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Japan's New Nationalists

Author: Eugene A. Matthews
December 20, 2001
Far Eastern Economic Review

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Japan's legislature recently cleared the way for Japanese warships to head toward the Indian Ocean to support the American-led campaign in Afghanistan. This marked a significant change in Japan's post-World War II foreign policy. It also marked a victory for the country's new nationalists. The vote will serve as a benchmark for these nationalists' emergence as a growing constituency whose views offer Japan a path different from that of the past 50 years, both in terms of domestic and foreign affairs. While all the philosophies of this group are still not yet held by a majority of Japanese, it is important to understand who they are, as their rise in influence holds foreign-policy implications for Japan's allies. These nationalists have an agenda beyond their apparent support of the United States, which may become more established as a result of their broader concerns.

Many of these nationalists in fact are, more importantly, supporters of Japan's economic reforms. And it was to gain their agreement to key measures that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi capitulated to a constitutional revision of the country's self-defence policy, as well as flirted with a symbolic visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. Many of these modern-day nationalists are the more forward-looking among the country's bureaucrats. They are also progressive corporate executives and successful new entrepreneurs. Together, they favour more foreign competition, reject civil-service promotion based on seniority instead of merit and view government preferential treatment for established companies, or "first movers," in certain sectors as shortsighted. They also see structural reform to be in their best interest.

But though they have sound reformist economic credentials, many of these same individuals also are in favour of a more assertive Japan. They bristle at the continued presence of the American military on Japanese soil, the constant (though minor) breaches of American agreements with Japan, such as the alleged temporary docking of nuclear-laden vessels. They also take great offence at criminal acts committed by U.S. servicemen against Japanese citizens. The nationalists also favour amending the constitution to allow for a "true army," instead of the current self-defence force, a mockery of a military. After all, to defend one's nation in the true sense sometimes requires pre-emptory aggression. They reject criticism of textbooks that put Japan's past in an overly positive light, noting that many nations teach revisionist history to their young. And then there is their pet peeve— American arrogance. This is notable even in some of the elite who have been educated and trained in the United States.

One reason Koizumi called for a change in the Japanese defence policy is because support from this group is critical to getting any economic reform passed. The youngest in this group, those aged 55 and under, know not of the horrors of war. They do not fear a more militaristic Japan— the fear of Japan itself that their elders still harbour. And contrary to the conventional wisdom in America, it is the fear of the military-mindedness of 1930s Japan— not the wish to press the economic advantages of not having to maintain a modern military— that is the reason why the limited defence policy was never seriously challenged until now.

In sum, these reformers want the respect, political influence and outright power commensurate with being the world's second most-important economy and a major contributor to international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They want a change in the way Japan views itself and the way the rest of the world views the country. Ironically, this nationalist movement may be the key coalescing factor needed to unite various Liberal Democratic Party factions and the public— particularly the urban elite, farmers and business interests— as the pain of reform implementation becomes a reality.

For now, to gain the support of the new nationalists, Koizumi has managed to force a legislative vote that turns out to be supportive of the United States. But it is a mistake to fail to see this as only incidental to the larger issues that compel this new constituency in Japanese politics. Indeed, when considering economic reform, the views of this group are shared by many outside Japan. As the U.S. encourages Japan to do more in the international arena, it better think about whether a more independent Japan is more or less likely to go along with its policies.


Eugene Matthews is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York

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