Japanese Vs. Chinese Exceptionalism

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Japanese Vs. Chinese Exceptionalism

Japan and China have more in common than they realize — including their particular strain of nationalism.

Japanese Vs. Chinese Exceptionalism

A demonstrator shouts slogan during a protest in front of a Chinese national flag on the 81st anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China, in Shanghai (September 18, 2012).

Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On July 31, Tokyo’s citizenry elected their first-ever female governor, Yuriko Koike. During the short campaign, Koike ran as an independent – she had basically told the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) “I’m standing for Tokyo governor, with your support or without it,” and the LDP chose not to support her. They instead put forward another candidate, and some Tokyo party officials threatened reprisals for any members who backed Koike. Writing for The Diplomat in early August, Ankit Panda reminded us that “Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s former longtime governor and ultraconservative LDP stalwart, had warned voters that ‘We cannot leave Tokyo to a woman with too much make-up.’”

Nonetheless, Koike demolished her competition – the LDP-backed candidate and another candidate, polling second and third place, respectively, together had only a few more votes than Koike garnered for herself. The dozen-plus other candidates never achieved anything other than footnote status in the write-ups about the election.

Tokyo’s governor presides over an economy that, were it a country, would rank near the top ten in the world in GDP, and Tokyo boasts the world’s largest metropolitan area by population. So a maverick party member defeating a party-endorsed candidate in such a high-profile race might reasonably be seen as a major defeat.

But there’s also less here than meets the eye – though nominally independent from the LDP, at least for the moment, Koike remains a leading member of the Nippon Kaigi (the “Japan Conference”), an officially non-governmental organization whose other leading members show a strong Venn overlap with the LDP Diet members and the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Nippon Kaigi exists to promote a number of specific policies, goals Koike shares with these LDP Diet and cabinet members. Koike hasn’t left the camp, she’s just pitched her own tent.

Another recent Japanese election merits consideration. Half of the country’s House of Councilors (the upper house) stood for election on July 10, and the LDP, in power for almost all of the postwar period, plus its coalition partner the Komeito, gained slightly more than 60 percent of the total seats in the House. The coalition already held a two-thirds super majority in the House of Representatives, the more powerful of the two houses of Japan’s Diet. So with the LDP coalition’s 60 percent in the upper house, plus the votes of two sympathetic minor parties, Abe has reached a milestone on the path toward his career-long goal of revising the Japanese constitution, written and imposed by the U.S. occupation forces in the late 1940s, in which Article 9 bars Japan from war-making. (The majority of voting Japanese don’t support constitutional revision, and their most recent votes don’t reflect such support. The victorious candidates worked hard to keep the constitutional revision off the discussion menu, and keep the focus on the economy. They largely succeeded.)

The Japanese government’s official English version of the article:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

The Nippon Kaigi, of which Abe is a leading member, also has abolition of Article 9 as one of its cherished goals, along with reversing 1999’s gender equality law, denying the Nanjing Massacre and the sexual slavery imposed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war, asserting that the 1931-1945 war was a noble, even divinely ordained attempt to liberate Asian countries from Western imperialism, revering or worshiping the emperor under a revival of State Shinto – all part of asserting Japan’s uniqueness among nations, based in substantial part on a devotion to this parallel-universe conception of reality. Considering that two-thirds of Abe’s cabinet carry Nippon Kaigi membership cards, as do a majority of LDP Diet members, and that a former chief justice of Japan’s Supreme Court chairs the group, it’s no wonder that a July 10 article about Nippon Kaigi in the Daily Beast ran under the title The Religious Cult Secretly Running Japan.

Koike had an op-ed placed in the Huffington Post on August 2 under her name, titled “The World Needs a Tokyo Like Early 20th Century Tokyo,” in which she refers to the “inclusive cosmopolitanism” of the city at that time. The article neglects to consider, as just one example, the thousands of ethnic Koreans murdered in the streets, for the crime of being Korean, after the devastating earthquake on September 1, 1923, because the locals became convinced that these impure foreign influences were poisoning wells and otherwise taking advantage of the devastation to foment disorder. Belief in Japanese ethnic superiority was woven into the culture of the day, and gradually into national policy – the fascist and racist concept hakko ichiu (“all the world under one [Japanese] roof”) had gained wide popularity by 1930, and the prime minister joined with the younger brother of Emperor Hirohito in establishing hakko ichiu as national policy a decade later.

