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The many different ways Japan spells ‘nationalism’

by Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka

A HISTORY OF NATIONALISM IN MODERN JAPAN: Placing the People, by Kevin M. Doak. Leiden: Brill, 2006, 292 pp., $93 (cloth)

There is no shortage of writing about nationalism in modern Japanese history. Nonetheless, the object of investigation has not always been clear, and until recently the term “nationalism” has not been employed with much theoretical rigor. The difficulty of applying the concept to Japanese thought and politics is underscored, as Kevin Doak points out, by the multiple Japanese terms — kokuminshugi, minzokushugi, kokkashugi, and nashonarizumu — all translatable in English as “nationalism.”

Doak’s book is designed as an intellectual history of Japanese nationalism from the Meiji Era to the present. He begins with a consideration of theories of nationalism and their impact on Japanese intellectuals (with an emphasis on the 1920s and 1930s). He then explores four concepts central to the discourse: tenno (emperor), shakai (society), kokumin (author’s translation, civic nation), and minzoku (author’s translation, ethnic nation). The central theme of his study is the dialectic of these last two ideas, manifested ideologically as kokuminshugi (civic nationalism) and minzokushugi (ethnic nationalism).

Doak acknowledges from the start that he is redefining the subject as treated in much of the existing scholarly as well as journalistic literature. Nationalism, as he defines it, “is a principle that asserts the people as the privileged principle of political life.” His emphasis is less on the construction of identity than on efforts to conceptualize the relationship between “the people” and “the state.” In his view, the Japanese term “kokkashugi,” better translated into the French as tatisme, ideologically centers “the state” rather than “the people” and should be excluded from the category of nationalism. Accordingly, he places outside the boundaries of treatment what others have described as the nationalism of the state or emperor-centered nationalism.

In emphasizing political philosophies concerned with the relationship of the people and the state, he also seems to downplay the importance of ideological projects aimed at placing the people of Japan in the world at large. By civic nationalism, Doak means very specifically an ideological commitment to liberal democracy and to criteria for citizenship in which ethnicity and cultural identity are explicitly irrelevant — an ideal that closely resembles the American national imaginary.

Given that the full and consistent development of such civic values is a relatively recent development even in the world’s most liberal and democratic societies, it is not surprising that this category in Japan is thinly populated for much of the span of the narrative; prominent only at the beginning, best represented by Christian thinkers of the early and middle Meiji Era and exemplified at the end by public intellectuals such as Masao Maruyama of the early postwar era.

In contrast to this rather narrow definition of civic nationalism, Doak’s construction of the ethnic variety is remarkably broad. It includes the primordial blood-and-soil concepts of national identity commonly associated with the term as well as more flexible concepts of culturally defined community detached from shared ancestry that allow for the acculturation of outsiders. More interestingly, though, it also encompasses self-consciously constructivist versions of national community that eschew any “natural” claims and that permit not only the extensive incorporation of different groups of people but a continuing transformation of the nation itself.

The fact that Doak also treats civic and ethnic nationalism a priori as mutually exclusive and antagonistic intellectual approaches to “placing the people” simultaneously narrows the category of “civic” and broadens “ethnic.” Regarding the possibility of the coexistence of the two, he argues unequivocally that “an ethnically determined kokuminshugi was merely another instance in world history of what ethnic nationalism has always sought everywhere — a collapse of any meaningful distinction between civic membership in the country and ethnic identity.” True civic nationalists must eschew all ethnic and cultural identities, whereas “ethnic” concerns, broadly defined, render even the most dedicated liberals ethnic nationalists. Thus Yukichi Fukuzawa’s antipathy toward Christianity, despite his contributions to the development of what most would recognize as civic ideology in Meiji Japan, makes him, in Doak’s framework, an “implicit ‘ethnic nationalist.’ “

The breadth of the category of ethnic nationalism, encompassing almost all other ways of imagining national community other than a narrowly construed “civic” ideal, would seem to limit its resolving power beyond highlighting the distinctiveness and historical rarity of civic nationalism. Its broadness, moreover, tends to flatten the terrain of Japanese intellectual history lying between the two peaks of civic efflorescence into a gray land of ethnic nationalist hegemony largely devoid of the variety and richness that other historians have revealed. Doak does nuance ethnic nationalism in his discussion of constructivist variants of this ideology in the 1930s, but this is overshadowed by his effort to underscore the fundamental unity and historical continuity of ethnic nationalism in Japan.

This article has been excerpted from Monumenta Nipponica 62:4