On Japanese nationalisms

Robert Dujarric of Temple University Japan had an op-ed in the Japan Times Wednesday in which he argued, “Japanese society may have problems but nationalism is not one of them.”

He argues:

Regardless of the metric used, Japan scores very low on nationalism. Its investment in its armed forces as a percentage of national income is small, especially for a country living in close range of two potential war zones (the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan).

Moreover, in the past two decades the offensive capabilities of North Korea against Japan, namely its ballistic missiles and nuclear program, have grown significantly.

China, another potential adversary for Japan, clearly has a much stronger military than 20 years ago. But Japan continues to keep its military investment at around 1 percent of national income (perhaps a little more if other expenses are included).

The phenomenal waste in Japanese procurement programs also shows that the military budget is as much a funding mechanism for Japanese businesses as a tool to build up a strong military.

Moreover, when it comes to dealing with the outside world, Japanese diplomats are as unlikely as those of the Holy See to resort to threats of force. There are no John Boltons in the Japanese Foreign Ministry. This peaceful, low profile reflects a basic fact often ignored by outsiders: Japanese voters favor candidates who care about bread and butter issues over those whose concern is Japan’s greatness and military might.

He attributes this lack of nationalism to an absence of a sense of victimization — as in South Korea and China — and a lack of universal values, a “messianic urge” that lends itself to a desire to seek regional or global domination. It also lacks the need to use nationalism to distract citizens from domestic problems or to promote unity in the presence of social cleavages.

Granted, Japan lacks these factors. But are these the only causes of nationalism? And are the only manifestations of nationalism more expansive defense budgets and a more robust foreign policy? With that phrase “regardless of the metric used,” M. Dujarric manages to duck this question of just what is nationalism.

I would argue that the Japanese people on the whole are quite nationalistic. I think that the Japanese people on the whole are proud of Japan and of being Japanese, if not to the same extent as their neighbors or Americans.

As Yomiuri found in an opinion poll in January of this year, a record number of respondents (1650 out of 1780, 92.7%) said that they felt some or a lot of pride, with a record portion (55%) saying that they felt a lot of pride. That pride, however, did not translate into support for a policy of remilitarization or normalization. Asked what they think about contemporary Japan — i.e., the country of which they are proud — 59.7% saw it as a “peace-loving nation,” followed by 35.9% who saw it as an economic great power, 27.2% who saw it as a country with a high level of culture, and 25.2% who saw it as a democratic nation. Only 2% saw it as a military great power, fewer than those who saw it as an “insular nation.” (Respondents were free to choose as many answers as they desired from a list that also included “nation with a high level of welfare protection,” “nation that is trusted by other countries,” and “independent nation.” Obviously this does not necessarily suggest that this is how the respondents want to be, but it is reasonable to infer that the 1780 respondents to this poll are actually quite proud of Japan’s achievements culturally and economically — and they are proud of Japan’s postwar record of abjuring from the use of force to resolve disputes.

In other words, a Japanese citizen can be nationalistic without sounding like Abe Shinzo. A Japanese can be proud — should be proud — of the Japan that exists, not the beautiful Japan that exists if only the constitution were revised.

Accordingly, it is inappropriate to discuss Japanese nationalism only in terms dictated by nineteenth-century nationalism, the kind of nationalism that helps the state unite the people behind common goals (often involving besting foreign rivals), the kind of nationalism that can be measured by M. Dujarric’s metrics. (Interestingly, both South Korea and China used conscription, that great tool of nineteenth-century nationalism, as a means to tap national power.) Japan obviously has nationalists of the nineteenth-century variety, but they are far from the most numerous variety. They may, however, be the most influential, given their concentration among Japan’s political and media elites. Thanks to the media, they certainly have influence far greater than their numbers.

M. Dujarric suggests that Japanese voters care about bread-and-butter issues, meaning that there is little support for the agenda pushed by hyper-nationalist conservatives, whose nationalism may well be driven by the same sense of victimhood and manifest destiny cited by M. Dujarric as factors in Chinese and South Korean nationalism. But that doesn’t mean that the Japanese people are actively opposed to the hyper-nationalist agenda. They are opposed to governments that neglect bread-and-butter domestic issues — and as Mr. Abe learned, they are willing to punish said governments — but if a government satisfies those needs, the public is willing to give some leeway to the government on foreign and defense policy, leaving a strong nationalist prime minister the freedom with which to pursue the kind of nationalist agenda M. Dujarric claims isn’t an issue in Japan.

Furthermore, as I argue in the current issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, even Japanese citizens who do not support remilitarization or a cold war with China want their government to be more assertive in dealing with Beijing, especially in the case of China’s transnational pollution and tainted products, which have consequences for Japanese households.

The picture is considerably more complicated than that provided by M. Dujarric. Yes, the Japanese public exhibits little of the nineteenth-century nationalism of conservative elites and Japan’s neighbors, but that is quite different from saying that “nationalism isn’t an issue” or relevant when considering how Japanese think about their country’s place in the world.

7 thoughts on “On Japanese nationalisms

  1. Thank you for an intelligent response to that article. I wish I were enough of an expert to write a good response myself, but suffice to say I do not agree with either its argument or its conclusion. I enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the excellent work!