Early 20th century Tokyo was an astonishing place in myriad ways, but much of what was great about the city of the era was slowly strangled as the fantasies that Nippon Kaigi promotes gained steadily greater power. By 1915, Japan had recently fought and won two imperialistic wars, launched a brutal annexation of Korea, and had created a government that formalized worship of the emperor and protected the military from civilian control, steps to the slaughter of tens of millions and the utter devastation of the country within 30 years.

Chinese Exceptionalism, Crafted Overseas, Brought to You by the CPC

Denial of fact, creation and nurturing of fictions, asserting exceptionalism – there’s plenty of that going around in this part of the world. For example, “amusement” understates the appropriate reaction when one encounters representatives of the Communist Party of China (CPC) accusing others of counterfactual representations of history.

Particularly since the world financial crisis of 2008, a meme often referred to as the “China Model” has become orthodox China’s most internationally visible version of the tired claim of exceptionalism. In 2011, David Bandurski’s China Media Project published a handy review of the concepts that underpin the meme, beginning with:

As China continued to post rapid economic growth numbers in the midst of the global financial crisis, pundits outside China sought to prize open its box of secrets. The result was renewed interest in what had already been dubbed the “China Model,” the idea that the country’s economic successes can be accounted for by a unique pattern of political and economic approaches that might enlighten us all.

Interestingly, but not altogether surprisingly, while the notion of a “China Model” has its origins in the West, it has been enthusiastically appropriated by thinkers on China’s conservative left, who have fashioned it into a defense of the Chinese Communist Party, its policies, ideology and system.

John Naismith, with his China Megatrends, and Robert Kuhn, with steadily increasing output, notched early wins in the China Model sweepstakes – “sweepstakes” because successful purveyors gain substantial resources and access from the CPC. One of the locally-spawned defenses, a 2011 article published in the CPC’s entertainingly-named journal Seeking Truth (after Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to “seek truth from facts”), announced itself with neither subtlety nor modesty: “Analysis of a Miracle, The China Model and Its Significance.”

Venture capitalist Eric X. Li became a TED star in 2013 with his A Tale of Two Political Systems, in which he furthered the China Model assertion that the CPC, and therefore the government of China, is a meritocracy. This China-as-meritocracy assertion gained additional publicity toward the end of 2015, with Daniel A. Bell’s publication of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, widely rubbished by reviewers. Bell demonstrated perhaps more courage than sense, or perhaps an understanding of the maxim that any publicity is good publicity, when he agreed to join a panel discussion of his book, held by the Asia Society and the New York Review of Books in October 2015. Moderator Orville Schell, joined by Timothy Garten Ash, Mark Danner, Andrew Nathan, and Zhang Taizhu, took turns politely but purposefully picking apart the assumptions underpinning the work, as David Volodzko wrote in his review of the panel discussion in The Diplomat a few weeks later.

Denial of fact, creation and nurturing of fictions, asserting exceptionalism – all feature prominently in the “laudatory canon of China Model slush” (Bandursky’s phrase), which the citations above illuminate in greater detail.

Not So Strange Bedfellows

The forebears of the CPC and Nippon Kaigi were arch enemies – the rulers of Imperial Japan claimed to detest communism, while the CPC stakes its claim to legitimacy in part by asserting (mostly falsely) that they, not the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek, dedicated themselves to expelling the Japanese invaders from 1931-1945.

That the spiritual descendants of Hirohito’s holy warriors and the Long Marchers share so much in common surprises only those who view the world in the exhausted dichotomies of “right” and “left” – the “right” of Japan most resembles the “left” in China. Bandurski’s introduction to his 2011 post uses the expression “conservative left,” which would historically be considered an oxymoron, but is reasonable for the case he describes. (A related example from the West – William F. Buckley used to tell a story about a Soviet-era New York Times article that asserted, “Conservatives in the Kremlin are cracking down on books imported illegally from the West. Among the proscribed titles is Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater.”)

When the CPC and Nippon Kaigi claim that there’s something not just unique to their domestic cultures and histories, but uniquely better about them, they tee up an interesting irony – it’s been only the deep involvement, sometimes outright salvation, of foreign entities that have brought these two societies to the silver and bronze medal stands in the world GDP Olympics.


Starting in the 1860s, Japan launched into a several-decade era of devotedly studying the leading Western nations: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Vast swathes of Japanese society were rebuilt upon the importation of everything from political and economic structures and architecture to fashion and cuisine – one of the intellectual leaders of the time, Fukuzawa Yukichi, exhorted his fellow Japanese not only to “leave Asia” (the title of one of his most famous essays) but to abandon their Buddhist traditions and consume beef, as Fukuzawa felt that such a diet would improve the strength of the people.

