Go to the movie theater in Japan these days and one of the more popular choices is a film about the country's past -- about a past Japan just can't seem to shake. The plot centers around a group of exhausted soldiers battling a vastly superior squadron of American aircraft. A scene of spurting blood, massive and deafening explosions and clouds of smoke marks the sinking of the "Yamato," then the world's largest battleship, in the Pacific Ocean, together with its crew of about 2,500 sailors. The message of the film -- that Nippon's heroes in World War II did not die in vain -- is hard to miss. And it's one that finds resonance with the Japanese public.
The battle portrayed in the film happened 60 years ago. In an attempt to delay an American invasion of the Japanese homeland, the Japanese military command sent the "Yamato" to an almost certain demise off the coast of Okinawa. The suicide mission created a long-lasting myth of heroic sacrifice for the fatherland, a myth that has never failed to get the Japanese reaching for their handkerchiefs.
This wartime tearjerker is symptomatic of a year in which Japan has marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the ensuing American occupation. It was also a year made conspicuous by the lack of remorse the Japanese have shown for the atrocities they committed against their Asian neighbors -- and for the country's enthusiastic commemoration of the fallen soldiers of the former Japanese empire. Indeed, mindless sacrifice seems to have become a virtue -- one which many in Japan credit for its dramatic rise out of the ashes of World War II.
And the past is increasing in relevance in Japan recently. Once again, Japan feels it is surrounded by enemies. This time, though, the adversary isn't the United States -- on the contrary, America as an ally has become more indispensable than ever. Rather, the rising global power China is making Japan nervous, as is the former Japanese colony Korea.
War criminals as Shinto deities
Japan has been strengthening its position, both militarily and morally, for some time. The "Yamato Museum," which recently opened its doors near Hiroshima, plays host to seemingly endless lines of young schoolchildren wearing yellow caps and black uniforms. A giant model of the sunken ship is used to teach the children how the past continues to inspire the present, and how the country's post-war economic miracle is partly attributable to Japan's wartime technology.
The prime minister is also convinced that Nippon's war dead deserve the country's honor and gratitude. Since coming into office in 2001, Koizumi has made five pilgrimages to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, a place where Japanese war dead -- including the war criminals executed in 1948 -- are worshipped as Shinto deities.
The controversial pilgrimage site also houses a sprawling museum that contains combat aircraft, torpedoes and other relics of the "Great East Asian War," the name patriots today continue to apply to Japan's invasion of China and the Pacific war against the West. The macabre exhibit even goes so far as to blame the Chinese resistance, which it portrays as having ignored Japanese warnings, for the Japanese army's 1937 massacre of up to 300,000 civilians in Nanjing.
Naturally, Koizumi's visits to the shrine have set off a wave of anger and outrage elsewhere, prompting Chinese President Hu Jintao to steer clear of bilateral summits with Japan and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun to cancel a visit to Tokyo that was scheduled for December. Beijing and Seoul have essentially imposed a diplomatic quarantine on Koizumi, almost as if he were the prime minister of a pariah state and not of Asia's largest and most technologically advanced nation.
But why? The prime minister, with his graying, would-be revolutionary haircut, surely knows such nationalistic posturing can only be seen as a provocation by his neighbors. But the wildly popular prime minister -- with a reputation as a domestic reformer -- also knows that a bit of nationalism surely can't hurt. Or is he a nationalist himself?
Koizumi presents his favorite Elvis songs
Koizumi, 63, is a man of contradictions. He loves Wagner operas, lent his name to a CD with the unlikely title "Junichiro Koizumi presents My Favorite Elvis Songs," and is equally enamored of traditional Kabuki theater and old American westerns. Most of all, he is a stubborn individualist with plans to radically modernize his country.
On the domestic front, Koizumi plays up his reputation as a reformer. He even takes on his own party as he seeks to break open the resilient web of special interests that have paralyzed Japan for decades. He is equally adept at sparring with powerful bankers, industry magnates and political heavyweights.
Koizumi's interpretation of history certainly reflects his country's emotional mainstream. He says that, as a 20-year-old, he was moved to tears by a book of farewell letters written by Kamikaze pilots. "Even now, whenever I experience anything unpleasant, I say to myself: put yourself in the position of those Kamikaze pilots," the prime minister said in a session of the Japanese parliament four years ago. These kinds of comments can be taken as either the stuff of self-help books or an attempt to morally legitimize the past for political gain.
More than any of his predecessors, Koizumi is attempting to lead his country, after years of economic crisis, to new prominence on the international stage. In 2001, as part of Japan's contribution to the war on terrorism, Koizumi sent warships to the Indian Ocean, a first in the country's post-war history. Then he sent Japanese troops to Iraq. These moves are reflected in his efforts to amend article nine of the constitution -- dictated by American occupation forces in 1946 -- which prohibits Japan from engaging in war. Nowadays, however, the US welcomes Japan's military buildup, as it promises to help slow China's ascent to the position of superpower, which could potentially threaten American military supremacy.
Koizumi excels in many respects, and he is certainly not a chauvinist seeking to revive his country's former dreams of hegemony. But in playing with fire he has triggered consequences throughout Asia. Ironically, his tactics have also weakened his ambitious plans for Japan. China has been particularly adept at using Koizumi's revisionist approach to history as a tool to undermine its rival. For example, Beijing continues to block Japan's claim to be admitted as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Although Tokyo, with its 19.5 percent of membership dues, is the UN's second-largest financial contributor behind the US, the Chinese leadership has argued that the country's shameful glorification of its past makes Japan unfit for a position of global leadership, and the Chinese are not alone in holding this view of the Japanese.
