Commentary Magazine

Japan After Vietnam

Back in the years when we spent all our time arguing about Vietnam, there were the arguments with the moralists and the arguments with the realists. I rather early gave up on the former. It did not do to aver that America was not doing much that most countries would not do when they thought their deepest interests affected. America must be better than most countries, indeed all countries. America, when one became involved in such arguments, did not seem to have changed very much since Martin Chuzzlewit had his unhappy time there. One could point out that morality is a rather double-edged kind of blade, and turn away: if it is immoral to drop a bomb on someone, it is also immoral to back down on one’s solemn promises.

The arguments with the realists were concerned with such finite problems as a definition of American interests. For those of us who long supported the Vietnam intervention from a sense of vague apprehension, the trouble was a feeling that the matter was not one for argument at all, but for action. There was nothing really relevant save to try something and see whether it worked, or to refrain from trying something and see if certain consequences followed. We feared that even though American interests might not be involved immediately in Vietnam, the results of a failure in Vietnam might so involve them.

Try it and see if it worked. We did not have the technical expertise to say whether military intervention would work or not, but we had fears for what would happen if it did not. There were those endless hours—so they seemed at the time and so they still seem now that they are done with forever—of sitting in the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club and listening to this and that correspondent just back from Saigon assuring us in great detail that we had only begun to fight, indeed that we hadn’t begun yet but would begin next month. There was rich detail on how the fight ahead would be conducted, and rich optimism as to the outcome. Very well, give it a try.

For those who supported the Vietnam intervention, the result was a defeat as it was not for those who did not. Yet there was a certain relief. What had not really seemed matter for argument in the first place now ceased utterly to be, and we could sit back and see what would happen. It might not be a comfortable watch, but at least the air was clearer. When the vague apprehension, all along, had focused on something concrete, the something had been chiefly Japanese. Japan is a crucial part of the huge and complex economic machine which, for better or for worse, is our world, and in the new post-Vietnam world there are two places, the Straits of Malacca and Korea, where the interests of Japan might very immediately be affected. At least until Vietnam has pulled itself together and made itself what it must now inevitably become (the “now” is the chief thing which we who supported the intervention wished to forestall), much the most important country in continental Southeast Asia, not much seems likely to happen in the direction of the Straits.

So there is Korea. Those who accuse the President of South Korea of crying wolf for purposes of imposing ever more draconian measures tend to forget that the fable does not have much meaning in places where there are no wolves. There were and are savage wolves over the Korean land, and it is not easy to understand why in the early days after the debacle they did not spring. If the point is that the measures themselves are dangerous and that South Korea is a disciplined and motivated country that is prepared to fight for its existence without them, and indeed that the measures get in the way of preparedness and undermine determination—then it can certainly be argued. If on the other hand the point is that there is no danger, then many of us who like Korea and would like to have it around for a while simply cannot accept it. We feel the danger, right there in our vitals, even as we did in those summer months now a quarter of a century in the past.

It was not easy to see in the aftermath of Vietnam what would stop Kim II Sung if he sprang, and the best explanation for his failure to spring is that, because God tempers the wind to the newshorn lamb, he was not able to. He needed help, and the greatest of postwar blessings, the Sino-Soviet rivalry, kept him from getting it. Now enough time has gone by and enough poise has been regained to give Kim II Sung less confidence than he might once have had that South Korea is bereft of effective allies.

In deliberations about the present and future of Korea, the moral argument and the realistic argument once more hold sway. Bad governments are bad things, goes the moral argument, and one sins in giving them aid and comfort. Among the realists are those who in practical terms come to rather similar conclusions, their grounds for doing so being that Korea is not important to the United States. For those of us to whom an instinctive fear for Korea in the days after Vietnam was as important as any assurances about the capabilities of Comrade Kim and the inclinations of his friends, the most important thing now is to imagine what the Communization of the Korean peninsula would feel like. We have something very concrete to support our imaginings: evidence of how the Chinese felt about the reverse, the liberation of the peninsula from Communism, in 1950. The prospect filled them with horror, and they moved in massively to prevent its taking shape. The prospect of having Communist guns on the Tsushima Straits seems far worse than the prospect of keeping company for a time with an un-nice government.

