Could modern Japan dare to defy America?

Japan has more experience of being at the wrong end of American might than almost any nation
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The Independent Online

Whenever I travel outside this country nowadays, I feel that I am journeying around an empire - an American empire. I begin to understand what it must have been like to have been living at the time of the Caesars. For wherever one goes, the major question is always the same: what will Washington, as if it were Rome, do next? Instead of troublesome Germanic tribes beyond the Alps 2,000 years ago, these days the problem is al-Qa'ida or the Sunnis around Baghdad.

Last week in Tokyo, for instance, on a family visit, the big issue was how the country should respond to the American request to send troops to Iraq, a decision made more difficult by the assassination of two Japanese diplomats near Tikrit on Saturday.

Japan, as it happens, has more experience of being at the wrong end of American might than almost any other country. When Commodore Perry sailed into what is now Tokyo Bay in 1853 with four heavily armed ships - the "black ships of evil" - to demand the opening of ports to American trade, the Japanese, kitted out with swords and antique muskets, looked on with horror.

Japan had been closed to foreigners for 200 years - apart from a few Dutch merchants at Nagasaki. The Americans didn't know much about Japan, indeed much less than their surprised hosts had already learnt about the United States. But as strong powers do everywhere, they overlaid their ignorance with arrogance.

Has the encounter with Iraq been much different? In fact, Commodore Perry's expedition came out all right in the end, so to speak. The US had done much more than it could have envisaged by obtaining rights to buy coal and other supplies at two designated ports. For the action proved to be the catalyst for a sweeping series of changes in Japanese society that enabled the country to establish itself 100 years later as the world's second economic power.

Before this could finally happen, however, the Americans turned up again, this time victorious in war, the occupying power from 1945 to 1952. Again ignorance was covered up by arrogance. General MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied powers, told the US Senate that unlike the Germans, a mature race, the Japanese were still in "a very tuitionary condition". And to this sneering disdain, there was added a third familiar element; hypocrisy. American democracy and the right to free speech were lauded, for instance, yet at the same time, criticism of occupation was forbidden. So were films about the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or any mention of censorship.

However, again it all came out all right on the night. When MacArthur left Japan, the Emperor thanked him and thousands lined the road to the airport to wave him off. The Asahi newspaper praised the general for teaching the Japanese "the merits of democracy and pacifism". Instead of Japanese armies occupying the east-Asian mainland from Manchuria to Burma, Japanese exports would conquer the world.

At the insistence of the United States, pacifism was written into the new Japanese constitution at Article 9, which forbade Japan from maintaining armed forces or from waging war. But when the Korean conflict broke out soon afterwards, the Americans regretted what they had done. First, they forced the government to create an armed force in the guise of a national police reserve. Then 75,000 of these pretend policemen, mostly war veterans, were sent to Korea and given duties at the rear. Finally they were renamed the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Nevertheless, not a single Japanese soldier has been killed, or has taken life, since the end of the Second World War. Japan has demonstrated that economic power can be separated from military power. But now the US is asking Japan to set aside her post-war pacifism so as to permit Japanese troops to join the coalition force in Iraq, which of course entails being shot at and returning fire. The first death in combat would awaken bad memories.

The Japanese military tradition was extremely careless of men's lives. During the war, soldiers received letters from their families urging them to die gloriously. To sacrifice oneself for someone of higher status was considered virtuous. The military code forbade retreat or surrender. Suicide was the approved response to capture by the enemy. Finally, when invasion threatened, civilians were ordered to live by the same rules. The Imperial order noted that "duty is heavier than a mountain while death is lighter than a feather". This is why many Japanese are frightened by their own history.

Consider in this light the sheer effrontery of the American request that the nation should give up a constitutional commitment to pacifism in order to engage in a military action which the United Nations has conspicuously refused to support. And so we come back to the question which always confronts the dependent states of an empire: will they dare to thwart the wishes of the superpower? I ask this question even though Britain has a shameful record in this regard. Personally I hope Japan will refuse. The more members of the Western alliance which stand up to the US, the better.