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Foreign Policy

What We Mean When We Talk About Nationalism

Jun 13 , 2017
  • Xu Duo

    Fox Fellow, Yale University
In tough times, people tend to turn inward. That’s probably why Donald Trump’s campaign catchword “America First” captured the imagination of millions of U.S. voters, disillusioned by dwindling economic prospects, flaring racial tensions and deepening class gaps. He is not without like-minded counterparts in Asia. Makoto Sakurai, a former leader of a nationalist group and a candidate in last year’s Tokyo governor election, established the “Japan First” Party in August 2016, with a platform of excluding foreigners, rewriting the constitution and reinstalling the military.
Sakurai’s blatant trumpeting of exclusiveness raised many eyebrows, with some people seeing it as new evidence that Japan is sliding back into dangerous nationalism. It does look suspicious, especially when put against the backdrop of February’s APA hotel uproar, or the kindergarten scandal embroidering Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife. The former incident involves a right-wing business baron denying the authenticity of the Nanjing Massacre, and the second is about the first family’s alleged support for a kindergarten advocating Shinto ideology and imperial education.
In all these cases, nationalism is a recurring sound bite, but what exactly are we talking about when we are talking about nationalism? Even lumped together under the same name, nationalism in Japan is distinctly different from that of China. Before we level accusations of “re-emerging nationalism” at our island neighbor, it wouldn’t hurt if we delve into its origins and characteristics.
In China, nationalism emerged as a great revolutionary force, with war, peace and national survival as its focal point. Japan’s nationalism shared some of the same appeal from its inception in the second half of the 19th century. Back then, both China and Japan were confronted with encroachment from Western imperialist powers; both ruling elites, the Manchu Court in China and the Tokugawa Bakufu in Japan, were desperate to ward off foreign meddling; and “Expel the barbarians” was frequently used as a rallying cry in both countries. However, different fates of the ruling elites dictated, to a larger extent, different trajectories of nationalism. In China, after self-strengthening efforts spearheaded by reform-minded scholar officials fizzled out, the Manchu Court was toppled by revolutionary forces and the nationalist period was ushered in. In Japan, Tokugawa Bakufu, following several years of battles against warlords supporting the emperor, conceded defeat and returned power to the Meiji Emperor, who restored imperial rule and led Japan into a restoration movement.
The Meiji leaders embarked on an ambitious modernization road and successfully leading the country into the ranks of world powers within five decades. But no less eager than Tokugawa Bakufu to maintain social privileges, they were estranged from the vast majority of Japan’s common people. In other words, whereas nationalism in China was fused with “bottom-up” revolutions and thus had an inherent obligation to change existing conditions, nationalism in Japan, aligned with “top-down” restorations and later imperialism, was more a direct force of anti-revolutionary oppression with the obligation to preserve the status quo. In the words of Masao Maruyama, a prominent political scientist in the postwar Japan, “Japanese nationalism prematurely abandoned any thought of popular emancipation”, and it fostered a “vicious cycle permitting the ruling class and reactionary segments to monopolize the symbols of nationalism.”
Later on, together with militarism, Japan’s nationalism, or ultra-nationalism for that matter, met its disastrous demise on Aug. 15, 1945. Over half a century later, whereas nationalism in China is often associated with adolescent exuberance, Japan’s nationalism is more related to silver-haired politicians. One does not have to look further than to observe the anti-Japanese protests sweeping China after the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute to discern its youthful nature. Furthermore, nationalism in China speaks to CCP’s triumph and legitimacy of rule; in Japan it recalls a painful past that most people are only eager to forget. Whereas nationalism in China invokes victory, nationalism in Japan represents an unwelcome call to revisit defeat.
