayor of Toyko who seems to have to totally different memory of WWII.

  3. @Derek,

    I have not read much about Abe’s grandfather being against Japan’s expansionist policies and incursions into China and Korea, but I have read that he was a political opponent to Tojo and worked to topple his cabinet following the fall of Saipan. He clearly saw the writing on the wall and wanted to reorganize the government in to one in favor of bringing the war to a quick resolution, not perpetuating it at all costs. Given that Shinsuke Kishi is highly respected by his grandson Abe and many other politicians, I find their views on Japan’s past contradict the actions of many of the individuals they supposedly revere. Maybe that’s me though.

  4. Thanks for this article! I think it’s important to understand that just like in many other countries, Japan has a hidebound conservative elite, whose views of history are often out of touch with reality, but that they do not speak for the whole of Japan, or even their political establishment. Even the Imperial family has spoken out against historical revisionism to the extent that they can.

    It’s become incumbent upon Japan to take a greater role in global governance, but they won’t be successful in doing so without a frank acknowledgement of their history in sight of their neighbors.

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