MG in-depth

The Sun will rise again

East Asia

Why Japan will soon start the climb towards the summits of global power


1.Japan is a separate planet that is rejoining the world. It is doing so in its own way and in spiritual continuity with itself, as a country inhabited by the gods, separated from other peoples by an “eightfold fence” immersed in as many clouds, as the classic Nara period (712 AD) poem Kojiki narrates. In current geopolitical prose, as a co-protagonist at the epicentre of the duel for global hegemony between the United States and China, it is set between the coasts of east Asia and the confluence of the two now strategic oceans, the Pacific and the Indian. This was where the Japanese Empire extended its majesty for brief but decisive years, trying in vain to set up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This until the collapse of 1945, when, in order to avoid invading the country, the United States obliged Japan to surrender following two nuclear bombings. For the first time in its legendary history, the empire of the Rising Sun was subjugated to a foreign power, to blue-eyed outsiders (aoi-me), slang for “westerners”.

Between its formidable post-war recovery and the end of the last century, for the rest of the world Japan was synonymous for technological avant-garde, an industrial driving force and a financial and trading power that, during the Eighties of the 20th century, seemed close to overtaking the United States. The peaceful and introverted archipelago was both the United States’ geostrategic maidservant and “unsinkable aircraft carrier” anchored between Siberia, the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. This was a rare case of separation between economic vigour and geopolitical minority. A hiatus even superior to that simultaneously experienced, to different extents, by the Axis’ former allies.

During and immediately after the Cold War, it seemed almost that its noble natural spirits (kami) enveloped in the ritual aura of Shintoism, were protecting Japan’s revival from the intrusive eyes of others, with one foot in the world and the other not. On both sides of history. Capable of maintaining its own nature, remaining loyal to the higher patriotic mission, inevitably and not by choice adapting to external bonds, often managing to turn them into driving forces. Changing its skin but not its soul and hence the uniqueness of the Japanese nation to change while remaining itself; capable of observing without being observed. Offering the “barbarian” the image it expected (tatemae) while preserving for itself the intimate, authentic truth (hon’ne). This was done to safeguard harmony (wa), the supreme good, as explained by the famous author Yukio Mishima’s answer to an excessively curious French interviewer; “Here only the invisible is Japanese.” (1)

In the provocative metaphor used by the anthropologist Umesao Tadao, in communicative terms, Japan is a black hole; it receives signals but sends out none. (2) This is a tendency already experienced following the Meiji Restoration that, after 1868, inserted the Japanese Empire into the flow of global history, when a great deal of work was done to translate many of the languages of the “barbarians” into Japanese, but far less in the opposite direction. Mixed with large doses of western Orientalism – the forbearer of all stereotypes, a barrier of ignorance we have erected around ourselves – the Japanese people’s reluctance to expose themselves has contributed to boosting their reputation as an unfathomable ethnic group whose code Europeans and Americans are unable to fully understand.  

During the over seventy years of revival from the ruins of the “Great Asian War” – the fifteen-year-long conflict with China and then with European, British and American colonialists (1931-1945) – Japan has been able to take advantage of its cultural peculiarity, turning it into a geopolitical surplus. This is nowadays perceived as coming to an end, because, for at least a decade, the world surrounding the Japanese archipelago has been changing dangerously. As always, however, the Japanese are studying ways of adapting to this.

Perception of the challenge between China and the United States, destined perhaps to become a war, has now become an obsession. The two powers/civilisations, decisive in the Japanese parabola, are apparently in irreconcilable competition. One is a pervasive matrix from which Japan was able to emancipate itself in the course of a many-century-long evolution that culminated in the victorious campaign of 1894-95, while always remaining mistrustful and the other instead capable of opening the archipelago to itself and the world in 1853 with the disquieting appearance in the bay of Edo (Tokyo) of four “black ships” commanded by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry. The United States then put an end to all hegemonic ideas in the Asian-Pacific with its nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6th – 9th, 1945), to then engage Japan as a minority partner with the San Francisco Treaty signed on September 8th, 1951, a paradigm of an unequal pact corroborated by later cooperation and security agreements.  

As far as physical geography is concerned, the Japanese archipelago is sandwiched between China and America. Geopolitically, its subordinated alliance with the United States, confirmed by significant American military deployment in the archipelago and its waters, warns one that in the event of a hot war between Washington and Beijing (and/or P’yŏngyang) the whole of Japan will become the front line. It would be sufficient for disputes concerning Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands, the jurisdiction of which belongs to the Okinawa Prefecture and is guaranteed by the United States but challenged by Beijing and Taipei, to lead by accident to an armed confrontation and Tokyo would be involved.