Japan bashing gains in popularity
There is no doubt that Japan's revival of its wartime past has been to its detriment. Japan bashing is popular nowadays, be it in Pyongyang, where dictator Kim Jong Il seeks to legitimize his claimed godlike status by citing fairy tales of anti-Japanese resistance, or in Seoul, where South Korea's struggling President Roh jumps at every chance he can get to express moral outrage. And in Beijing, where communism is fast turning into vehement nationalism, Koizumi's Japan is a widely discussed topic.
Some of the most popular programs on Chinese television are soap opera-like profiles of communist heroes who battled the Japanese aggressors in World War II. The practice of demonizing the enemy is also used for political ends, such as when Beijing suddenly finds it necessary to conjure up its patriotic ties to Taiwan.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has even admitted that the Kuomintang, or Chinese nationalists, who fled to Taiwan in 1949, were instrumental in battling the Japanese, while the communists played a secondary role. Former Kuomintang leader Lien Chan joined the chorus of anti-Japanese voices in a visit to the mainland: "We will not allow," said Lien, in a clear reference to Japan, "someone to distort the historical truth."
Controversies over the past, of course, must serve a present-day purpose. China and Japan, for example, are currently at odds over the rights to oil and natural gas reserves in the East China Sea. They are also bitter rivals in the struggle for leadership of Asian economic alliances, including ASEAN, which plans to establish a large free trade zone.
China, the superpower-to-be, is doing its utmost to ally itself with other Asian countries, from Indonesia to Thailand and Singapore. By contrast, outsider Japan is pushing to integrate India, New Zealand and Australia into Asian alliances in an effort to establish a counterweight against China's seemingly unstoppable rise to power.
A new power structure in Asia
The historical tendency is abundantly clear. As Japan loses influence in Asia, China is gradually taking its place. Gone are the days of the Cold War, when Japan could use its capital and technology to assure good relations with China and South Korea.
Although trade with South Korea has grown by a factor of eighteen in the past few decades, Japan's share of the country's overall trade has dropped from 30 to 15 percent. Japan's balance of trade with China has suffered similar setbacks, declining steadily since 1980.
The numbers symbolize changing times. When the West forced China to open up to the world in the mid-19th century, Japan established itself as Asia's dominant power. Strengthened by military reforms based on the Prussian model, the Japanese empire gradually began breaking off pieces of Chinese-dominated territory, including Taiwan and Korea. Feared for its militarism and chauvinism, Japan was also hated in Asia for its notions of Japanese racial superiority. Japan's influence in the region continued after World War II, but this time as a result of its economic strength.
But with globalization, the Japanese economic crisis and the influx of capital and know-how from the West, Japan is no longer a model for other Asian countries. China and South Korea have even taken over the task of rescuing bankrupt North Korea. By building factories and roads and injecting capital into the country, the Chinese and South Koreans have established themselves as Stalinist dictator Kim Jong Il's key benefactors. Recent developments on the Korean peninsulas also suggest a return of the two Koreas into the Chinese fold.
Paradoxically, the superpower that defeated Japan in World War II -- the United States -- is now the country's only remaining major ally in the Pacific. "The stronger American-Japanese relations are, the less likely is the possibility of conflict in this region," said Prime Minister Koizumi when he met with US President George W. Bush in the former imperial city of Kyoto.
With hardly any other choice, Japanese has chosen to invest in its friendship with the United States. The Koizumi administration has just extended its troop deployment in Iraq by another year. By remaining loyal to the US-led coalition in Iraq, Japan has placed itself in a favorable light when compared with South Korea, which plans to reduce its contingent by about 1,000 troops. In addition, Seoul has angered the beleaguered superpower with its demands, including its insistence that the south be given the military supreme command in the event of a war with the north.
US re-deploys in Asia
Like Japan, the US is becoming increasingly mistrustful of China and South Korea, and it comes as no surprise that the two countries are beefing up and even expanding their security pact. The United States is in the process of redeploying the troops it has stationed in Japan. It plans to move about 7,000 troops from the southern island of Okinawa, where the occupying power isn't especially popular, to US's Pacific island territory of Guam. The move would also remove an important segment of US forces beyond the range of Chinese short-range missiles.
It's no secret that by reducing their presence on Okinawa, the Americans want to see Japan assume the role of regional sheriff. But is Tokyo still up to the task? Its self-imposed isolation, in any event, hasn't exactly made Japan stronger. Besides, US diplomats see Koizumi's treatment of the past as a dangerous game. "It's somewhat frustrating for us, for the United States, to see the extent to which relations between Japan and China have deteriorated because of this historical issue," says Christopher Hill, the US envoy to the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Asia is reorienting itself. The influence of an old magnet, the United States, could be on the decline. Meanwhile, the strength of the new magnet, future superpower China, is already becoming evident.
But Japan, under Koizumi, is defending itself against its gradual loss of influence, and the echo its efforts have triggered in Asia is beginning to alarm some of its more level-headed citizens. The prime minister, writes expert Kan Kimura in the publication Nihon Keizai, ought to rethink his foreign policy. At the very least, Koizumi should reassure neighboring countries that Japan has no intention of threatening anyone militarily -- and that the past is truly in the past.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan