BOOK REVIEW / A military machine with no stomach for war: The undefeated - Robert Harvey: Macmillan, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
EVEN with Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombed, Emperor Hirohito could not bear to tell his people that Japan had lost the war. Instead, his surrender broadcast merely said that the war had developed 'not necessarily to Japan's advantage', and that his government had therefore taken the initiative to end the conflict. Robert Harvey's new book describes this broadcast as one of the most dishonest utterances by any head of state in history. 'More than that: it was the birth of the myth of Japan's undefeat.'

This notion of Japan's 'undefeat' is made piquant by the success of Japanese companies in achieving in the Eighties with yen what the notorious Greater East Asian Economic Co-Prosperity Sphere failed to accomplish with guns. Not only do Japanese cabinet ministers make periodic gaffes - denying that the Rape of Nanking ever took place, for instance - even the country's schools have traditionally discouraged their pupils from revisiting the road that led from Manchuria to Nagasaki.

In The Undefeated, Harvey suggests that this lack of self- awareness, combined with the survival of many of the institutions of the pre-1945 police state, makes Japan a dangerous country, whose ambitions for greater influence abroad could destabilise not only East Asia but also the world. He argues that Japan's large stockpile of plutonium makes a mockery of its anti-war constitution. This fig-leaf could easily be thrown aside, Harvey fears, to reveal a alarmingly potent military machine.

This prediction will come as a surprise to those who observed the wave of popular domestic opposition that prevented Japan from participating in the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Whatever else may be said about modern Japanese, they have little stomach for war.

Harvey's reasons for pessimism rest largely on the 'revisionist' view that Japan is run by a sinister system made up of bureaucrats, big businessmen and corrupt politicians. All the groups that would normally serve as a brake on state power - unions, teachers, lawyers, criminals, even journalists - have, according to this analysis, been suborned into the establishment.

Fascinating as it is, though, revisionism has been overtaken by events. In the past five years, even the most diehard of the Japan-is-different brigade have come to accept that the country is changing. The pricking of Japan's Eighties economic bubble has called into question many Japanese institutions, starting with the keiretsu corporate groups and the much-vaunted lifetime employment system. Overseas investment has gone into reverse. All sorts of previously hidden discontents - from consumers, women, company employees and voters - have been brought into the open.

Where the country will go next is hard to predict. The old electoral system, which gave rise to the destructive phenomenon of factional politics, may well be reformed before the end of the year, allowing a new group of political parties with proper platforms to emerge.

But if one thing is clear, it must be that the huge growth in Japanese trade and overseas investment in the Eighties has been a force for stability. Crackpot generals in Tokyo or Washington may well contemplate another war; but millions of workers on both sides of the Pacific would find even a trade embargo contrary to their interests.

Japan will certainly become more assertive; no less should be expected of a country whose economic power is so much greater than its diplomatic and military weight. But a forthright Japan will only seem threatening as long as it remains unable to talk frankly about its past.