2. “Now is precisely the time for us to create a new Japan,” in view of “a new era,” (3) said Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in a solemn speech made on January 22nd in the Diet (parliament). Era (gengō or nengō) is not a neutral word in Japanese. It marks the reign of the emperor (tennō) within the infinite and inexhaustible line of history’s only permanent dynasty, a sacred figure in the Shintoist vision since he is the descendent of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Even the 1946 constitution imposed on a humiliated Japan by the American plenipotentiary General Douglas MacArthur, although trying (in vain) to secularise imperial dignity, states that he is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.” Without an emperor, no Japan.

The Gregorian year 2018 corresponds to the year 30 of the Heisei era, named after the current sovereign Akihito. This era started on January 8th, 1989, the day after the death of Hirohito, who on August 15th, 1945 had been  obliged to announce the country’s surrender edict on the radio, using the ancient court language not easy to understand for his shocked subjects who had never heard his voice before. The current era will come to an end on April 30th, 2019, when the over eighty-year-old Akihito will abdicate for health reasons and be succeeded by Prince Naruhito, inaugurating a new one. Such an abdication is not envisaged by the rules governing the Imperial House, which obliged the government to pass an ad hoc law approved by parliament last June.

In 2005, a group of experts had already been appointed to explore if and how succession rules should be updated in the event of an abdication, in addition to all other circumstances. Taking into account that the imperial family has only one male heir, eleven-year-old Prince Hisahito, the revolutionary hypothesis of a future empress was also assessed. After all, half of the 125 emperors listed by the court calendar – including the very first ones enveloped in legend – were the sons of concubines or their descendents.

It was around this and other delicate aspects of an eventual reconfiguration of the imperial family that controversy arose between those with nostalgia for remote glories, hence the tennō must restrict himself to existing in a remote and unattainable world, celebrating there his demanding ritual duties, and those who, having appreciated the humanisation of the imperial style emphasised by Akihito, criticise the persistence of the deifying tradition as it would expose his successor to the political and military manipulations of the tragic past. For the moment the conservatives, a majority in Abe’s cabinet, have prevailed.

Even discussing the subject of how to update the rules governing succession to the Chrysanthemum Throne and the image of the imperial family in this “new” Japan is, however, a sign of changing times. These are times in which those with political and bureaucratic power, from time immemorial tending to be passed down by bloodlines both as far as political appointments are concerned as well as the Deep State’s aristocracy, are well aware they must prepare themselves to address unthinkable challenges. They must be ready to fully return to the stage of history.

This must take place in the midst of what Abe himself has described as a “national crisis”. (4) This was a reference to the country’s demographic decline with its highest number of elderly citizens and the lowest birth rate in the world. At the moment Japan has 127 million inhabitants. Current estimates envisage a fall to 89 million in 2060, half of which over the age of sixty and 28% over the age of seventy-five. (5) Alarmists guarantee that in 2115 the Japanese will once again be as many as they were a century ago, in the Taishi era; hence 50 million. (6) However many marvels one might expect from progress made by robotics and artificial intelligence, areas of excellence for Japanese science, technology and industry, resorting to the immigration of a young and qualified workforce is inevitable.

For a proudly homogenous society, reluctant to encourage the settlement of those coming from beyond the archipelago – at times even the young Japanese returning home after studying abroad for a few years are labelled as “repatriates” and find obstacles when re-entering the education system – this is a medicine hard to swallow. And yet it is unavoidable. Resident foreigners are already over the record number of three million. Immigrant workers are almost 1.3 million and a relative majority of them are Chinese, which contributes to making this solution unbearable. As much as the government tries to ensure the importation of labour is circular, locals must deal with a level of heterogeneity that was unconceivable for their ancestors. This is tolerated rather than accepted. It is a cultural challenge that tests the Japanese people’s talent to adapt, even those most aware of the need to open the door or at least leave it ajar for foreigners, perhaps confining them to ghetto districts to the extent that this is possible.

