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Common weeds of nationalism

by Jeff Kingston

NATIONALISMS OF JAPAN: Managing and Mystifying Identity, by Brian J. McVeigh. Latham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, 331 pp., $34.95 (paper).

Angry Chinese and Korean responses to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, anti-Japanese actions by Chinese soccer fans at the Asia Cup, conflicting claims over remote islands and numerous other incidents demonstrate the perils of nationalism.

Official insouciance about the consequences of visits to Yasukuni, the spiritual pillar of wartime nationalism, contrasts with the government’s outrage over Chinese abuse of Japan’s soccer squad and its supporters. Clearly, the myths and ignorance that sustain nationalism do not bring out the best in people and raise concerns about peace and stability.

Brian McVeigh shifts our attention away from the flag-waving histrionics of militant patriotism to the everyday nationalism that permeates Japanese society. He is primarily concerned with what various forms of nationalism do to people and how these are domestically produced and consumed. Here Japan is examined from the perspective of the scholarly literature on nationalism in ways that demonstrate how “ordinary” it is. In doing so, McVeigh debunks common myths about the racial and cultural homogeneity of the Japanese that are often invoked to nurture a sense of uniqueness impervious to comparative analysis.

This book is packed with brilliance, but is far more tedious than it could be. General readers will surrender early while scholars may wonder at the author’s intellectual reticence. The voices of others are too dominant. McVeigh is a prolific and accomplished author, and perhaps that is why this book fails to match my high expectations.

He does not shrink from discussing the complexities of nationalism; he analyzes 16 types ranging from militarist and economic to linguistic, gendered and antiwar nationalisms. The exhaustive survey of the related literature renders this a valuable work for anyone conducting research on theories of nationalism, but at times this scholarly convention weighs too heavily on the prose.

The author excels at summarizing the main points of various scholars of nationalism and highlighting the issues and differences that animate scholarly debates. Some of the best sections are where the author is less theoretical and conceptual and provides analysis of concrete examples; these make his writing more accessible. It is lamentable that much of the comparative discussion is also theoretical and conceptual. For example, in discussing economic nationalism in Japan it would be helpful to understand it in the context of what occurs in other nations. Otherwise readers may walk away thinking this is a Japan problem rather than one that animates self-serving debates by all nations at the World Trade Organization.

McVeigh writes, “Nationalisms, then, should be conceived as different vectors occupying a conceptual space.

“Recognizing how Japanese nationalism (like other nationalisms, one should stress) is deeply enmeshed in hegemonic patterns and practices is not the same as suggesting a . . . conspiracy, just typical, habitual and collective ideological obfuscation.”

Not long into the book, McVeigh does show some reassuring concern for the reader, admitting that “all the semantic slicing and dicing so far may seem like a type of scholastic wordplay removed from everyday practices.” However, the text remains a tough slog through the scholarly bramble. Numerous terms and concepts are trotted out for inspection, with many found wanting or discarded so that new ones are coined. Whether this enriches the language of debate or our appreciation for the contours of the intellectual landscape remains uncertain.

What is nationalism? It’s “a justification, a way to explain why some people receive certain privileges and others do not, why some individuals are allowed in and others are not, and why ‘we’ may do this while they ‘may not.’ ” The power of nationalism in Japan owes less to compulsory singing of Kimigayo than to a deep rooted renovationism. This nationalism of reform is invoked to explain state structures, economic nationalism and the politics of identity. The banal everyday nature of Japanese nationalism is its strength. Even though it does not involve “marching soldiers, and military threats, it does bolster ethnic exclusivism, heightened ethnocultural self-consciousness, racialized notions of identity, myth-making propensities, and an economic guardedness vis-a-vis the world.”

“Peace nationalism is driven by a mix of repentance (denunciation of war), national pride (‘only Japan has a war-renouncing Constitution’), a type of self-centered nationalism expressed as ‘one country pacifism’ (ikkoku heiwa shugi), and a naive denial of international realpolitik (since the war Japan has been a virtual protectorate of the U.S. and aided the latter in its Asian wars).” In his view it is “grounded in theories of Japanese exceptionalism and ethnolaudism.”

He suggests “policymakers should focus not only on what the Japanese state may do, but rather on what the Japanese state will not do (taking in refugees, responsible use of ODA, peacekeeping operations, etc.). Such a lack of action is to a large degree motivated by an isolationism that passes for pacifism. But peace nationalism, because it narrowly restricts the parameters of national debate about Japan’s interests . . . greatly increases the chances of rash decisions, flustered responses, and mismanaged policymaking when or if crisis breaks out in Northeast Asia.” Food for thought.

The author shows his stuff in writing: “Effective nationalism is like religion: it must offer something shared yet transcendent, abstract yet visible, mundane yet profound, reasonable-sounding yet inexpressible, and demonstrable yet not provable. It is the dream of the masses and the vision of a powerful few.” Sadly, such flourishes are far and few between in a text overly laden with citations, parentheses, jargon and quotes. So much so that the author’s own voice and contributions seem squeezed in as asides. Given the ambitious scope of the narrative, the author sometimes rushes to the next section without fully considering or developing many of the interesting points he raises.

Against the odds, an inherently intriguing subject is etiolated by a ponderous and jejune presentation.