Japan Has a Friend in Tehran

The nationalist Japanese novelist Naoki Hayakuta may be controversial in his own country, but he is a hero in Iran. During a nine-day visit in February, he was treated like a VIP everywhere he went. The trip included a meeting with officials close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“Japan-Iran relations have always been friendly – despite pressures from some Western powers,” Ali Majedi, Iran’s deputy petroleum minister for international affairs and trading, and a former Iranian ambassador to Japan, said in greeting. He praised Hayakuta’s work in clarifying Japanese-Iranian ties going back to the 1950s.

Hayakuta’s most recent best-seller, The Man Who Was Called a Pirate, published in 2012, recounts an episode shortly after the end of World War II known as the Nissho Maru Incident. In 1953 the Japanese petroleum trading company Idemitsu chartered a tanker, the Nissho Maru, to bring a shipment of diesel oil and gasoline to Japan, one of the first, if not the first case of Japan importing fuel from the Middle East.

Iran had just nationalized British petroleum assets in Iran, and Britain was seeking to punish Iran through a world-wide boycott of Iranian petroleum. The British took Idemitsu, still today one of Japan’s main petroleum companies, to court for breaking the boycott but were unsuccessful following several years of litigation.

The captain of the Nissho Maru, and the “pirate” of the novel, received a hero’s welcome when the ship docked in Japan. The incident was greeted in Japan as a morale-boosting episode for a country that was just emerging from, the “fires of war.” For the Iranians it was a small but inspiring victory against the Anglo-Americans who would soon overthrow the nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh.

The Man Who Was Called a Pirate became a best-seller in 2013, selling about 2 million copies and winning the Honya Taisho, or Bookstore prize. Hayakuta’s most recent novel, Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero) is also a best seller and was made into a successful movie. It tells the story of a young man who investigates the life of his grandfather who died on a kamikaze suicide mission during World War II.

But the author probably would have stayed out of the limelight enjoying his gadfly role as a novelist except for his recent appointment to the Board of Governors of NHK, Japan’s equivalent of the state-owned BBC, along with two other ultra-conservative figures appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this year.

Hayakuta subscribes to most of the extreme Japanese-nationalist tropes: The Nanjing Massacre was a Chinese fabrication, the “comfort women” (forced prostitution) is a rude South Korean libel, that Japan was tricked into going to war with the US while liberating Asia from colonial domination. He is not shy about of espousing them.

Though an NHK governor is supposed to be non-political, he campaigned openly for the most extreme right wing candidate in the recent by-election for governor of Tokyo, the former air force chief of staff Toshio Tomogawa, who was fired in 2009 for distributing similar opinions among the troops. Hayakuta was unapologetic about his overt partisanship.

His arguments are standard boiler-plate from right-wing agitators who patrol the streets of Tokyo and other Japanese cities every day, haranguing people through loudspeakers mounted on trucks. Critics of the appointment fear Abe has handed the extremists a much bigger mouthpiece, Japan’s national broadcaster.

It wasn’t so much that he and similarly minded governors would turn the NHK into a propaganda organ for extreme conservative-nationalist views (though there is some concern about that). It is that under the Abe regime their views do not disqualify them from serving on prestigious boards. Not long ago people with these reactionary views would be reluctant to enter the public arena or quickly be forced to resign. That is no longer the case.

The conservative Abe is known to admire Hayakuta’s books, and the two have developed a close association. They collaborated on a book published last December that included a long essay by Hayakuta denouncing the Nanjing Massacre as a fairy tale and several speeches by Abe, who doesn’t dispute any of Hayakuta’s questionable assertions.

The Iranians may not know or care much about such issues as the Nanjing Massacre, but they can appreciate America-bashing when they hear it. And there is the long-term solidarity with Japan dating back to in Nissho Maru Incident in 1953. During the visit, the novelist appealed to anti-American sentiments with comments that America “has always used dirty politics” or that Americans are “not normal.”

Tokyo has always been a reluctant participant in the American-led international system of sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to forego developing nuclear weapons. Though progressively diminishing in importance, Iran is still a major supplier of petroleum to Japan. With no fossil fuel assets of its own, Japan is dependent on imports from the Middle East.

Over the years, Japan has been forced to dispose of its Iranian petroleum concessions one-by-one. In 2010 Tokyo withdrew entirely from ownership of the Azadegan oil field near the Iraqi border under steady pressure from Washington. Japanese companies were worried that they would be sanctioned and excluded from the American market for continuing the deal with Iran.

Recognizing Japan’s total dependence on imported fuel and need to have diverse supplies, Washington has granted exemptions to Iran to buy limited supplies of oil from Iran. In early March Japan announced the purchase of US$450 million of crude oil. It was the first such deal under the arrangements of the interim nuclear deal.

During his 15 months in office, Prime Minister Abe has visited more than two-dozen countries, including twice to Turkey but not yet Iran. During a short visit to Tokyo Iran’s foreign minister said he hoped Abe should add Iran to his busy itinerary and held out the lure of buying Japan’s nuclear power plants. He was talking Abe’s language.