from Asia Unbound

Toshihiro Nakayama: Japan’s Soul Searching

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009

January 18, 2013

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:


This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.

Being cynical just to be cynical is the worst frame of mind. Unfortunately, however, you can’t avoid being cynical when talking about my country these days.

A couple of years ago, many of us in Japan complained that there was a tendency to overlook Japan in Washington. But today, Japan experts sit in almost all of the major think tanks there. Yes, Americans seem to be worried about us. You are worried that your major ally in the Asia-Pacific is in a constant flux. You are worried that we are drifting into a “tier-two status” in global relations, as one major report suggested.

So, how do we think of ourselves and our country? Are we frustrated? Are we mad? Are we happy? Are we satisfied? Probably we are all of the above. Typically, the storyline on Japan from an outside perspective these days goes something like this. Japan is in decline. Our politics are a mess. The social fabric is eroding. The economy is in a two-decade slump. A terrifyingly destructive natural disaster hit Japan hard, with severe consequences. To make matters worse, the countries around Japan are rising. As a result of all this, Japan is turning “nationalistic.” Since Japan has been a postwar pacifist nation, this is quite a tectonic shift, and so many worry about a nationalistic Japan destabilizing the Asian region. Some even take this story a step further, and argue that this nationalism is an emotional reaction to the fear that Japan has become a non-entity in the region.

I can sort of understand why people see us this way. Certainly, from my vantage point in Tokyo, there is undeniable pessimism about Japan’s political future. Political parties have sprouted like mushrooms. Politicians are screaming slogans. Most of us don’t really know which party individual politicians belong to anymore because they have changed parties as often as you might rent a movie. Frankly, I have to think for a while to recall who our prime minister was a couple of years ago. Because of this unending political flux, outside observers of Japan pay attention to the new nationalist rhetoric that now occupies our mainstream debates, rhetoric that existed only on the margins of Japan’s postwar political discourse. For many outside Japan, it seems the “right-wing” have taken over.

But I must point out that this conservative rhetoric exists alongside a debate in Japan over all of the issues that make up the typical progressive agenda. Here in Tokyo you are just as likely to hear people talking about Japan’s growing poverty and social disparity, getting rid of nuclear energy, opposition to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and frustrations toward Washington and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The state of the Japanese mind is not united conviction. We are confused. Frankly, the combinations of policy agendas are so complicated and varied that most Japanese are not sure what to support.

But we are asking questions of ourselves. What we are in search of is a sense of who we are and which direction we want to take our nation. We are getting lots of advice, especially on the thorny territorial issues with our neighbors, and we are urged to calm down. I know I will get criticized for saying this (what the heck, I’m not a politician), but although these island disputes are vital sovereignty issues, they do not present an existential threat to our nation’s survival. Rather, the disputes raise important questions for Japanese over who we are as a nation.

This is our moment of national soul searching. Japan has been putting aside this question of identity for some time. For much of our postwar era, Japanese saw their nation as an “economic entity” rather than a “historical entity.” This didn’t just happen. This was our conscious choice and the way we chose to learn from our tragic experience during World War II. But, clearly, a nation cannot be just an economic entity.

Yes, identity politics can be a dangerous game. But the absence of a full expression of our Japanese identity has now made it necessary to define ourselves. We cannot stop this process because our society can no longer exist in an identity vacuum. A nation is not a physical entity. It only exists in our minds. Nor is it static. Reimagining a nation is a constant process. But defining a national identity when you are a rising power and doing the same when others are catching up to you suggest very different outcomes. Ideally, we Japanese should have done this twenty years ago.

Politicians might step into this identity vacuum and stir things up. But at a fundamental level, this is not about politics or political leadership, although I do not deny that Japan needs serious political leadership. No single political figure can provide us with the ideas and meanings that sustain a nation. This process of soul searching must be a collective process.

So, this is where we are in Japan at the moment. But is this sort of confusion a bad thing? Of course it is, if it continues forever. But democracy is also a system of managed confusion. We at least know we are confused. We may not have—or find—a single tidy answer, but if we can boil it down to several potential answers to the question of Japan’s identity as a nation, we may actually have a substantial debate. People are talking. The Twitterverse is filled with tweets on the issue. I believe that the implicit ban on nationalist discourse has disappeared, and that this is healthy. We are now free to choose who we as a nation want to be.

One American friend told me recently that Japan is the most stable failed state in the world. He meant this to be a harsh criticism toward the state of Japanese politics. But I took this to be a compliment. The social resiliency you saw after the earthquake in 2011 was quite remarkable. The strength of Japanese society is not something you can design and install. I can’t explain precisely where it came from but you can’t deny the fact that it’s there. Perhaps it gets in our way sometimes, slowing our ability to change. But this is a social infrastructure we can be proud of, and once we determine the direction of our future it will be an excellent platform for taking off.

So my reply to my friends in America is, get used to our debate over who we are, and don’t overreact to it. Don’t pick up only one part of the noise in our debates and amplify it. This conversation will continue for some time. We know we don’t have much time to make our choices. We can come out strong from this state of confusion with a sense of purpose or not, but the choice is ours to make.

Toshihiro Nakayama is a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and an adjunct fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

More on: