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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fear and loathing in Tokyo today

THINK GLOBAL, FEAR LOCAL: Sex, Violence and Anxiety in Contemporary Japan, by David Leheny. New York: Cornell University Press, 2006, 230 pp., $35 (cloth).

Otto van Bismarck quipped that the crafting of laws, like sausage making, does not bear watching. Certainly both can be messy and disillusioning, but David Leheny, in probing the discourse surrounding some recent laws in Japan, demonstrates just how important and revealing it is to examine the process. This engaging study examines how domestic anxieties and international norms, ranging from child abuse and counterterrorism, are instrumentalized by policymakers to achieve long-standing agendas.

Gaiatsu, foreign pressure, is depicted frequently in terms of the United States forcing Japan to adopt some policy that Washington thinks best. In the theater of gaiatsu, Japan reluctantly goes along because it has little choice in the matter. Leheny shows us how Japanese policymakers artfully manipulate and orchestrate gaiatsu to force through legislative initiatives that are often only remotely connected to the putative gaiatsu.

In the domestic policy arena, gaiatsu is the wild card, enabling advocates to trump opposition. By justifying such initiatives in terms of international norms and expectations while playing on and seemingly addressing popular anxieties, political actors have enjoyed great success in advancing their agenda by stealth. It is the classic magicians' technique of distracting the audience's attention.

This sleight of hand is evident in Japan's child sex laws and counterterrorism initiatives. In both cases, global norms are powerfully linked to local anxieties. Leheny writes, "I explore how political actors used the fears bubbling up during Japan's nervous 1990s to justify enhanced powers for the state. Japan's newly demonstrative schoolgirls and murkily defined foreign threats (in particular presumptive Chinese criminal and North Korean spies) became crucial symbols of a nation under attack."

The media focus on enjo kosai (compensated dating often involving prostitution) encapsulated a deep anxiety about collapsing values. Leheny suggests there was more smoke than fire, but also shows how perceptions become reality. The media hype about secondary-school girls selling themselves to afford brand-name accessories was both a titillating and subversive discourse. There was a "fundamental fear of the ostentatious sexuality" of teenage women and how their rejection of traditional values would affect Japan's future.

The need to address international condemnation of Japan concerning lax attitudes toward Internet child pornography and sex tourism created an opportunity to pass legislation that curbed enjo kosai. Regardless of whether there was actually much enjo kosai going on, or indeed whether it represented anything significant about Japan, public discourse made it into a social problem requiring some action.

Leheny excels at cutting through the moral posturing and surface appearances to show how real concerns about child sexploitation among domestic networks of activists were hijacked by political actors eager to widen state policing powers. Legislation in 1999 enabled Japan to escape deserved international opprobrium as the leading source of child pornography, but according to Leheny, the new policing powers have intruded much more on teenage sexuality than sex tourism.

International norms represent policy opportunities. How political actors in Japan select, interpret and amplify these norms shapes legislative agendas. In linking domestic anxieties to such norms, Japan's conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and bureaucracy have adroitly outmaneuvered opponents and imposed their objectives under the guise of reform.

The post-9/11 "war on terror" and U.S. pressure on Japan to contribute to this effort is another example of how domestic actors invoked international expectations to achieve their long-standing agendas. As Leheny writes, "Terrorism's nebulous meaning . . . would provide an opportunity to recast a number of long-debated security plans as essential components of a strategy against this scourge." Japan's neoconservative hawks are eagerly "chipping away at the shackles on the use of force to deal with international security" in the name of solidarity.

Leheny points out that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has adroitly framed the debate on Japan's global responsibilities not only to bolster Japan's security profile, but also to influence perceptions and polices toward civil liberties. The discussion of public discourse regarding young Japanese activists taken hostage in Iraq is illuminating. He concludes, "In their effort to operate outside of the state's authority and to critique military engagement . . . the hostages had undermined Japan's trajectory toward becoming the normal nation to which many conservatives aspire." And they paid the price for doing so.

"Think Global" is a pioneering and fascinating study that ponders deeply on how international norms are domesticated, and public anxieties exploited, without becoming ponderous. Leheny writes well and informally, revealing his personality, neurotic anxieties and sympathies with considerable charm. For anyone interested in decoding the mixed motives and diverse legacies of "reforms" in contemporary Japan, this is essential reading. Moves to transform the Defense Agency into a full-fledged ministry, and recent debates over the conspiracy bills lend credence to Leheny's powerful thesis.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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