  2. (I wrote up a response that I was going to post over at Japanprobe.com yesterday, but saved it as a Word file instead. After reading this response, I decided to post mine here, also.)Mr. Dujarric takes a misstep in the very beginning by equating nationalism with investment in the armed forces. There is no required correlation of the two, and the modern version of Japanese nationalism has taken on a new character.Military-force was the tool of the nationalistic movement of pre-WWII as Japan competed with the West in colonizing, which would be considered “aggressive nationalism”. After the War, it was in international and economic policies that Japan invested its nationalism, and it\’s still seen today in protectionist policies and the reluctance to give outside forces any power within Japanese walls, and it\’s the idea that Japanese goods are inherently better than foreign goods.Nationalism is complete loyalty to a nation, unquestioning, unwavering. In business, this translates as devotion to one\’s company; self-sacrifice for the success of the business. The success of their company is the success of the Japanese economy. That\’s why we see things like 過労死 (death from overwork) in Japan.Mr. Dujarric writes, \”In Japan, however, there is none of the messianic urge found in Western cultures. Nor do Japanese have the same sense of civilizational and historical greatness that is common in China.\” What of Japanese archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura who faked archaeological digs in an effort to \”prove\” that Japan had a defined culutre thousands upon thousands of years before the rest of the world? Or the mythology so dearly recited that Japan was formed by Amaterasu, and the Japanese are blessed? Mr. Dujarric mentions that Chinese nationalism is a tool to confront the government, but that there are so many problems swept under the rug regarding corruption in the ruling Japanese government insinuates that the Japanese don\’t want to confront their leaders for fear of undermining their legitimacy and success. That problems in the Japanese society and economy are covered up is reminiscent of strong-handed governments protecting their image of infallibility.That there even exist 日本人論 (Theories of the uniqueness of Japan and the Japanese) is also evidence of nationalism. There are some Japanese who believe their nation, their national identity, even their ethno-characteristics to be so unique that similar attributes exist nowhere else. For in Japan, it is often difficult to differentiate between the nation as a whole, and the people themselves.After reading Mr. Dujarric\’s write-up, I get the impression that he is seeing Japan through chrysanthemum-colored glasses.


  3. Nationalism is everywhere here, from tea advertisement catch phrases (\”Makes Japanese look better\”) to the now passé \”I am glad I was born Japanese\”. It brings people to enjoy more things Japanese rather that bring them to the streets. The JT article was lame at best, all the more from someone seemingly living in Japan.


  4. Anonymous

    To get it straight, the article opens with this: \”we can expect more Asians — and some Americans — to warn against the dangers of rising Japanese nationalism. What is striking, however, is the absence of nationalism in Japan compared to its Chinese and Korean neighbors and its American ally.\”Its obvious from the context that the kind of nationalism (and militarism) the author talks about is the one Chinese, Koreans, are accusing Japan of (while practicing itself).If this wouldnt be the case how excactly could it be considered worrysome to people feel a lot of pride about their country for being a PEACEFUL nation?On another note, he says\”Regardless of the metric used\”Now, assuming 55% of Japanese feel pride about their country, this would still be a comparatively small number compared to countries like China and Korea, I might assume, which just proves the authors remark to be valid.I certainly get a what you are aiming at, its just that in the context of the article its a quite useless arguement to make.


  5. D

    Thanks for a good response to that editorial which was stunning in its shallowness coming from the Director of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple.A good book which explores nationalism in Japan in its various forms is Brain McVeigh\’s Nationalisms of Japan.


  6. Bryce

    \”Now, assuming 55% of Japanese feel pride about their country, this would still be a comparatively small number compared to countries like China and Korea, I might assume, which just proves the authors remark to be valid.\”Actually the figure is much higher according to opinion polls. Something like 80-90 percent of Japanese are proud of their nation, according to which poll you read.The difference, though, is WHY they are proud of their nation. Dujarric is right, I believe, to frame \”nationalism\” as an association with militarism. That is the way nationalism is popularly defined, and that is the type of nationalism that most people are concerned about. And he is right in asserting that most Japanese are not interested in this type of nationalism. Sure, many Japanese are concerned about lax food safety standards in China and North Korean missiles, but the way they view these things is not through the reactionary \”our people come first and foremost\” trope that is usually associated with (neo) nationalism. Note, for example, that politicians have had to raise the issue of abductees (an issue that everyone in Japan can understand and identify with in a this-could-happen-to-your-daughter-too way) to stoke nationalist feelings against North Korea. The issue has become even more important than the usual nationalist fearmongering about military opponents, and, I would argue, has eventually proved counterproductive to multilateral attempts to negotiate for disarmament.Naturally nationalism exists in every nation in the sense that it is the behaviour and beliefs that all of us replicate on a day to day basis to reinforce the notion of the state and the loyalties of its citizens (like when the All Blacks THRASHED the Wallabies last night), but it is clear that Dujarric was talking about a nationalism that is associated with an increased militarism. And to be fair, this nationalism DOES often pop up with reference to Japan in the popular English language discourse. To cite Japanese business practises as evidence of \”nationalism broadly defined\”, when Dujarric was clearly talking about \”nationalism narrowly defined\”, somewhat misses the point. I\’m not sure cliches about chrysanthemums help much either.


  7. Aceface

    \”A Japanese can be proud — should be proud — of the Japan that exists, not the beautiful Japan that exists if only the constitution were revised.\”But why not? I think Japanese can decide what\’s to be proud of or what\’s not without any foreign guidance.Same with the constitution.


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