Japan's politicians have been busy lately, passing new laws designed to take the country into the 21st century. But for all the talk of a brave new future, history still casts a long shadow here over modern Japan.
Hundreds gathered at a shrine Sunday to mark Japan's World War II surrender. The event would go largely unremarked if it weren't for the politicians here, whose attendance angers Asian countries since the shrine honors Class A war criminals who colonized many of Japan's neighbors.
This year, the protests are taking on a sharper edge. After heavy criticism, one politician recently retracted his suggestion that the government take over the religious shrine to avoid church-state conflicts and facilitate politicians' visits.
For Japan's neighbors the proposal was one more sign of an increasing self-assertiveness that, for some, evokes memories of the country's wartime militarism. They also point to a slew of new laws that signal a shift to the political right.
The ruling coalition says it simply wants to move Japan forward. They say the US-drafted peace Constitution needs updating and that it's time to adopt the symbols and laws of a "normal" country.
But the neighbors are wary. Asians "are still nervous ... particularly about changes in the military or the separation of religion and state, given recent history here, says an Asian observer of Japan, who requested anonymity. "The concern is whether this normal country will be hijacked by not-so-normal forces."
In Japan, critics argue that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which heads a minority government, is acting without an adequate mandate from voters. The LDP is pushing the new laws through parliament with the help of two other parties. Critics complain that privacy rights are being violated and that Japan is returning to the authoritarian ways of the 1930s. The rising-sun flag and a hymn to the emperor that became legal symbols of the country last week are perhaps the most evocative examples.
While most people support the flag, the anthem provokes deep ambivalence. Sung in pre-war days, it venerates the emperor, who was a deity at the center of state Shinto, the militaristic prewar religion.
Other controversial laws giving the government greater power also were passed last week.
One assigns all Japanese an ID number, while the other legalizes wiretapping. Many Japanese who recall the wartime secret police and crackdowns on students and unions in the 1950s and '60s are uneasy about greater police powers. And in July, parliament voted to establish a panel that next year will discuss changes to the Constitution, a subject long considered taboo. Enacted in 1947, the document frustrates conservatives because of the limits it places on military activity.
Ichiro Ozawa, head of the rightist Liberal Party, recently wrote about his vision for a new charter. Declaring that a Constitution made under threat and confinement is legally invalid, he calls for an expanded military role and the restriction of individual rights, among other things.
Even without constitutional change, Japan has been expanding its military activities with quiet self-assurance. It recently conducted its first war games with South Korea. A new agreement with the US gives its defense forces a greater overseas role, and Japan is building its own defense satellite.
For those wary of latent militarism, all this activity bodes ill. "It's a return to the 1930s," says Kenichi Asano, a professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University and well-known human rights activist.
Others say history can't repeat itself. "One big check on any danger is that Japan is surrounded by countries that are highly suspicious of it," says Tokyo-based political analyst John Neuffer. "There will always be people in the region to apply brakes on Japan."
But some politicians say the new laws reflect changes in the country, as the society ages and grows more conservative. The rise of a post-war generation is another factor, says parliamentarian Isamu Ueda. Unshaped by war, they lack their predecessors' "allergy toward anything to do with militarism and totalitarianism," he adds.
But perhaps a more significant change is the recent decline in Japan's fortunes. After riding high in the 1980s, Japan has since been buffeted by recession, bureaucratic and financial scandals, and most recently, the threat of North Korean missiles. Many Japanese say the country has lost its sense of direction and this uncertainty makes strong leadership and national symbols comforting.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society