There was a curious story in the Japanese news last week about the defacement of hundreds of copies of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in libraries across Tokyo. Although the culprit has yet to be identified, commentators in the international media who specialise in writing about the big picture were quick to link these strange events to the nationalist agenda of prime minister Shinzo Abe and his coterie. The suggestion is that they were eliding their revisionist view of Japanese history with what could be an unconnected act of vandalism. Suddenly, it seems, every news story about Japan is being viewed through the prism of its perceived shift to the right.
The reality is that what the Japanese public says and thinks and what Japanese politicians get up to rarely coincide. Most Japanese people find Abe’s nationalist preoccupations as remote from their daily lives as those watching from the outside. Abe’s government was voted in on a landslide but not because the electorate was itching to beef up the Self-Defence Forces or take on China over the Senkaku islands. It was an election fought on the economy. When asked, the majority of Japanese consistently say they don’t want to change the country’s pacifist constitution.
As we approach next week’s third anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the imagined state of Japan and the reality come closer. 136,000 people who had to leave their towns and villages are still displaced and many from the contaminated area around the Fukushima nuclear plant may never be able to return to their homes. A third of children in the areas closest to the disaster are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the lifetime cancer risk for children in the affected area has risen a percentage point.
Abe’s government is keen to get Japan’s nuclear reactors back on line but here again is another gap between the public and its leaders. Most Japanese say they don’t want the reactors to be switched back on.
When rightwing politicians talk, as they did last week, about revisiting a longstanding apology to “comfort women”, they are not representing a mainstream view. I’d like to think that the real face of Japan showed itself in the days after the book vandalism story broke. The Israeli Embassy was bombarded with thousands of messages of support and offers to replace the books.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.