If there had been trouble in Korea in those early post-Vietnam days, then the big thing to watch would have been whether South Korea was in fact without allies. The chief reason for the fear so vitally felt was of course that the United States’ could do very little and would do nothing. And what of the large, rich country so much nearer and more intimately involved? What might Japan have done? In those days of suspense when we waited for wolves the answer seemed cruelly simple: Japan would do nothing at all.

We do not know whether it was the right answer or not, for the most dramatic things that could have happened in the wake of Vietnam did not. Two things of considerable importance would seem to have happened, however: Korea has come to seem closer to Japan and the United States more remote and elusive. Japan has moved slightly to its own west.



For most Japanese, the new nearness of those Koreans is not entirely pleasant. The comic strip in the Asahi Shimbun on a recent evening had its hero, whose chief experience evening after evening is one of futility, carrying baskets of dirt across the land, west to east, Japan Sea to Pacific Ocean, to move Japan eastward. The immediate occasion for this exercise was Secretary Schlesinger’s assurance that there are nuclear weapons in Korea. Two subjects people would prefer to stay away from were thus introduced into the discussion simultaneously, and the reaction was to wish for greater distance.

Another element is the next-to-universal feeling of superiority to Koreans, a feeling amounting in many cases to contempt, which is one of the facts of Japanese life. The Left fastidiously refuses to admit the presence of such feelings, leastways among them, and in the refusal may be a reason, though there are no doubt others, for a leftish refusal to admit other than peaceful intentions on the part of North Korea. Take the side of those Koreans at greatest remove, and Koreans nearer at hand may be scorned for the best of moral and political reasons.

Among Japanese of conservative persuasion the Korean question is one of those calculated to bring loss of composure. To them, the United States seems to be pressing action upon Japan; yet when Japan once did act in Korea and with most commendable results, it got its wrist slapped and was compelled to forgo the gains. To such Japanese it does not seem fair that Tokyo should be asked now to repair damage wrought by Washington thirty years ago. Such Japanese, if they are old enough, have seen it all coming for a very long time. They remember how America started having second thoughts about a disarmed Japan when trouble came up in Korea, and in a somewhat hypocritical manner told Japan that although naturally the “peace constitution” and the disarmed Japan which it called for were here to stay, it would be all right for Japan to have a “police reserve.” In that police reserve was the beginning of Japanese rearmament, and to be told now that rearmament should go the whole distance because trouble is once again brewing in Korea—is too much. It is not for them, thank you. Washington made Japan withdraw from Korea and was instrumental in putting the peace constitution among the Sacred Books of the East. Let Washington do what is necessary to see that trouble does not brew and boil over, and desist from seeking to needle Japan into action.

The Japanese view of Korea has not always been what it is now. Feelings of superiority are of recent origin. It was through Korea that Chinese culture was brought to Japan upwards of a millennium ago, and until the last century Korea was still regarded, though with some ambivalence, as a teacher. There is a single Korean among the several hundred characters in The Tale of Genji, the great 11th-century romance. He is cast in the role of seer, and it is he who first takes note of the hero’s extraordinary capabilities. The ambivalence is implicit in the motives for the principal pre-modern Japanese exercise in foreign aggression, the invasion of the continent in the late 16th century. To describe it as “the invasion of Korea” is to miss the point somewhat, if it implies that Korea was the main target. China was; Korea was the bridge, and to some people the main characteristic of a bridge is that it permits movement in two directions, a fact which lends credence to the view that China, at least for the time being, is happy enough with a divided Korea.

The Japanese image of Korea as a land of quarrelsome, unreliable bums is a product of the present century, when Korean inability to face the challenge of the West seemed to bring the Russians dangerously near, and when the Japanese imported an inelegant Korean minority to ease strains upon the labor force. Numbers of Koreans, among them a chewing-gum man, the Wrigley of Japan, have done very well, but the typical Korean is still to the typical Japanese quarrelsome and unreliable—the sort of person a fellow wouldn’t want his sister to marry.

