Books / Reviews

Nationalism: a long shadow over Asia's precarious future

by David Mcneill

Special To The Japan Times

In 1945, year zero for “Nationalism in Asia”, most of the region it describes was impoverished, backward and exhausted. After the calamitous Pacific War, China, India and Indonesia were in a final showdown with the great European colonial powers that had exploited them for decades. Korea had shrugged off Imperial Japan but was sliding toward a civil war that would divide the peninsula into two bitterly opposed, dirt-poor enemies. Japan was humiliated, in ruins and under occupation, brought so low by its defeat in World War II that few believed it could ever rise again.

Nationalism in Asia: A History Since 1945, by Jeff Kingston
336 pages
Wiley-Blackwell, Nonfiction.

Yet, today these five nations account for about 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its GDP. China and Japan are the planet’s second and third-largest economies, and South Korea, once one of the poorest nations on earth, is now a hypermodern industrial power.

Author Jeff Kingston, a columnist for The Japan Times, points out that four of these countries are in the top 10 for defense spending: China is second and Japan is eighth. More worryingly, China, India (and North Korea) are nuclear-armed. All five will “play a key role in how the world’s future plays out,” writes Kingston.

And what might that bring? The historical precedents are hardly encouraging. Europe’s competing states, also jostling for markets, influence and territory, fought a series of devastating wars that culminated in the 1939-1945 conflict, which tore the continent apart. In decline, Great Britain peacefully accommodated the rise of the United States, but that’s an exception to the rule. To make matters worse, many of Asia’s leading powers nurse animosities from previous wars and humiliations.

Nationalism, of course, is the powerful glue that holds these nations together — but not without cost.

In the book’s final chapter, written with great verve and sweep, Kingston surveys the “imagined communities” fashioned out of war and postcolonial struggles; their attempt to define a “we” and (by extension) an “other.” By necessity, this so-called othering has entailed marginalizing those who do not fit the mainstream mold or those “who in some way challenge that imagined community of insiders.”

China’s brawny Han-centric nationalism pays lips service to multiculturalism but tramps down assertive ethical and democratic demands at its fringes, notably from Tibet and the autonomous region of Xinjiang. In India, Muslims suffer disproportionately from poverty, discrimination and a lack of access to power. It’s a marginalization that threatens to worsen as Hindu nationalism intensifies. Sectarian tensions and discontent lurk below the secular surface in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation with 203 million adherents — about 88 percent of the population. Even Japan’s “polished veneer of uniformity” obscures the large minority populations of Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans and Chinese that together make up 4 to 6 million people.

Kingston writes that the “national Idea” — “What kind of society are we and what is it that defines us?” — was sown in the “poisoned soil of imperialism and colonial subjugation” and has shifted and evolved in the last 70 years, most glaringly in China. Mao’s vision of an egalitarian workers’ state has been turned on its head, transformed into a rich but worryingly venal and corrupt one-party state. Since the 1990s, China’s ruling Communist Party has increasingly played the history card, evoking the humiliations of Japanese rule and banging the national drum to promote patriotism.

Amnesia is, of course, crucial to the idea of nation, notes Kingston. Park Chung-hee, the general who took the reins in South Korea in 1961, was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army who oversaw a national forgetting of the collaboration that made Japanese rule possible between 1910 and 1945. Also, China’s Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other national calamities have been glossed over with the party-generated mantra that Mao, the man responsible for them, was “70 percent right, 30 percent wrong.” Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Japan, has pushed fringe revisionist views of the Imperial Army’s atrocities in the 1930s and ’40s closer to the center of political and cultural life.

“The clinging to grievances,” writes Kingston, “the selective amnesia and jingoistic swaggering are the basis of battles within and between diverse nations on diverse battlefields ranging from textbooks and museums to territorial flashpoints.”

Kingston’s measured, beautifully written book is mostly content to observe and document these depressing developments rather than attempt to plot a way forward. Nevertheless, he begins with a striking prediction from Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who warned in 2015 that the potential of World War III being instigated is highest in East Asia.

Since 1945, China’s challenges to the American-led status quo have increased the risks, Kingston acknowledges, but he is cautiously optimistic that national leadership in the region will continue to prioritize economic growth — and that Asian peace will persist. Arguably, he says, nationalism will be a greater problem domestically than internationally. Rioting, terrorism and acts of bloodshed have all been connected to marginalized groups across much of the region. “These problems will persist,” writes Kingston.

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami famously compared nationalism with cheap alcohol: it gets us hysterical and loud and leaves us with an almighty hangover. Kingston’s fine survey asks us to ponder its strengths and dangers, and reminds us to be careful of the “politicians and polemicists” who enthusiastically hawk it.

Jeff Kingston will speak about “Nationalism in Asia: A history Since 1945” on Nov. 9 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. For more information, visit the www.fccj.or.jp/events-calendar/book-breaks.