The management of this “new Japan” with its “national crisis” spoken of by Abe for the coming imperial era, will have a powerful impact on its geopolitical stance. The prime minister likes to use the metaphor of a “panoramic perspective”, or a “bird’s eye view” – perhaps referring to the dragonfly, dear to the samurai who copied its outline to decorate their helmets – to study the planisphere in order to get one’s bearings starting from its centre, Japan of course. And also to intervene far more actively than in the recent past. What is the view seen by the expert eyes of the Japanese leader?    

 3. In 1991 George Friedman and Meredith LeBard published a sensational book about the imminent war between the United States and Japan, a war destined to explode within two decades (7). The text by the influential American geopolitical analyst and his Australian colleague (and wife) set them on course sailing against the wind. As Friedman remembered in an interview, at the time, having sedated fear of a Japanese economic overtake and gloriously ended the Cold War match, “everybody was really celebrating the coming of a wonderful age in which the coalition that had defeated the Soviet Union – the United States, NATO, Japan - was going to live together happily and in harmony.” (8)

Basing their opinions on historical experience, which leads one to ascertain how often triumphant alliances do not survive the consequences of success, the authors established that the two maritime empires, both devoted to controlling the Pacific basin, were slipping down a long slope that would have obliged them to fight a duel. They concluded that whoever might win that war it would not be the last one and that the battle between the United States and Japan, punctuated by ceasefires, friendships and brutality, would shape the Pacific for generations. This would be the never-ending match about which philosophers have written – the war in which everyone fights everyone. (9) Loyal to the strategic precept according to which it is best to translate into one’s own language the best texts of others, rather than writing one’s own in “barbaric” idioms, the then-powerful editors of Tokuma Shoten rushed to publish this sensational study in Japanese and it went straight to the top of the best seller rankings.

Sand has for sometime run out in the hourglass that, according to Friedman and LeBard, was to mark the time left before the war. However, the book’s analytical structure remains revealing, especially as far as the Japanese perspective is concerned – all the more interesting because it is interpreted by an American and an Australian. The analysis outlines the grand strategy of Japan’s Meiji era onwards. It is an esoteric version, nowadays not presentable to a still largely pacifist audience, but that continues to guide the “panoramic perspective” of the Japanese managerial class. This because in geopolitics names are not a consequence of things; eras pass, governments come and go, wars are won and lost, but for as long a nation exists – especially a culturally imperial one – the basic precepts remain. Japan is no exception to this rule.

There are five commandments in Japanese geopolitics according to the prophets of the coming war with Japan. First: to maintain the archipelago under the authority of a central government and a united army. Second: control the surrounding seas. Third: dominate land masses linked to such waters. Fourth: establish Japan as the hegemonic naval power in the north-western Pacific, moving south as far as Formosa (Taiwan), and south-west as far as Iwo-Jima (prefecture of Tōkyō although it is 1,046 kilometres away). Fifth: ensure and maintain control over routes for accessing mineral resources needed by the national economies both in China and in South East Asia, as the exclusive dominator of the western Pacific (10). All this is very reasonable. We could perhaps have added a sixth point, as an appendix: do not attempt to once again defeat the United States, at least for as long as it remains Number One in the world.

Still today, that programme has turned out to be unattainable in spite of an enviable economic revival and the creation of a noteworthy military instrument – modestly named (Self-Defence Forces) as stated in the constitution, but effectively only second in the region to the unattainable American formation. The more extreme nationalists have not given up, but have relegated it to a distant, vague horizon. But moderate realists – leaving aside the albeit numerous pacifists and other idealists – are inclined to observe that the painful American bond remains indispensible for the moment, while faced with the revival of Chinese power, the North Korean nuclear threat with its consequent risks of atomic proliferation, as well as convulsions in the Asia-Pacific area, where the absence of real regional structures results in unleashed ambitions and cyclical disputes.

The result is that of the five aforementioned points, the first is only formally in force, since Japanese sovereignty is compressed by the cumbersome American presence; the second is close, at least as far as the accessibility of maritime trade routes is concerned, but always as Washington’s junior partner. The other three points belong to the fantasy realm, a place where the excited dreams of the epigones of imperial militarism wander, of which some are ensconced in the state’s political-economic oligarchy and bureaucracy.