Most Koreans, in Japan or on the continent or wherever they may be, are perfectly aware of the Japanese view of them, and it only adds to their sense of isolation. It may be argued very persuasively that the repressive measures in South Korea are dangerous and unnecessary, and it may be argued persuasively too that the leaders of South Korea are doing what seems to them the only thing they can do. Among the things not commonly noted in Japanese and American reporting on Korea is that Japan has in some ways made the problem more difficult for those leaders. It is very easy for an American reporter to spend a few days in Korea—it is worth noting that there are no American reporters posted permanently to Korea—and observe that civil liberties are not ideally respected, but it is not easy to imagine the feelings of a government which has an enemy so near on one side that the sound of its guns one Sunday morning in 1950 was a disaster warning for the populace of Seoul, and which has on the other side a great mischief-maker (so it must feel), constantly spraying the south coast from its television antennas. The common view in Korea is that coast guards and security patrols must be of limited effectiveness while North Korea is in a position to bounce its agents off Japan, and there can be little doubt that this view is founded upon fact.

Then there are those television antennas, busy selling lipstick and detergents but symbolic of something important. During the brief period of parliamentary democracy after the overthrow of Syngman Rhee, a decade-and-a-half-ago, the Japanese Left came flooding in, preaching its simplistic message of peace and socialism, in its lexicon synonymous terms. It is easy for a Korean to acquire a reading knowledge of Japanese. Linguists have strict tests which two languages must pass before they can be proclaimed brethren, and not all the tests have yet been passed to the satisfaction of everyone; but to the non-specialist with some knowledge of both Japanese and Korean the two may seem as alike as identical twins. The systems of writing, in both cases a chimeric joining of Chinese and native elements, are asonishingly alike. What this amounts to is the potential for a Kulturkampf of massive proportions. The orthodoxy of the Japanese Left flooded the bookstores in those post-Rhee days, and the bright and diligent young Korean was not long deprived of access to its delights.

Perhaps Korea was not in serious danger then and would not be in much danger now; but there must have been insistent feelings in the breasts of many people, including the army officers who shortly indulged in a coup, that this would not do. It is often pointed out, and properly, that the Koreans are the only people in the whole world who have seen a Communist regime come and go, and that they should therefore be God’s own anti-Communists. Not all Koreans had seen Communism come and go, however. A postwar generation was maturing in 1960 and 1961, and now it is approaching the age the young army officers themselves had reached at the time of the coup; and not even the worst trauma, such as a Communist invasion, can be counted upon to maintain discipline forever. So it must have seemed in 1960 and so it must seem today. Japan, secure in its islands and sure if ever a country could be of American support, could play with peace and socialism. Such dalliance was a luxury which Korea could not afford.



If the Vietnam debacle has brought Korea nearer Japan, it has done nothing to make the average Japanese think the Korean someone he really wants to be close to. Nor can it be said to have produced in Japan anything that can remotely be described as a new resolve, a galvanization. The sentimental Left goes on behaving much as it always has, and since it has always had messianic inclinations it begs to be excused from frittering away its time on lesser matters. When the messiah comes everything will fall into place. The big newspapers go on giving North Korea the benefit of all doubts and South Korea the benefit of none. As for the conservative who says that Washington created the problem and so Washington must solve it, the suggestions for specific action which can be coaxed from him tend to be such as one would expect from an economic animal. He will buy and sell his way through. He will save the South Korean by making him a part of the economic miracle, and as for North Korea—well, maybe something can be bought and sold there too, a loan floated, a credit established from the coils of which it would not be easy to squirm free. Japanese sales networks in Southeast Asia have been rather good at establishing Japan as an indispensable supplier; and what worked there might work on the peninsula, too.

None of this is very new, or very realistic. The chief political result of the Japanese defeat thirty years ago was a peculiar kind of isolationism; it has done good work, this quarter of a century, in bringing Japan to economic heights commonly described as miraculous and certainly without precedent, and it continues to be operative in the sense that Japan does not propose to be more of a presence in international politics than it has been all along. It has been a small, inconspicuous presence indeed. To be sure, its isolationism is very different from the American dream of withdrawing into continental fastnesses. There are no continental fastnesses to withdraw to, nor were there at the end of the American occupation any Maos or Khmer Rouge ideologues to impose pastoral self-sufficiency. Japan had to make its living by international economics. But international politics—this was quite another matter. Here the national genius for saying nothing at all asserted itself. (A nation of mute shopkeepers—sometimes that seems like “the real Japan.”)

