Japan’s Back and So Is Nationalism


“Japan is back,” according to Shinzo Abe in a 2013 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That assertion has been widely debated, at least in the context of Abenomics, the Abe government’s program for reviving the Japanese economy.

And Japanese nationalism: Is that back too? That question has received far less attention, and when it has been discussed, the tone tends to be either alarmist or dismissive.

For years nationalism in Japan was relegated to the sidelines. Prevalent before and during the Second World War it found intellectual and political space in the Kokugaku School, the works of Inoue Tetsujirō; before being institutionalized by the state in the form of a corrupted version of Bushido or in Japan’s vision of a “Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

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After Japan’s defeat, nationalists faced a much more difficult environment, typified by Japan’s new pacifist constitution. For decades after the war, nationalism was kept alive by a relatively small cadre of political and intellectual elites. Incidents included the 1986 school textbook controversy, 2001 textbook controversy, and the concept of nihonjinron. However, none of these small movements gained any traction in mainstream political and social imagination.

Now, under Shinzo Abe, nationalism is making a disconcerting return to the forefront of Japanese politics. This has manifest in several ways. The first example was the lightning rise of the Japan Restoration Party to become the third-largest party in the Diet in its first election in 2012, displacing the NKP in the process. The party is by perhaps Japan’s leading nationalist, former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, whose his controversial proposal to buy the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands prompted their nationalization by the Japanese state, a move that sparked a serious downturn in Sino-Japanese relations.

The Japan Restoration Party proved short-lived. Ishihara went on to form the Party for Future Generations, while another faction, led by Tōru Hashimoto, merged with the Unity Party to become the Japan Innovation Party. An example of right-wing nationalists falling apart with their own bickering, perhaps. However the significance of the 2012 results cannot be denied.

That development has, however, been overshadowed by more recent events. Take for instance, the presence of the Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, an ultra-right grouping that rose to prominence this last summer. After a September reshuffle, 15 of the 19 members of Abe’s Cabinet, including Abe himself, belong to this group, which argues among others things that Japan should be applauded for its wartime role of “liberating” East Asia from Western imperialists.

Those who would argue that nationalism is back in Japan can point to many other examples: Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the creation of a disturbingly vague new state secrets law, the revisiting of the Kono Declaration on comfort women, and the appointment of far-right figures to the Board of Governors at NHK. Unsurprisingly, Japan’s relations with its neighbors have deteriorated markedly, not helped by territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

Others may disagree, and point to Abe’s pragmatic attempts to mend relations with China and South Korea, and his active diplomacy elsewhere in Asia. Japan is just responding to a tougher neighborhood, they would argue.

And although Abe himself has enjoyed unusually high public support (by Japanese standards) for most of his second tenure in power, many of his conservative policies have proven far less popular with the electorate. There is convincing evidence to suggest that much of the support Abe receives owes to a lack of credible alternatives.

Still, it is hard to dispute the contention that Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet colleagues represent the rise of a new Japanese nationalism, even if for now it is contained by a lack of broader public support.

Nadeem Shad is a freelance journalist based in London.

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