The Death of Iran’s Japanese Dream

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By Amir Taheri
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

In a recent column, I talked about Japan’s “Iranian dream” the latest sequence of which consisted of Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran to persuade the mullahs to stop acting as a lone wolf and rejoin the international community. Abe had hoped that defusing the “Iran time bomb” would heighten Japan’s international profile commensurate with its status as the world’s second-biggest economic power. That sequence of the dream, as we now know, ended with the Japanese Prime Minister being harangued by the Ayatollah and sent packing. 

Abe represented the third generation in his political family to visit Iran in search of an international role. His father Shintaro Abe had called on Iran’s ruling mullahs in the 1980s in a forlorn bid to end the Iran-Iraq war, thus promoting Japan’s image as a global peacemaker. Before him, Shinzo’s maternal grandfather Nobushuke Kishi, Japan’s postwar statesman and prime minister had visited Tehran in 1968 at the head of a 100-man delegation of business leaders at a time that no other country in Asia would welcome the Japanese because of bad memories from Second World War. Then, Japan’s aim had been to reinsert itself into the broader family of Asian nations and reassert independence from the United States.

All three sequences in Japan’s Iranian dream ended in failure, albeit for different reasons.

But, what about Iran’s Japanese dream? 

Yes, that dream also existed. 

It first appeared in 1877 when, during a visit to Russia, Iran’s Nassereddin Shah learned that the Tsarist Empire, regarded by Iranian as an enemy for 200 years, faced a new challenger in the shape of a small archipelago named Japan on the edges of the Asian continent. To learn more, the Shah asked to see the Japanese Ambassador to Russia and spent more than two-hours questioning him. The result was the establishment of relations in 1879 followed by the arrival of a special ambassador of the Japanese Emperor in 1880. Flanked by a 10-man military and business team, the ambassador, a young aristocrat named Yoshida Masharo arrived at an Iranian port aboard a warship. The Japanese wanted to show that gunboats were not toys reserved only for Europeans.

Nassereddin Shah’s dream of forging an alliance with the Japanese to counter Russian and British ambitions was put to the test in 1904, long after his death, with the Russo-Japanese war that Japan decisively won. Iran, however, was of no help as gripped by internal turmoil leading to the Constitutional revolution, it could hardly stand let alone grandstand against the Northern Bear.

At the time, both Meiji Japan and Qajar Iran sought industrial and administrative modernization based on the Western model, but excluding political freedoms. The Japanese pursued that goal with their renowned discipline and tenacity and achieved success in terms of raw power. Bedeviled by their equally renowned lack of discipline and butterfly attention span, the Iranians just managed to escape straight absorption into colonial empires. 

Reza Shah, the soldier who founded the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925 revived Iran’s Japanese dream. In a letter to Hirohito, the Japanese Emperor, Reza Shah noted that Iran and Japan were virtually the only two Asian countries to have escaped colonization by Western powers, suggesting that they should forge a strategic partnership.

However, having banked on the Berlin-Tokyo axis winning the war against Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Reza Shah was soon forced into exile in 1941 when the Allies invaded Iran. The Japanese side of the dream died in 1945 when the Empire of the Rising Sun surrendered after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kishi’s visit to Tehran revived the dream. 

At the time, Kishi was no longer Prime Minister but acted as a father figure for the emerging Japanese ruling elite. His checkered background, including a stint as a brutal colonial Governor of Manchuria, in China, a Cabinet minister in the wartime Japanese Cabinet, and then a prisoner of war in Sugamo, under the Americans, made him a symbol of continuation in Japan. 

The late Shah received Kishi for over two hours, an unusual audience for a foreign visitor. As a result, Japan emerged as Iran’s number one trading partner until the fall of the Shah. It also became a number-one foreign investor in Iran as the Shah started talking of his dream of Iran as “a second Japan.” The appointment of a former foreign minister as ambassador to Tokyo and exchanges of visits at the highest levels of the two monarchies highlighted that dream.

However, the message from Kishi, when I interviewed him along with a colleague, sounded the polar opposite of the Shah’s vision of Iran as an economic and military giant projecting power across the globe. Kishi’s message was one of humility, depicting Japan as a resource-poor country constantly threatened with the prospect of poverty, even starvation. At the time, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, I wrote that Kishi’s message might make us all cry for poor Japan! Decades later, I realized that I had missed the sub-message in Kishi’s discourse. He seemed convinced that Japan’s empire-building project had been a mistake, even a crime that had claimed millions of lives and shattered so many nations including Japan itself. What he tried to tell us, in his oblique Shintoist manner, was that politics should be regarded as a public service dealing with issues of real life and not abstractions such as imperial glory. Japan had tried to enter the modern world by trying to ignore its rules and had been severely punished. It had learned to accept the rules of the world it wished to join, rules made and enforced by others. 

There were two Japanese models: pre-war and post-war. Kishi was trying to sell us the post-war one, i.e. a Japan of humility, hard work, frugality and, dare I say, pragmatism. That second model helped Japan become a leading economic power in just three decades. 

The Iran that Shinzo Abe visited has no desire for the Japanese models, at least as far as the ruling elite is concerned. Here is how daily Kayhan, reflecting the ayatollah’s views, commented:” They say Japan is the second or third biggest economy in the world. What is the use of that if its leaders must act as servants of American masters? Abe saw how our Leader put Trump in his place… In our relentless fight against America, we are also taking revenge for the blood of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people sacrificed by the criminal and blood-sucking America. Japan should join Iran in this struggle in a resistance Front.”

It is clear that, for the near future, both dreams: Iran’s of becoming a second Japan and Japan’s of turning Iran into a strategic ally, are dead.

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