The heart of this peculiar isolationism has been the assumption that it is beyond the competence of the Japanese to do much about international politics, and that the energies of the nation must be turned to a career in international economics. Not even in the darkest days after the surrender did confidence in those energies disappear. Among the memories one cherishes is of the people who had failed at one thing and now, without tears or moans, set about having a try at something else.



Perhaps the time has come to have a try at yet a third thing. The awareness that Korea is near and dangerous may signify the dawn of something important. The mere fact that Korea gets so much news coverage these days is evidence that the Japanese world is changing. Some fifteen or twenty years ago I heard the advice to his fellows of a very successful Japanese magazine editor: stay away from education and stay away from Korea—two subjects that produced in readers a measure of hostility, and a larger measure of boredom. Of late there has been a spate of headlines and articles on Korea, indicating that the rules have changed in the buzzing world of Japanese journalism. Mention of Korea no longer makes people yawn, whatever else it may do to them. A sudden renewal of interest in Okinawa is also significant. In the years after full sovereignty over Okinawa returned to Japan, Okinawa seemed to be falling sleepily into its traditional role as an impoverished region inhabited by people vaguely different from most Japanese—a sort of regional minority of which, like other minorities, it was in better taste not to speak. Now Okinawa is in the news again, partly because of Okinawan opposition to a visit by the Crown Prince and Princess, and partly because Okinawa is assumed to be the chief place from which the American watch over the peninsula is being maintained.

These are not perhaps very dramatic changes. It must still be the conclusion that if Kim Il Sung were to attack South Korea the Japanese would not do much of anything at all. Japanese military thinking seems to concentrate still on a holding action in the Japanese islands until help comes from outside. Indeed it is even possible that Japan would do less now than it did in 1950. Then it was under occupation and made no objection to the proceedings initiated by President Truman. Today a timid government might be moved by a vociferous Left to hamper similar proceedings were another American President to initiate them.

To many Japanese, of conservative tendencies, the passiveness of Japan in matters having to do with national security seems effeminate and unworthy, and at least for the sake of argument they almost seem to welcome the prospect of trouble in Korea. Then the Japanese government might be forced to act. The novelist Yukio Mishima, in the months before he killed himself, used to lament the incapacity of the Japanese Left to disturb the complacency of the government. The Left promised all manner of unpleasantness in 1970, when it became legally possible for Japan to denounce the Japanese-American Security Treaty, but did nothing at all, and so the government saw no need to dispense with the peace constitution. The view is similar today. Something is necessary to produce a more responsible foreign policy. The Vietnam debacle was not it. Maybe an invasion of Korea would be.

The argument is usually presented sardonically, for purposes of emphasizing the fecklessness of present policies, or the want of them. One wonders whether it would be advanced at all if the putative adversary were Russian or Russian-supported. In 1950 it was the Chinese who stepped in and rescued Comrade Kim, and people seem to imagine them in a similar role today. It is not easy for Japanese to be afraid of China, however hard they try. Two thousand years of history stand in the way. The first time the Japanese felt endangered from the continent, some seven hundred years ago, the threat was not at the hands of the Chinese but of a race that threatened and indeed conquered China. The second time, in the 19th century, it was the Russians, who upset a comfortable old balance. There is a tendency so strong that it almost seems instinctive: to hold, or feel, or believe, that if alien forces were eliminated once and for all the old balance would restore itself. Atomic tests in a remote corner of the Pacific arouse more indignation than atomic tests just across the Yellow Sea, and no doubt the reason, asserted less by the mind than by the heart, is that France is associated with the disruption of the old balance, China with its maintenance. It is possible, then, that not even a Chinese-sponsored invasion of South Korea would produce the desired galvanization. Japanese feelings toward China are often likened, and most appropriately, to American and English feelings toward Italy. We should be very sorry if the Italians were to go Communist, because we feel rather sure that they would not be happy; but no one would be much afraid that the Italians would come and bomb us.

