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The Rise of Japan's Neo-Nationalists: What It Means to the United States

November 21, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

Project Director: Eugene A. Matthews

1. What we know:

Different terms, such as nationalists, patriots, populists, and realists, have been used to refer to the group of Japanese who believe Japan needs to be self-determined and independent of the United States. “Nationalism” does not necessarily refer to a right-wing movement, which in Japan is quite small. The nationalist movement is characterized more by a sense of national pride and a desire for self-determination than by aggression or militarism. In fact, the same people who want Japan to have a stronger military are the same people who favor more open trade.

The origins of Japanese nationalism are based on the following: (1) a belief that the Emperor is a descendant of God, (2) geographic isolation, (3) a desire for expansion within the region. Different kinds of nationalism have emerged during different periods in Japan’s history.

Two issues at the forefront of the current discussion of nationalism in Japan are Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution and history textbook reform. Many Japanese nationalists favor a stronger Japanese presence on the world scene and would like to see Japan have a stronger, full-fledged military, instead of being confined to the Self Defense Forces as dictated by the Japan’s Constitution. It seems likely that Article 9 will be revised, but even though some would like to develop Japan’s military capabilities, they still favor the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and are likely to continue cooperating with their main ally, the United States.

Education reform is becoming an increasingly active and important movement in Japan. Members of the New Education Reform Group advocate a stronger, more clearly defined identity for Japan as a nation. China and Korea in particular have taken great exception to the textbooks’ handling of Japan’s atrocities in Nanking and the treatment of the issue of “comfort women” from Korea, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is important, however, to keep this issue in perspective: historical accounts are subjective, and every country teaches revisionist history to some extent. Even within the United States, versions of events and movements like the Civil War and the civil rights movement differ across regions of the country.

Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine have also raised concerns that Japan is becoming too nationalistic. It is important to bear in mind that while Yasukuni Shrine houses class-A war criminals; it also holds the remains of Japanese citizens who have died in the service of their country since the 19th century, much like Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. The attention surrounding it is unwarranted, and the United States must be mindful of the fact that right now, the most nationalistic country in the world is the United States.

Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo, has been regarded as a staunch nationalist because of his strong, offensive remarks concerning immigrants. However, Ishihara does favor a U.S. alliance because he recognizes that Japan cannot defend itself alone right now, and that Japan will not be able to build up its military without U.S. assistance.

The economic malaise of the past decade and a half has forced Japan to reevaluate itself. Economic hardship, combined with a politically apathetic public and discreet economic stressors, could set the stage for a populist politician, such as Ishihara, to rise to power. An economic shock, such as the failure of the banking system or a debt situation crisis, would fuel the popularity of nationalist ideas. With the closures of many banks in Japan, people are losing money. The extent to which an economic shock would boost a nationalist movement depends on how afraid the country becomes. A terrorist attack on Japan’s soil could also prompt a rise in the nationalists’ influence.

2. What we don’t know:

The nationalist movement in Japan does not have to gain widespread popularity for it to gain widespread influence. If some of the views put forth by this movement become popular enough, they could garner enough backing to influence the Japanese government. How popular do these ideas have to become in order for them to affect Japanese foreign policy and necessitate a U.S. response?

China’s growing economic power in the region could lead to an increase in the appeal of some of Japan’s “nationalist” ideas. Japan will have to create a niche for itself, perhaps in product design or financial services, in order to remain a dominant economic force in the area. If Japan aims to focus on design, many Japanese will likely lose jobs. How will this affect the political climate? Will the appeal of the populists rise? Will Japan take a protectionist route?

Similarly, many industries will likely disappear if Japan’s non-performing loans are cleaned up. The resulting layoffs could also alter Japan’s political environment.

3. What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom:

It is important for the United States to monitor the nationalist movement. The question is when do Japan’s calls to become more independent move into the realm of belligerence or militarism? Japan currently does not have any fascist leaders poised to come to power, but there are some politicians with nationalist tendencies who are popular enough to warrant U.S. attention. A study of political history suggests that the United States should be concerned and should definitely keep this movement on its radar screen.

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