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Nationalism isn’t an issue in Japan

by Robert Dujarric

As Japan renews its claim on Takeshima (Dokdo to Koreans) and prepares to mark the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of the Great East Asia War, 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.

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.

The origins of this phenomenon are that Japan, unlike other players in the region, tests negative on risk factors for aggressive nationalism.

Nationalism often arises out of a sense of national victimization. A major cause of Chinese and Korean nationalism is a belief that foreigners preyed upon and humiliated their countries. As a result, many Chinese and Koreans want to see no insult to their national dignity go unpunished, however insignificant.

A case in point is South Korea’s quixotic campaign to rename the Sea of Japan the East Sea. In Japan’s case, however, there is no sense of victimhood. Yes, Japanese either experienced or know about U.S. terror bombings during the war. But, with a few exceptions, this pushes them toward pacifism. It fuels their contempt for the Japanese militarists who led the nation on a war that destroyed the country. It may also make them dislike the alliance with America, but it does not make Japanese long for a new Imperial Japan armed to the teeth ready to conquer lost territories.

Another foundation of nationalism is a belief that one’s country has a destiny to lead the world, or at least its region. This helps explain the support of Americans for military intervention and the conquests of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Though Chinese nationalism lacks the universalistic ambitions of America’s, many Chinese think that history gave China a right to regional primacy.

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.

There are also domestic factors that energize nationalism. One is fear for the country’s territorial integrity and/or a belief that there are still unredeemed provinces. In the Chinese case, anxiety about Tibet, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan), and Inner Mongolia fuel Han nationalism. Moreover, for most Chinese, Taiwan is a Chinese island that must be brought back into the motherland.

In the Korean case, national division can only encourage nationalism, even though South Koreans are lukewarm toward actual unification. Memories of Japanese aggression in both nations also generate a nationalist reaction in China and Korea. In Japan, however, there is no domestic separatism to be afraid of. And, despite the pro forma Japanese claims on the Northern Territories and Takeshima, few Japanese care about them.

A second domestic issue is nationalism as an alternative tool to confront the government. In autocratic China, nationalism is an indirect way to oppose the ruling party. When demonstrators throw rocks at the U.S. embassy or attack Japanese diplomats, they are also criticizing their rulers for being weak-kneed. Moreover, simply by marching through the streets, or gathering virtually on the Internet, they demonstrate to the Communist Party that the people can mobilize on their own.

Though South Korea is now a liberal democracy, many of its leftwing nationalists came of age when anti-American (or anti-Japanese) nationalism was fused with the fight against the military regime. Japan, however, has been a free society for well half a century, if its citizens are unhappy they simply go to a voting booth rather than seek alternative forms of mobilization.

Japanese society may have problems but nationalism is not one of them.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo (robertdujarric@gmail.com).