If China worries Japanese conservatives at all, it is rather more for spiritual reasons than military. The threat to the Straits of Malacca and to Korea is still at a remove, and among the imponderables in any event, but there is one challenge to the Japanese way of life which must seem very real both to those who resist and to those who aid and abet it. A new kind of youth is emerging in Japan, upon whom China works a certain magic. For a young person the prospect of forty or fifty years of hard work in the service of the gross national product can be a rather bleak one, and the Chinese magic is of a primitivist sort, taking away the zest for work in the sophisticated organization wrought by economic miracles. Still, if the primitivist dream had not come from China, it would have come from somewhere else, no doubt, from the north woods of Michigan or the sands of Araby or the isles of Greece.



If Korea has come to seem nearer, America has come to seem farther away. As a consequence, the taboo upon talk of nuclear matters and Japanese nuclear capabilities is being violated more and more frequently.

All around the fringes of Asia the fall of Saigon generated waves of suspicion that an old assumption might no longer be valid. Bad things might happen, the assumption had been, but the United States was there to see, or at least to try to see, that the worst thing of all did not happen. In Japan too there has been a certain mild crisis of confidence. Early this summer the most important magazine in the country carried an anonymous article urging the case against ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It took as its starting point, not the uncertainty of America’s proving faithful to its promises, but the near certainty that America would not keep its promises. To an American, and probably to most Japanese as well, this seemed rather extreme. Yet the fact that such an extreme assertion of American unreliability could be offered as the starting point for a serious argument in a serious magazine is interesting. Before the fall of Saigon the assumption of American reliability was made as unquestioningly by the anti-American Left as by the pro-American establishment.

The crisis in confidence, however, has hardly been of such proportions as to make the really important people come up with new plans and programs. The government goes on saying the same old things, and there is no reason to believe that it does not for the most part mean them, or that it is about to replace them by other things. The old things are the “three nuclear principles,” that Japan will not possess, or manufacture, nuclear weapons and will not permit them to be brought into the country. There is a certain make-believe quality about at least one of the three principles. Few people who give much thought to the matter can really believe that before an American aircraft carrier puts into a Japanese port it leaves its nuclear weapons somewhere out at sea, and that after a visit it goes back to pick them up. The three principles are rather too impromptu and spontaneous, moreover, to deserve the designation “plans and programs.” What happens is that the opposition asks questions on the floor of the Diet, and when the government offers what seem like plausible answers it finds itself with a policy on its hands. If it is pointed out that there is something a little irresponsible about relying on a dangerous umbrella which someone else must run the risk of storing—well, so there is a certain irresponsibility (and how nice that it is permitted).

Still, the discussion of nuclear matters is brisk as it has not been before. It centers upon the Non-Proliferation Treaty. No one of much consequence is advocating nuclear armament. Nor can it really be said that a debate is taking place. What is taking place is a classical palaver, with everyone talking in every direction. At the end of a really classical palaver a consensus emerges, mysteriously, when everyone has talked himself out. Probably that will happen this time too. People will agree either to forget the treaty or to let it have its way. The pragmatic quality of the discussion is refreshing, in any event, in this land where discussions tend to be dreamy and sentimental. Against the treaty it is urged that the American umbrella is not relied upon and that it is foolhardy to sign away possible alternatives (which means, of course, that some people are thinking of nuclear armament at some unspecified time in the future, even if they do not come out and say so). In favor of the treaty it is urged that Japan is more in need of nuclear energy for industrial purposes than most countries, and a failure to ratify the treaty might have the effect of shutting off or curtailing the nuclear fuel supply. Many other things, pro and con, are urged as well. Largely for nationalistic reasons, there is opposition to the treaty within the conservative party. The conservatives seem destined to govern for a very long time if they can hold themselves together, and a party split must be very nearly the last thing the prime minister wants. Yet it is always possible that we will wake up with a consensus some morning, and the treaty will be ratified.