And yet, perhaps not always consciously, something remains of those visions, because no pacifist pedagogy, let alone if heteronomous, can obliterate Japanese strategic DNA. The “panoramic perspective” keeps in place the bond with the United States, but cannot nor intends to entrust itself totally to its ally. For some time the Japanese elites have discussed the American umbrella’s effectiveness or lack thereof as well as Washington’s readiness to “die for Tōkyō”, not to mention the Senkaku Islands. Many doubt this. As the American analyst Phillip Orchard observes, “For the first time since 1945, Japan has to consider stepping out from under the U.S. security umbrella.” (11)

All the more so since Trump’s  raucous arrival, inaugurated with America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Japan is continuing to develop it together with the ten remaining partners, showing a certain degree of independence when its primary interests are at stake, punctuated by protectionist proclamations that are inducing various Japanese companies to move some of their manufacturing to the United States while the Japanese government protests explicitly. All this is taking place in the shadow of competition with China and the Korean crisis. The not-very-creative chaos that reigns in the American administration and tends to affect the coherence and efficiency of technocracies accustomed to operate almost automatically is worrying America’s allies and even its enemies.

Apart from the unpredictability Trump uses as a brand and something to boast about and that sounds so unpleasant to the so intimately ritualistic Japanese, what worries Japan’s strategists most is the American apparatuses’ indecision when faced with Kim Jong-Un’s well thought-out challenge, a model of the strong being temporarily placed under checkmate by the weak. In Washington’s agencies, opinions fluctuate between those ready to co-exist with the North Korean atomic threat – a hypothesis not very attractive to Japan since it is the first and easiest target for a missile launched from P’yŏngyang – those who would like to punish young Kim with a ‘limited’ attack, exposing the Japanese archipelago to enemy reprisals and those who conceive of obliterating the rogue state, unconcerned that this could spark a war with China that would have incalculable consequences.

The American stalemate has broadened the fault lines in the already improbable and highly scalene strategic triangle of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea, in theory united against the Kim’s “hermit regime”. Seoul is not prepared to act as the sacrificial victim in a conflict between Washington and P’yongyang, exposed as it is to North Korean artillery. Furthermore, the crisis seems to be accompanied by the rediscovery of ancient national roots shared both north and south of the 38th parallel, which have partly survived the 1950-53 war as well as 65 years of non-consensual separation. And if there is something the Koreans all unanimously agree on, it is their hatred for the Japanese invader and coloniser (from 1905 to 1945, for the first five years in the form of a protectorate), explicitly stated in the North and understated for strategic reasons in the South – hence all the more oppressive. When observing public images, one would think that the managers of the two Koreas are enjoying a friendly reunion while awaiting a possible summit between their two leaders.

For the Japanese, what capped it all was watching the athletes of an allied and an enemy Korea parading together at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The pan-Korean delegation was led by a standard bearer carrying a white flag on which the outline of the national peninsula was embroidered in light blue as being whole and integrated, plus a provocative addition of the rocks of Liancourt (figure). These are the islands floating in the Sea of Japan (the East Sea according to Seoul) named Tokdo by the Koreans and controlled by South Korea but claimed as Takeshima by Tōkyō, to which the Japanese capital, which considers them part of the Oki district (Shimane Prefecture), has just recently dedicated a museum (photo).

For anyone still entertaining doubts, it is now evident that in the conflict with P’yongang, and even more so with Beijing, the algebraic sum of power factors in the Washington-Tōkyō-Seoul triangle is inferior to their simple addition. It is time for Japan to broaden its “panoramic perspective” to the entire planet, starting with its Asian-Pacific neighbours and all the way to Africa and Europe.

According to Tsuruoka Michito, an analyst at the National Institute for Defence Studies, Japan’s strategic elite is divided into two factions; Japan First against Global Japan. The first group proposes to concentrate on the archipelago and neighbouring foreign lands, from the China Seas to the Korean peninsula. It is pointless to search for support elsewhere in order to achieve this; the power of the United States, Japan’s only ally by treaty, is sufficient. The other, led by Abe, considers the geopolitical context close to Japan as filled with threats and America’s ability to contain Beijing’s extroversion as rather reduced.

