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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
July 18, 2006

Managing Japan's Rising Nationalism

Koichi MERA (Professor, University of Southern California)

This article is based on the interview with Professor Mera in Los Angeles on July 11, 2006.

Two Kinds of Nationalism in Japan

No one fails to notice that the sentiment of nationalism has been strengthened in Japan in wake of the threatening missile firings by North Korea on July 5. Indeed, the sense of nationalism or patriotism has been rising in Japan during recent years, as seen in the increasing public support of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's strong stance toward neighboring countries. Now, some Japanese are talking about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea's military base, and even thinking about developing a nuclear weapon of its own for the sake of national defense. Many Japanese seem to be patriotic and even "hawkish" in dealing with North Korea regarding not only the missile issue but also the abductee issue.

While Japanese nationalism might have become visible only recently, it has gradually been growing among the Japanese public over many years. More and more people have been frustrated with their leaders' apologetic attitude toward neighboring countries such as China and South Korea, which are critical of Japan on various issues such as school test books and Prime Minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Now, an increasing number of Japanese, especially those who know little about the Pacific War and the process through which Japan lost its fame, are unhappy to see their own country treated as being in the second class. This may be the main reason why many Japanese support Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine rather enthusiastically despite strong oppositions by the neighboring countries.

There seem to be two kinds of nationalism in Japan. One is a nostalgic "backward looking" nationalism, where Japanese old customs and traditions are rediscovered and idolized. A good example of this is a recent bestseller book by Masahiko Fujiwara, "Kokka no Hinkaku" (The Moral Character of the Nation). In this book, anything traditional Japanese, especially anything related to Bushido, is idealized and honored, while western influences are severely criticized. This kind of nationalism may well lead to serious problems by being utilized to sabotage current reforms in Japan and also to disturb Japan's diplomatic relations with other countries, particularly those in the West. In addition, this approach tends to encourage nostalgic feelings among some Japanese who wish to bring back the country before the Meiji Restoration.

The other kind of nationalism in Japan is more open and forward looking, as exemplified by the opinions of a social critic, Yoshiko Sakurai, expressed in her recent book, "Konokuni wo Naze Aisenainoka" (Why They Cannot Love This Country). Ms. Sakurai, born in Asia and educated in the U.S., is not only a nationalist, but also a radical reformer, even criticizing Prime Minister Koizumi's reforms as too little and too late. Younger generation Japanese tend to subscribe to this kind of nationalism, rather than the old-fashioned, nostalgic kind.

Necessity to Review Japan-U.S. Relations

The rising nationalism is an expression of the people who have realized that the Japanese are not always treated as equal as other nationals in the world. We should note, however, that the nation itself is responsible for creating such a situation. It has been silently following the policies of other nations rather than its own. Japan needs to express its views and explain its actions more openly to the outside world. Prime Minister Koizumi never explained clearly why he visited Yasukuni Shrine and only said that that was his personal desire and no other country should criticize his personal belief. This is not enough, and some theoretical backing is needed to respond to foreign criticisms. For that purpose, serious reviews and discussions should take place regarding Japan's recent history, especially about the Pacific War and its causes and consequences. They should no longer be taboo for public debate. Open discussions on these issues will deepen the understandings of the Japanese people as well as the Chinese and Koreans about modern history in Asia. It will help fostering a healthier nationalism in Japan.

Japan must and will become a "normal," ordinary nation with strong will for self-defense. Japan's almost complete dependence on the U.S. military forces regarding national security should be critically reviewed. In fact, an increasing number of Japanese seem to support the view that Japan must have sufficient capability to defend itself against possible missile attacks by North Korea or by any other nation without much help of the U.S., which might not have will or means to defend Japan in case of such attacks anyway. Therefore, Japan should start discussing with the U.S. about long-term prospects for an independent Japan with its own military power, possibly including nuclear weapons in the future.

It is needless to say that more prudent and intelligent political leaders would be needed for both Japan and the U.S. to manage such long-term developments without causing unnecessary frictions or conflicts between the two nations. The Japanese public too must be more rational and forward-looking to manage its own sentiment of nationalism. While education in the areas of history and ethics may be important in fostering open and forward-looking nationalism among the public, Japan's political leaders should do their best to make Japan a nation to be loved by its people and to be respected by other countries.

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