This massive importation wasn’t new for the Japanese – their ancestors had done something similar more than 1,000 years before, starting about 500 CE, by virtually inhaling from China, mostly during the remarkable Tang Dynasty and via Korea, everything from religion (Buddhism) and architecture (the eighth-century city plans of Kyoto and Nara were drawn in respectful imitation of the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an, now Xi’an) to attire, wet-field rice cultivation, chopsticks, tea – the list goes on.

From late summer 1945, a third round of wholesale adoption began, some of it enforced by the Occupation. A primary element in Japan’s postwar recovery was the massive stimulus provided by the U.S. military’s spending on infrastructure in support of the Korean War. (Much of the metal used to build Tokyo Tower in the 1950s, designed in homage to the Eiffel Tower, came from recycled tanks and other scrap from the war.) Finally, Japan rejoined the leading economic powers of the world, reaching No. 2 in global GDP in the 1980s and retaining the No. 3 position, largely because of exports.


The founding mythology of the CPC is Marxism-Leninism, and the pioneer purveyors of the current China Model meme were foreigners. But of far more importance to mainland Chinese people is the economic development of the past 30 years or so. A common canard: “China,” and by extension the Party, has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in history. A singular “China” has done nothing of the sort. The epochal economic growth in China during the past 30 years has been led primarily by two factors: the Chinese people themselves – their entrepreneurial spirit – and foreign entities, whether because of their direct investment on a scale the world has not previously seen, or appetite for the manufacturing output of China-based enterprises.

The CPC’s biggest single contribution has been to get out of the way. Mao’s death in 1976 was one of the best things that could have happened in the China of the time – had he been removed from power ten years earlier, or better 20, China might have been spared a decade or two of economic and political insanity. In those sectors where the CPC hasn’t removed itself, where the private sector and unfettered FDI haven’t been able to bring innovation and discipline – in natural resources like coal, industrial sectors like steelmaking, and the financial sector, we see the worst aspects of crony capitalism, leading to measurably lower return on capital, pollution, overcapacity, and corruption.


Countries that adhere, in their sociopolitical beliefs, to exceptionalism, particularly when they assume divine inspiration, wind up aiming arrows, or bullets, or worse, at their neighbors who don’t agree, or who believe in their own exceptionalism. Japan seems extremely unlikely to launch any aggressive military initiatives anytime in the next few decades, if ever again. Nippon Kaigi and their fellow travelers obsess about defense and domestic matters and the all-too-common nostalgia for the supposedly “good old days” (particularly understandable in Nippon Kaigi’s case, as their members’ average age exceeds that of the audience of the Fox media empire). They are undeniably a danger to themselves, and to others resident in Japan, especially ethnic Koreans and Chinese, but no one, not the Japanese or their neighbors, can imagine Japan attacking China or Korea again.

China under the CPC is another matter. PRC military strategy, taking some justification from history, identifies a “first island chain” (starting roughly at Russia’s Sakhalin Peninsula, then going south to include western Japan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan, the western edge of the Philippines, and then most of the South China Sea) as an essential defensive perimeter, within which they must be able to deny any foreign power, with the United States as the primary consideration, freedom of movement. Looking further, they consider that the ability to exert influence out to what they call the “second island chain,” which extends to the Marianas, Guam and most of Indonesia, a strategic goal. Control within even the first perimeter would render Korea a vassal state, imply the removal of U.S. military bases from Japan and the Philippines, and end Taiwan’s fragile independence. That level of geopolitical power shift won’t likely happen without war.

We should have a few years of peace in the western Pacific yet. Writing for ChinaFile on August 25, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Blasko relates concerns that the senior PLA leadership have about their commanders, phrased as “the Five Cannots”:

“[S]ome commanders cannot judge the situation, cannot understand intentions of higher authorities, cannot make operational decisions, cannot deploy troops, and cannot deal with unexpected situations.”

The fact that the CPC sometimes discourages those it controls from learning to judge, and from making independent decisions, suggests that this problem won’t go away anytime soon, and therefore that senior PLA leadership will remain concerned about engaging in a shooting war. But since parallel-universe belief systems like that of the China Model have historically tracked military aggression, whether by correlation or causation, the rest of the world may rightfully evaluate with concern the degree to which the China Model meme metastasizes.

John Darwin Van Fleet serves as Assistant Dean, USC Marshall School of Business, and Executive Director, USC-SJTU Global Executive MBA in Shanghai. His first book, Tales of Old Tokyo was published in 2015. His next book, Squabbling Siblings: Japan and China from Antiquity to 2020, will be published later this year.