Without compromising its bond with the United States, exploiting it on the contrary as a multiplier of Japan’s rank, a far larger coalition is needed to prevent eastern Asia and the western Pacific from becoming a Chinese galaxy of influence in a few decades. In addition to America, and not relying on South Korea, the globalists intend to enrol first of all India and Australia, but also Indonesia, Vietnam, France – still a power in the Pacific – Great Britain, plus other European partners and NATO. All this by playing as propaganda the card of an agreement between liberal-democracies, or self-styled ones, against the Chinese and North Korean dictatorships (12) and to be sold under the pretentious title “Strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

The dawn of such a project appeared during Abe’s first term as prime minister (2006-7). Speaking to the Indian parliament on August 22nd, 2007, the premier quoted the masterpiece by the Mogul philosopher Prince Dara Shikoh (1615-1659): The Confluence of the Two Seas (Majma’ al-Bahrain), dedicated to the esoteric revelation of the affinity between Islamic Sufism and Hindu mysticism. It was a metaphor Abe applied to the need for a convergence of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, “seas of freedom and prosperity”, designing an “enlarged Asia” – some will see here a degree of involuntary assonance with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – thanks to the impulse provided by India and Japan (13). They were brought together by a vital interest in the opening of maritime routes, put at risk by Chinese influence expanding towards the Indo-Pacific Straits, starting with Malacca, a strategic bottleneck for both.

The understanding between India and Japan, countries to which the Americans, in the containment/strangulation of China, assign the respective functions of western and eastern cornerstones, is, however, marred by the two powers’ different approach to Xi Jinping’s New Silk Roads. Delhi fully and totally opposes the project while Tōkyō sways between hostility and the temptation to leap onto a bus that is already crowded, trying to influence its driver. All this without neglecting Japanese dependence on importing Chinese rare earth needed to fuel its robotics industry, which could turn out to be decisive in compensating the country’s demographic deficit and the population’s aging.

Exercises in relatively autonomous geopolitics are also keeping Abe busy in negotiations with Russia concerning the Kuril Islands, the Northern Territories of significant strategic importance that Japan considers illegally occupied by Moscow. In his varying negotiations with Putin, which are expected to result in some form of partitioning, the Japanese premier pursues a triple objective. Firstly prestige, because recovering territory is always reason for glory. Then comes energy diversification, because the diplomatic agreement would probably include a pipeline for importing Siberian gas.

Finally, it would involve sending a signal to the United States stating that ‘you have pushed the Chinese and the Russians into an albeit ambiguous unnatural coalition, treating them both as enemies, forgetting the lesson imparted by Nixon and Kissinger; we instead are capable of dividing them, dealing with them separately.’ Countercheck: the Russian elite’s Sinophobe faction is pressing for compromise with Japan, with the improbable condition that Tōkyō would forbid the creation of American bases on the repatriated islands. Memories of Gorbachev’s sloppiness in the semi-free-of-charge handing over of the East European empire that allowed NATO to advance all the way to the Russian borders, continues to influence Putin’s geopolitics.   

While filled with reassuring rhetorical courtesy, Abe’s globalism is quite ambitious. Perhaps excessively so considering the current status of his country. In order to develop, it needs not only to restrict the social and economic damage arising from the demographic disaster, but to strengthen the country’s military apparatus, especially its ability to project power. Above all, it needs to reweave a positive narrative of modern Japanese history, following the narrow path already traced in the 80s and 90s of the last century by his extroverted predecessor Nakasone Yasuhiro – an advocate of the “comprehensive settling of post-war accounts” – and by the influential conservative leader Ozawa Ichiro, champion of a return to a “normal Japan”. Hence normally special and less dependent on the American super power, but ready to make use of the unequal alliance as a lever to create a tous azimuts system of bilateral relations with useful and willing partners so as to elevate itself from being the advanced platform for America’s Asian strategy to a world power. To use the words coined by a number of Japanese analysts, Tōkyō intends to self-promote itself from rule taker to rule maker (14).     

4. Every geopolitical revolution implies a philosophy of history and a matching pedagogy. Without a shared past, no future can be envisaged. The Japan that intends to recover its lost rank, must look back in order to then leap forward. Its taste for periodization – never a neutral but always a strategic operation – helps Japan to reweave the plot of its infinite history that includes all eras, even the fractures between one and the other, in a homogeneous image. It pays homage to Greek etymology, according to which a period means a circular course, which does not mean remaining immobile but proceeding by circuits, not in a linear manner but all the more safely. Seizing the unit within the multiple, continuity within rifts, community in the individual.

For the Japan preparing to become “new” it is urgent to relativize the rift of 1945 without denying it, confirming its acrobatic vocation to always land as safely as a cat. In the Chinese and Korean version, remembering the crimes committed by Japanese imperialism would impose on the defeated the need to present formal and unequivocal apologies. This is a geopolitical operation in a moralistic guise, oriented at keeping the rival archipelago under pressure, preventing the Japanese engine from revving up by imposing on it an everlasting stigma of infamy. This is, however, incompatible with local culture, alien in Confucianism to the Christian concept of guilt. For the Japanese, who on this subject maintain tactical ambiguity, alternating professions of shame and retractions, conciliating and challenging gestures, the strategic objective is to historicise a catastrophe in which, in their opinion, the warriors of the tennō were not the only ones who committed terrible crimes.

