Japan's Far Left Has Gone Too Far

Intellectual Kenzaburo Oe's blame-the-U.S. ranting and conspiracy theories are amazingly naive in the post-September 11 world

By Brian Bremner

Those on the extreme left of the political spectrum have been pretty much dismissed in the U.S. for any policy complaints or insights they've had since September 11.

I'm not referring to people who acknowledge that mass murder took place but nevertheless harbor doubts about the Bush Administration's strategy and tactics. No, I mean the likes of Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky, who basically think the U.S. is a rogue elephant that has stomped all over the globe for decades. In their eyes, Amerika is getting a richly deserved comeuppance from the Islamic freedom fighters of al Qaeda -- we are paying for our past imperialistic sins. Utter nonsense in my view. But, hey, let a thousand flowers bloom.

In Japan, the ranking intellectual of the far left is Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994. Oe, a graduate of Tokyo University, has won acclaim for works that have plumbed the sense of alienation in affluent, apathetic postwar Japan, as well as for being highly critical of conservatives in Japan and the U.S.


  Lately, he has written some of the most naive stuff imaginable about the current war on terrorism, the U.S.-Japan security relationship, and how best to handle North Korea and Kim Jong Il (about whom he is quite sympathetic). Exhibit No. 1: A rambling essay in Asahi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, involving an exchange of letters between Oe and another left-leaning soul, Edward W. Said, who shares many of Oe's beliefs about the Arab world.

Reading Oe can be a challenge (especially for journalists, who are trained to use words economically). You have to work your way through a fair number of literary asides, such as the difference between Chinese and Latin American "magical realism" and Japan's dearth of a "historical imagination," which Oe thinks is essential for empathizing with other societies.

Oe eventually gets around to making a few points, which can be boiled down to this: The Islamic world is being "uniformly stigmatized in the chorus of antiterrorism," and that during President Bush's recent swing through Tokyo, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi secretly pledged allegiance to Washington's "long-intended aggressive nuclear strategy." Also, the whole "axis of evil" formulation -- especially the inclusion of North Korea -- is very dangerous and only "inflaming" nationalism in Japan.


  Seven months ago, this kind of conspiracy-mongering and blame-the-rich-world-first whining from the far left would have been annoying, but dismissible. In the world we live in now, threatened with the prospect of "dirty bombs" containing radioactive material and biological agents, such assertions ought not to go unchallenged.

Why is the Islamic world being picked on at the moment? Maybe it's because all the hijackers involved in the September 11 attack on America claimed to be devout Muslims from the Middle East. Or maybe it's because Islamic schools, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, engender intolerance and hatred toward the West and Israel?

Oh, but that's the price America pays for tolerating global poverty and for putting oil interests in the Middle East above everything else, Oe and his ilk argue.


  Excuse me? Let's engage in our own "historical imagination" for a moment: Imagine that overnight, the U.S. delivers a multibillion dollar Marshall Plan for the Middle East, negotiates a real peace accord between Israel and Palestine, vows not to touch Iraq, and pulls all U.S. troops out of the region. Poof, no more global terrorism? Fat chance. Does anyone really think that six month from now, some martyrdom-seeking cell in the U.S. with the setup to kill tens of thousands of Americans would pass up the opportunity? I don't think so.

Oe seems to think the global menace of terrorism can be solved with a little more cultural empathy or "historical imagination." That's a fairy tale. As for his theory about a secret understanding between Koizumi and Bush for a new and aggressive nuclear arms strategy, I'd like to see Oe's sourcing on that. Actually, what I think really bothers Oe is that the whole postwar Japanese pacifist movement he reveled in is pretty much a spent force.

True, Japan isn't ready to rip up its war-renouncing constitution and rearm. But neither is it going to sit by passively when its national security interests are at risk. Koizumi and a majority of Japanese understood from Day One that terrorism can strike in Osaka or Tokyo as well as in New York. (Remember the 1995 nerve-gas attack on a Tokyo subway by a millennial Japanese cult?) All this is why Japan provided logistical and diplomatic support to the military move on terrorist bases in Afghanistan.


  Oe really goes off course when talking about the need for a "critical understanding" of Kim Jong Il's regime in Pyongyang and "constant efforts for reconciliation based on it." Let me be blunt: Kim is running a massive extortion game. He test-fires missiles over the Japanese archipelago and is suspected of running a nuclear weapons program of his own. Kim uses all that to try to leverage aid for his often-famine-hit population. Meanwhile, desperate North Koreans look for every opportunity to bolt, whether it's to neighboring China or overseas, where they can seek asylum.

Oe finishes off his essay lamenting the loss of "independent pride and morality" in contemporary Japan. Here I'll grant him a point: What he says is true -- but not for the reasons he cites. Japan is in a funk after a decade of economic paralysis and is suffering something of an identity crisis. What's missing is a healthy sense of nationalism, assertiveness, and confidence about Japanese interests -- and the willingness to look out for them when need be. That means fixing the economy and coming up with a proactive foreign policy that advances Japan's interests around the world -- and may or may not always be in sync with Washington's.

It will be fascinating to watch what direction Japan takes in the coming years, and Japanese intellectuals of every stripe will help chart that course. Pity that so far, Oe doesn't seem to have much of substance to offer.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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