Given that Japan’s nationalism is divorced from popular spontaneity and mass support, fears about “resurging Japanese nationalism”, albeit understandable, are probably misplaced. To today’s Japanese, nationalism is more about a handful of right-wingers blaring wartime songs and brandishing national flags on weekends. Even high-profile “Japan First” Party leader Sakurai is no more than a fringe figure, occupying the very extreme end of the political spectrum. In the days leading up to Tokyo’s governor election, Sakurai got little media coverage. Even when he did figure in some news reports, he was cast in a negative light by mainstream papers. The right-leaning Sankei was the only national newspaper featuring him as neutral or positive, and given its limited penetration rate in Japan, Sakurai’s message struggles to reach a broader audience. This was borne out by the election result: Sakurai garnered only 114,171 votes, or 1.74% of popular vote.
On the other hand, more visible are people like Haruki Murakami, who is presumably playing a larger role in influencing Japanese mindset. In his latest novel released in late February, Murakami questioned Japan’s interpretation of the Nanking Massacre, drawing harsh criticisms from right-wing scholars and writers. Still, this book sold some 500,000 copies within three days after release and went on to become a bestseller within one week.
More important, political apathy among Japanese youth is functioning as the most solid bulwark against Japan’s perceived resurgent nationalism. It is no news that Japanese youths show little interest in politics. In the upper house elections of 2014, turnout rate for the age group of 20-somethings was a mere 32%, the lowest among all age groups and not even half the 60s' 68%. Asahi’s pollin April 2016 showed 62 percent of youths ages 18 and 19 said they talk about politics rarely or never. Another survey, by the Japanese Trade Union Confederation in July 2015, said among youths between 15 and 23, politics ranked 19th among 20 topics that interest young people. Compared with other advanced economies, Japanese youths’ political apathy is even more obvious. In the 2013 national survey on youth consciousness by Japan’s Cabinet Office, among seven countries, Japan stood sixth in terms of young people’s interest in domestic politics, after Germany, South Korea, America, Britain and France, only slightly higher than Sweden.
If figures seem dry and abstract, two personal anecdotes might help. In July 2014, the Abe government passed measures to revise Japan’s defense policy. I made a point of going to Nagatacho, the site of Japan’s Diet and PM’s residence, to see whether there would be people protesting. I witnessed only a handful of students gathering in front of the Diet building, as opposed to the groundswell of student demonstrations in 1960 against the ratification of the revised U.S.-Japan security treaty. That Anpo Movement, as it is known in Japan, was estimated to have brought out some 300,000 to 500,000 students, civilians and workers.
Two years later, I went to see In this corner of the world, a widely acclaimed movie with an IMDb rating of 8.4 and winner of Japan’s best animation award in 2016. It tells the story of a Hiroshima girl and her struggle before and after the 1945 nuclear bombing. As I left the theater in Ikebukuro, a most popular hangout for Japanese youngsters, I overheard several girls talking about it. They all used the word “omoi”, meaning the topic is too heavy and too serious to touch their hearts. It simply put them off so much that they just didn’t care — or bother to understand what it tries to convey.
Nationalism does not pose direct threats to Japan’s overall mindset, at least not for a foreseeable future, but Abe government’s attempts to reinstall wartime ideology into youths do. Perhaps realizing the dis-alignment between youths and politics, the government has promoted a state-directed patriotic education, lowered voting age from 20 to 18, and allowed back the notorious Imperial Rescript on Education into public schools.
Time will tell whether such measures would achieve what Abe has hoped for, but what he has in mind is, in all likelihood, the general meaning of nationalism, the kind we often see in China, South Korea and European nations, not the inert Japanese version. What the prime minister had better keep in mind is that nationalism is hard to impose, but even harder to control, especially when it is imbued with youthful exuberance. His grandfather Nobusuke Kishi would have much to say about that. In the Anpo Movement in 1960, Kishi’s government was finally forced to resign following popular demonstrations. Though not necessarily communist-zealous as back then, Japan’s young people, if aroused in the wrong way, are probably still powerful enough to bring down a government. And that would be the last thing the prime minister wants to see.
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