All this takes place while they wait in vain for America to apologise for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for bombing Tōkyō, apologies that no American president has ever dreamt or will ever dream of presenting for the very good reason that those who win are always right. Less inhibited Japanese revisionists develop a brilliant logical inversion that works as follows; if the Empire of Japan had really committed crimes, then the Japanese would be ‘criminals’ and should be treated as such for generations. But this must not happen, hence the Empire of Japan cannot have committed such crimes. (15) It was on such bases that in 1996 the Society for the Reform of History Books known as Tsakuru Kai was created.

Its founders included Kobayashi Yoshinori, author of the Sensôron (Theory of War) manga series, dedicated to denouncing the “masochism” of a certain rash historiography regards to the portrayal of the winners, former premier Nakasone, who in 1986 had let slip an opinion concerning the Japanese culture’s superiority compared to America’s, delayed by the influence of “negroes, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans” (16) as well as eminent scholars such as the Germanist Nishio Kanji. In their opinion, the Japanese invasion of Asia between 1931 and 1945 was a “war of liberation from white colonial rule”, aimed at “accelerating the path towards independence in Asian countries”(17). During a conversation with Kobayashi who had defended himself from the unfair accusation of giving in to the “masochist” school of thought, Abe himself did not hesitate to qualify as “victors’ justice” the sentences passed by the International Tribunal in Tōkyō (1946-48) on the criminals of the Japanese War, stating in 2006 during his first term as prime minister, that they were not criminals “under the laws of Japan.” (18)

Nor did it go unnoticed how on August 23rd, 2007, the day after the speech on the “confluence of the Two Seas”, Abe left on early flight for Calcutta, where he met with the son of Judge Radhabinod Pal, who had dared disagree with the verdict passed by his colleagues at the Tokyo Tribunal, downgrading the massacres carried out by Japanese soldiers and stating that the subjects of the tennō had fought to defend themselves and to free Asia from white colonialism.

In 2013, furthermore, once again appointed prime minister, Abe said, “The view of that great war (the invasion of Asia, Editor’s Note) was not formed by the Japanese themselves, but rather by the victorious Allies, and it is by their judgement only that [Japanese] were condemned.” (19) For Abe it is a family story. His maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke was sentenced by “victors’ justice” and imprisoned for three years as a Grade A criminal (the highest level), only to then be elected prime minister in 1957. Nor is his opinion on the Tōkyō trials – the minutes of which were only translated into Japanese in 1968, such was the urgency to be informed about them – considered eccentric among his compatriots.

Interested in not stirring matters up in the country they were occupying, the Americans themselves did not intend to excessively advertise the work of that tribunal. The Americans instead wished to distinguish between the responsibilities of the military caste and those of the Japanese people, which could not be attributed any sense of collective guilt because they had been betrayed by a gang of warmongers. Furthermore, by sparing Hirohito from any allegation and keeping him on the throne, MacArthur implicitly exonerated the people in the name of a sense of belonging that links the divine emperor to his people.

A few months after the end of the war, the demands of the Cold War, in Japan as in Germany and in Italy, had already convinced the American leadership of the need to integrate the crushed former powers of the Axis in the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet front. It was then the so-called reverse course (gyaku-kôsu), started in 1950 following the beginning of the Korean War, that allowed the de facto rehabilitation of the defeated and the beginning of a historical pedagogy in which the thesis of those, such as Ienaga Saburō, excessively critical of Japanese crimes in China, in Korea and in South East Asia, were accused of treason.

In 1953 Ienaga was censored by the Ministry of Education because of the heterodox book entitled New Japanese History. Even the school books prepared by the Americans were accused by the conservatives of narrating “historical materialism” and a “Communist ideology”. (20).

Historical revisionism therefore has deep roots, just as its geopolitical subtext runs deep.

5. Even for Japanese geopolitics the rift of 1945 is less relevant than it superficially appears to be. In 1982, the political analyst Kuramae Morimichi wrote that after World War II, geopolitics had become a taboo in Japan. (21) An exaggeration. Or a well-aimed cover-up of a parabola currently close to its summit, in fact on its way up. This was already triggered at the end of the 19th century to address the naval theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the U.S. Navy’s brilliant strategist whose study on the influence of maritime power in history resulted in a Zen epiphany among his Japanese admirers.

