Checking premises

In questioning the Associated Press’s use of the term “nationalist” to describe Prime Minister Abe, Ampontan, in this post, asks, “What is it they mean by calling Mr. Abe a ‘nationalist’? And because they so frequently insist on using that term to describe him, they must think he demonstrates more of those characteristics than other political leaders elsewhere. This naturally leads one to wonder, the prime minister is nationalistic…compared to whom?”

A worthwhile question, indeed. Is Abe Shinzo a nationalist?

In answering this question, though, I think Ampontan makes the mistake of looking abroad for points of reference. He looks at Jacques Chirac’s farewell address from this past week, in which Chirac used the kind of language a French president is expected to use. All French presidents since De Gaulle, whether of the left or of the right, have been expected to appeal to French greatness, and France arguably remains the most nationalistic country in Western Europe.

But French nationalism means something entirely different from American nationalism or British nationalism or Japanese nationalism, because France is not the US is not Britain is not Japan. It reflects France’s unique history, and thus any comparison between nationalisms can only be analogous. There is no absolute, global scale of nationalism.

For the same reason, I find, at least in the Japanese context, that it’s difficult to use words like left and right, conservative and liberal — given that without considerable explanation, the terms are meaningless in and of themselves (and having to explain further defeats the purpose of a label in the first place).

After dancing around these issues, and slandering writers who dare to suggest that Abe Shinzo maybe, just maybe, is a nationalist, Ampontan gives a few points to argue that he is not, in fact, a nationalist:

Calling Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist” sails even closer to the edge of delusion. The prime minister is working to amend the Japanese Constitution to allow the use of the military for both individual and collective self-defense. That is hardly in the same class as colonizing the Korean Peninsula.

Japan claims the islets of Takeshima, now illegally occupied by South Korea, and four islands near Hokkaido, seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Were Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist”, would it not stand to reason that somewhere in his career he would have suggested using military force to reclaim that territory? Yet not a hint of that is to be found in any of his public utterances.

Prime Minister Abe’s ideas about Japan and its place in the world are not significantly different than most of his predecessors in the Liberal-Democratic Party—including his immediate predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, who, after all, paid annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

I think Ampontan’s problem is that he assumes that nationalism is a dirty word. I suppose it is often used as one, which is unfortunate, since it can be quite useful for describing what someone actually believes.

But what is nationalism? Ampontan throws out a few examples — resistance to colonial rule, love of country, the belief in the superiority of one’s country — but he ultimately never gets around to describing what nationalism actually is. A glance at Wikipedia’s thorough entry on nationalism shows you just how complicated a question this is. Not only does nationalism differ from country to country, but nationalism can be expressed in manifold ways. It is not always or even primarily about expressions of state power, often being expressed linguistically or culturally (this was the nationalism that emerged in the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian empire during the nineteenth century, for example).

So what does nationalism mean in a Japanese context? (An essential question that Ampotman does not even begin to address.) Arguably, in some ways the Japanese are innately nationalistic, a sentiment often expressed through the casual use of nihonjinron arguments. While Japan may not be as homogeneous as the Japanese believe, this belief has fed into an understanding of the Japanese as a single nation, with ancient roots. It entails a certain pride in the cultural achievements of the Japanese people and the qualities that make the Japanese distinct from other nations.

But what does this mean politically? I do not think Japanese nationalism in the twenty-first century has anything to do with a lust for conquest. Japanese imperialism was as much (or more) a product of prevailing international norms about how great powers should exercise their power as it was a product of something innate to the Japanese people. Seeing as how international norms have changed, fears of Japan’s trying to conquer anything are laughable.

This, my friends, is a straw man: Abe has not said anything about conquering Japan’s neighbors or even little Takeshima, ergo he must not be a nationalist.

What makes Abe a nationalist has little if anything to do with his ideas about Japan’s place in the world and more to do with his vision of Japanese society. In short, Abe and his allies in the LDP want to use the state to recreate a more unified Japan as a means of coping with the problems Japan will face in the twenty-first century. What makes Abe a nationalist is his desire to forge (or re-forge) a kind of dynamic unity among the Japanese people, under the rule of the emperor, of course. As he said in his debate with Ozawa Ichiro this week, “If Japan’s long history, traditions and cultures can be likened to a tapestry that the Japanese people have been weaving, the emperor is the warp.”

Abe’s speech to open the current session of the Diet is a case in point. In the speech, available in English here, Abe explicitly aims to remake the Japanese nation for a new age: “In order to realize ‘a beautiful country, Japan,’ my mission is none other than to draw a new vision of a nation which can withstand the raging waves for the next 50 to 100 years to come.” His terms, his aims are designed to shape Japan as a nation. He speaks as if Japan is a homogeneous whole, and not a developed democracy in which there are tremendous differences from region to region, from city to city, from person to person.

A similar kind of thinking can be found in the education bills passed by the Lower House of the Diet on Friday, one of which — the School Education Law — mandates teaching the love of country as a means of solving Japan’s nagging social problems. As Abe said in his January speech, “We believe we have, until now, neglected values such as public service, self-discipline, morals and attachment to and affection for the community and country where we have been born and raised. We believe it is absolutely essential for Japan’s future to instill these values in our children.”

One can disagree as to whether teaching patriotism is right or not, but I do not think that there is any question that teaching these values in schools is nationalistic.

Look also at Abe’s political compatriots. Asahi wrote yesterday of the formation by forty-three LDP members of a group to support Abe’s foreign policy that is, in Asahi‘s words a “de facto Abe faction” and “cheering group” for the prime minister. The article notes that not only do the members support Abe’s “proactive diplomacy,” but they are also opposed to legal changes that undermine traditional Japanese society, a hallmark of nationalist thinking. (This is the same kind of thinking that produced, in early LDP drafts of a revised constitution, clauses that made certain civil rights conditional, just like in the 1889 Meiji Constitution.)

One is free to agree or disagree with the thinking of Abe and his fellow nationalists in the LDP, but it is a disservice to debate to deny outright that the prime minister’s thinking is nationalist.

The search for a more unified Japanese nation less tainted by individualism at home and more independent abroad: that is Abe Shinzo’s nationalism. And in East Asia in the early twenty-first century, Abe is hardly alone.

4 thoughts on “Checking premises

  1. Anonymous

    A thoroughly engaging and thoughtful article. I had a hard time trying to succinctly critique Ampotan\’s disregard of the loaded term \”nationalist\” and was a bit disturbed by how he seemed to construct a definition of the term to suit his conclusion. All and all, I\’m delighted by your ability to be so succinct and to the point. Great blog!


  2. This is very, very on. I find, at least in the Japanese context, that it\’s difficult to use words like left and right, conservative and liberal — given that without considerable explanation, the terms are meaningless in and of themselvesAbsolutely. I was in a conversation with someone tonight and words like that come to my mind because they are useful reference points for that person (who is not so familiar with Japan), but I cannot use them because they do not mean what that person is going to use as a frame of reference. I agree that this is about Abe\’s vision for society. He has a chance to revamp education into something that makes sense, something that is not simply an exercise to take University entrance examinations that have no relation to the curriculum. He has a chance to turn Japanese schools into places that turn out students ready for the challenges of the service economy and the globalized businessplace (like it or not). His reforms are not headed in that very pragmatic direction, and I thus see what I see so far as a failure to address the needs that are apparent in the education system.


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