And if the reverse consensus emerges, and an element in it, unstated perhaps, but recognized by everyone, has to do with reserving the option to arm with nuclear weapons, some day, on some occasion—what then? When might the day come, and what might the occasion be? One may imagine that, as Kim Il Sung turned over in his very private mind the possibilities of moving south, among the possible results that occurred to him was the unpleasant one of jarring the Japanese into a program of nuclear armament. On the list of countries that could produce atomic weapons if they chose to, one does not see North Korea. Whether or not it has the expertise, it does not have the money, and no one is going to provide it. Life is more pleasant with big umbrellas threatening one another from afar than with little umbrellas that can dodge between and under them. Though it does not seem likely that Japan would do much of anything to prevent the Communization of the Korean peninsula, that development might be just the thing needed to bring a new consensus into being.



This is the game of writing scenarios. They could be written in large numbers. Common to most scenarios which end with Japanese nuclear armament are two elements: a disquieting change in international affairs, and a failure of American courage and resolve. In the matter of whether or not there was such a failure in Vietnam, some people feel one way and some another. Almost everyone would make the same appraisal of inaction in a Korean crisis. Many Japanese think that Secretary Schlesinger’s assurances have been directed at them as much as at the Koreans, and they may well be right.

None of the scenarists can be certain that a crisis of confidence, even of major proportions, would lead to the manufacture of atomic weapons: a claim to moral superiority based upon voluntary renunciation of nuclear weapons and upon the somewhat involuntary matter of having twice suffered nuclear bombardment is very dear to the Japanese. On the other hand, it is possible that a new consensus might emerge without the prerequisites of a crisis of confidence. The process of arriving at a consensus is very mysterious. In one’s more fanciful moments one imagines the Japanese sending out and receiving signals all their own, like bats avoiding rocks and finding mosquitoes in pitch darkness. Until very recently a polluter’s paradise, Japan now has anti-pollution laws among the most rigorous in the world, and they are enforced. Just recently the case of the director of the Yokohama harbor bureau was referred to the public prosecutor’s office, the charges being that he had knowingly permitted massive pollution of the harbor. A few years ago one would have expected a conservative government heavily dependent upon contributions from business to do nothing at all about pollution. And then all of a sudden there were strict anti-pollution laws, strictly enforced. The costs to the businessmen who provide the conservative government with its daily bread are enormous; but most people, businessmen and politicians alike, seem to have agreed that the time had come.

A government prepared to act might find even tomorrow, even this evening, that it had a consensus. It might announce that, for defense purposes, it was conducting miniature tests. The parliamentary opposition would protest, in the interest of moral superiority, but the protest would be the dying fall of the palaver.

That is another possible scenario. What makes it extremely unlikely is the nature of Japanese leadership at the moment. A Chinese friend remarked recently, upon returning from visits to Seoul and Taipei: “Korea is suffering from the ailments of the young, Taiwan from the ailments of the old.” The Japanese case is nearer the Taiwanese. The present prime minister and his most likely successors show geriatric symptoms. For those who think that inaction is good much of the time—just as they like to arise on many mornings and see that there is no news at all in the newspapers—they are pleasant symptoms. For those who may in secret be hankering after nuclear weapons, they are annoying and frustrating. To these latter a significant element in the scenario may be the emergence of a bolder and more youthful prime minister.

If there is a feeling that the locus of Japan has subtly moved westward, there is a feeling too that Japan has somehow grown bigger in the process. More eyes are turned upon it, the possibilities for concealment have diminished. For some the process of growing up is a pleasant one, meaning that there is new muscle to be thrown around; for others it is an unsettling one, meaning that security must be left behind and that difficult decisions must be made. Probably the latter feeling is the stronger with most Japanese, and it means that new adventures, such as the harboring of nuclear weapons, are not going to be launched upon with vigorous abandon.

The image of the giant aroused seems to be there, whether with fear or with anticipation, in the minds of those who ask what difference the Vietnam debacle made to the Japanese. A more honest and realistic image would be that of a giant who slumbers on, but who has had a new awareness or two insinuated into his pre-dawn dreams.


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