They followed his advice during the war with Russia that culminated in the triumphal naval battle at Tsushima (May 27th – 28th 1905), the first defeat of a white power challenging an Asian one. Mahan lived long enough to enjoy, with a degree of irony, the fanatical reception of his thesis among the subjects of the tennō. His work was translated into no other language more than into Japanese. A very strategic passion. The Japanese military oligarchy was aware that sooner or later a clash with the American fleet would decide the destinies of the Western Pacific and Eastern Asia, as well as Japan’s.

After World War I, with Japan’s rising expansionist ambitions, it was Germanic Geopolitik that took root in the country. The seeds had been planted by its Bavarian guru Karl Haushofer, since 1908, when, as a professor of the German Military Academy he had travelled to Japan to instruct the Imperial Army, in time to meet Emperor Mutsuhito and fall hopelessly in love with the land of chrysanthemums.

This is only one among the innumerable examples of Prussian-German imprint in the crucial Meiji era, when the empire at last equipped itself with a centralised state, not coincidentally at the same time as the Second Reich (and the Kingdom of Italy). Jurisprudence, economics, science, music, medicine, military art – the catalogue of Germanic ideas grafted on the Japanese throne was impressive. Not last came classical geopolitics, fuelled in then Weimar Republic by the trauma of Versailles. 

In the first decades of the 20th century Japanese strategic workshops promoted with fervent meticulous precision translations of German books on political geography and geopolitics, among them essays, maps and theses from the canonical Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, founded in 1924, among the four editors of which Haushofer stood out. The first locally produced introduction to geopolitics was published in 1933 by Abe Ishigoro, who, in attempting to establish its precarious theoretical basis, denied that it was mere Fascist geography (fassho chirigaku).

The pan-continentalism of Haushofer’s school contributed to the organisation of the Greater East Asia project, suggesting a “scientific” varnishing as the unification of the “Asia of the monsoons”, aimed at naive westerners, while it was presented to Orientals as liberation from white colonialism. The Kyōtō school encultured this in the national substratum, calling it the Nipponchiseigaku (chi=earth; sei=politics; gaku=knowledge), an expression of the “imperial path” that would have resulted in the tennō’s dominion of the world.         

So much influence, so much tradition and so many translations could not have been totally forgotten in the second post-war period, in spite of the empire’s catastrophic defeat, which expressed condemnation of its strategic planners. But already in 1947 the Japanese Geopolitical Society, the guardian of Haushofer’s ideas, was de facto reborn with the decoy name of the Japanese Geographical Association for Social Life, where the colleagues of pre-war guilds could once again feel at home and cultivate young followers.

In 1980, 82-year-old Komaki Saneshige, the prolific standard bearer of the Kyōtō school, felt obliged to announce that the reading of a number of new essays written by American colleagues had confirmed his idea that Japanese geopolitics during the war had been correct. (22)  

In recent years, we have discovered reflexes of this school of thought – perhaps subconscious ones – even in diplomatic semantics. In December 2003, a Japanese-Asian summit was held in Tōkyō with the objective of planning an “Eastern Asian Community”, a name in which a few reflexes of pre-war megalomania can be found. In 2004, the National Institute for Defence Studies presented itself as the avant-garde of re-flourishing geopolitics, organising a symposium dedicated to its past, present and future. Summarising the outcome and having rejected the futile argument according to which “geopolitics had been made superfluous by technical progress”, Shōgi Yunichirō established that it was necessary to produce a specifically Japanese geopolitical vision of the world, based on the fact that Japan is an insular state in the Far East, dependent on foreign trade, equipped with modest territory and few raw materials. One should observe that the word “geopolitics” continues to be stated as chiseigaku.  This was followed, a year later, by the republication of the Japanese version of Haushofer’s Geopolitics of the Pacific Ocean, centred on past and future “great West-East antithesis”. Simultaneously, a cartoon was released set in the Munich of 1923, in which Karl Haushofer and his friend Rudolf Heß, once Hitler’s right hand man, appear.      

