Saturday, September 27, 2008

In the defense of Tarō Francisco Asō

Although I am ticked off at the Prime Minister for his Cabinet selections, he deserves a bit better from the editorial page of The New York Times than this:

The Return of Taro Aso

Japan’s new prime minister, Taro Aso, is well known — and not fondly remembered — by Japan’s neighbors as a pugnacious nationalist. As foreign minister from 2005 to 2007, Mr. Aso soured relations with China and South Korea and raised tensions throughout the region, praising the achievements of prewar Japanese colonialism, justifying wartime atrocities and portraying China as a dangerous military threat.

Now, the power brokers in the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party have made him Japan's fourth prime minister in just two years and rebranded Mr. Aso as a "pragmatist."

Mr. Aso is expected to focus on stimulating Japan's stagnant economy. To successfully lead a 21st-century Japan, he will also need to swap nationalism for pragmatism when it comes to foreign relations. Japan's future depends on cultivating stronger political and economic relations with China — its largest trading partner — South Korea and other rapidly advancing neighbors.

He has assured Washington that he will resist opposition efforts to shut down a Japanese naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean — Japan's risk-free demonstration of support for American and allied military efforts in Afghanistan.

What the United States most needs from Japan is a responsible strategic partner, not a government whose imperial reveries and symbolic muscle-flexing will provoke angry reactions across Asia.

Nationalism is enjoying a disturbing political revival because many Japanese fear that their country, once Asia's clear economic leader, is losing ground to booming neighbors. The answer for that doesn't lie in the nostalgic fantasies about Japan's ugly past for which Mr. Aso has become well known.

Instead, Japan needs to modernize its economy by completing the market reforms begun by Junichiro Koizumi, the former prime minister. And it needs to modernize its foreign policy by treating its neighbors as equals. If Mr. Aso can be pragmatic enough to adopt that agenda, he is likely to be a successful prime minister.

OK, let us first off clear from our minds the deleterious echoes of the NYT's insufferable conviction that it and only it knows how the world should be run.

"Pugnacious nationalist" - no.

Francisco loves his country - passionately, deeply, madly. He is infatuated with Japan, with what it is, whatever it might become. His is not the defensive possessiveness of an insecure man. He wants to share with everyone his enthusiasm. He hopes that everyone in the world can come to see his country the way he sees it: as flawed, yes, but for the most part wonderful, kind, quirky, appealing and charming. Like a lover, he underplays the faults of the object of his desire.

Pugnacious? Only as a lover can be when you tell him his lady is a dog tramp.

"the nostalgic fantasies about Japan's ugly past for which Mr. Aso has become well known"

Unlike many in the crowd he hangs out with Francisco seems to have relatively little interest in Japan's past. He sees the past as a source of metaphors and anecdotes, yes - but not as a set of guides to the future of the country. Unlike a Sakurai Yoshiko, who takes the Nihon Shoki and the Nihongi as unbiased accounts of a glorious era when emperors were powerful and benevolent, Francisco seems to know that a lot of the historical record is bunk.

As for his past controversial statements on the legacy of Imperial Japan in Asia, he is not a blanket denier of misdeeds like a Nakayama Nariaki. Francisco seems to want Japan to get a fair shake, for the telling of history to be fair.

An aside, but what will the Iraqi textbooks say about the Americans, after the last U.S. soldier lifts out?

Will the text conclude:

"The invasion and occupation were understandable; Iraq did not have a very good set of leaders. Americans felt it necessary to invade our country because it could pose a threat their own security someday. While occupying the country the Americans were unable to stop the civil war, only limit its violence. Still, they tried to good things for the people of Iraq, including providing modern trauma care and guarding the country's oil revenues. "? 
That Francisco has been unable to make himself understood seems to have less to do with the content of his contentions than with his peculiar dearth of empathy. He is not one to pick up what other people are feeling.

Hence the paradox: Francisco is renowned for saying what he thinks... but also for seemingly being unable to think about what he is saying.

"it needs to modernize its foreign policy by treating its neighbors as equals"

I have not the faintest ideas what this means. Which country does Japan not treat as an equal, aside from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with whom it does not have diplomatic relations? Indeed, the shoe is on the other foot. It has been the governments of China and the Republic of Korea who have been making presumptuous and preposterous demands of Japan's government.

If the author of the editorial could identify the particular instances when the government of Japan treated the governments of its neighbors with less than the respect one should accord one's equals, I would be glad to learn of them.

I could go on...but I am tired and want to go home.


Anonymous said...


I am looking forward to reading your account of Francisco's book "Fantastico Cipango".

Par avance, merci.

Anonymous said...

*shock* The New York Times labels Japan and its leaders 'nationalists'.

I wonder who wrote that editorial.

By the way - 'Francisco'? Am I missing something?

MTC said...

bryce -

The Prime Minister is a Catholic. "Francisco" is his baptismal name.

Anonymous said...

"Pugnacious nationalist"? Makes me wonder how NYT will remember GWB.

Ken said...

Why did Aso have to wait for Nakayama to resign before bringing his wife back on as state minister for DPRK issues?

Anonymous said...

GWB ain't a nationalist. He's an imperialist.

Anonymous said...

Aso is no good. Check his quotes in wikipedia. Things like this:

"The Japanese were trusted because they had never been involved in exploitation there, or been involved in fights or fired machine guns. Japan is doing what the Americans can't do. It would probably be no good to have blue eyes and blond hair. Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces."


MTC said...

Dear asosucks, et cetera -

Please note:

"Francisco is renowned for saying what he thinks... but also for seemingly being unable to think about what he is saying."

When Asō-san speaks, his brain runs ahead toward the goal line, leaving his tongue, lips and vocal chords to slog through the middle distances without guidance. One can often discern the outlines of a fresh and iconoclastic truth deep down inside Aso's remarks. Unfortunately, Asō's neglect of the craft of developing an argument often demolishes his intended point.

Anonymous said...

Whoa..."fresh and iconoclastic truth"?

Yep, what a novel idea that you can't trust a white man. Who knew?

Aso's charm is that he is straight forward about his notions about how the world works; but these sometimes make people's hair stand on end.

It will be interesting, however, to compare his tenure and the foreign reaction to it to the goings on in Austria where there is a possibility of a very rightwing Chancellor being chosen.

Anonymous said...

Dear "Not"

You do not understand. Mr. Aso is a "maverick."

US Americans are good at spotting these.