6. The cultural bases of the Japanese geopolitical revolution, understood as the return of Japanese power to the elite of leading players at a global level, do not therefore need to be invented. It remains to be seen to what point this revival, not excessively critical of the foundations of a national strategy that imploded into a tragedy, will inform the “global panoramic perspective” of decision-makers in this “new Japan.” And one must also measure to what extent the shrewd rearmament policy is sustainable for a public opinion rather insensitive to wartime adventures.

For decades in fact there have been discussions about amending Article 9 of the constitution to legitimise the Japanese Armed Forces still obliged to remain concealed behind the pacifist self-defence mask, while in the meantime proceeding as if such reform had already taken place. In 2015 a Gallup poll set the Japanese last in the world ranking of those prepared to fight for their country. Only 11% of Japanese are prepared to die in the name of the tennō. (23) Is this the effect of the nuclear punishment of 1945, of conquered comforts, of senescence? Bushidō does not seem to shine amidst what has survived of ancient glory, no doubt saddening the samurai spirit.

The incoercible aspiration for harmony that animates the reweaving of the past, present and future is a double-edged sword. A few doses of Western pragmatism and humble realism, which Japan has already proved it can adapt to its own culture, will be needed so that the climb towards the summits of global power is not suddenly interrupted, by the Chinese, or perhaps by the Americans, but more likely by themselves.         


(translated by Francesca Simmons)      





  1. M. RANDOM, Giappone, la strategia dell’invisibile, Milan 2016, Luni Editrice, p. 12.
  2. Cfr. UMESAO TADAO, Le Japon à l’ère planétaire, Paris 1983, Publications Orientalistes de France, p. 14.
  3. “Policy Speech by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the 196th Session of the Diet”,
  4. Ibidem.
  5. J. WEBB, “Japan’s demographic disaster: looming crisis threatens US power and Asia-Pacific regional stability”, The International Institute of Strategic Studies, 4.8.2017.
  6. HOSHI TAKEO, “Japan’s Demographic Advantages”, The Tokyo Foundation, 8.2.2018,
  7. G. FRIEDMAN – M. LEBARD, The Coming War With Japan, New York, N.Y. 1991, St. Martin’s Press.
  8. George Friedman interviewed together with Meredith LeBard by C-SPAN on June 9th, 1991,
  9. G. FRIEDMAN – M. LEBARD, op. cit., p. 403.
  10. Ivi, cfr. pp. 28-29.
  11. P. ORCHARD, “Japan, a Pacifist in Name Only”, Geopolitical Futures, 29.12.2017,
  12. TSURUOKA MICHITO, “Japan First Versus Global Japan”, The National Interest, 14.1.2018,
  13. “Confluence of the Two Seas. Speech by H. E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, at the Parliament of the Republic of India”, Delhi, 22.8.2007, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan,
  14. Cfr. IWAKA AKIKO, “Abe’s Diplomacy at a Crucial Moment”, Japanese Institute of Strategic Studies, 2.2.2018,
  15. This was how the German yamatologist and political analyst Susanne Maria Kilian summarised the theses of the Japanese Society for the Reform of History Books in her comparative study of the German and Japanese debate concerning their respective crimes and responsibilities during World War II. See S. M. KILIAN, Japan und Deutschland – Zwischen Schuld und Verantwortung. Vergangenheitsbewältigung im Vergleich, Berlino 2012, Lit Verlag, p. 214.
  16. S. CHIRA, “Nakasone apologizes for comments that offended U.S. minorities”, The New York Times, 27.9.1986.
  17. Cfr. S. M. KILIAN, op. cit., p. 215.
  18. J. RYALL, “Japan PM dismisses WWII war crimes trials as ‘victor’s justice’”, Telegraph, 14.3.2013,
  19. Ibidem.
  20. Cfr. S. M. KILIAN, op. cit., p. 206.
  21. KURAMAE MORIMICHI, Geoporitiku nyūmon – kokka-senryaku sakutei no kasetsu (Introduction to geopolitics – an hypothesis for the definition of a plan for a national strategy), Tōkyō 1982, p. 3, cit. in C. W. SPANG, Karl Haushofer und Japan. Die Rezeption seiner geopolitischen Theorien in der deutschen und japanischen Politik, p. 725.
  22. KOMAKI SANESHIGE, “Senzen, senchū, sengo” (“Before, during and after the war”), Kokoku to Bunka, 1980, pp. 16-17, in C. W. SPANG, op. cit., p. 726.
  23. See Gallup poll quoted in “Only 11% of Japanese people ‘willing to fight for their country’”, SoraNews 24, 21.11.2015,