More than half a century ago I had dinner in Paris with Arimasa Mori, the grandson of the Meiji Era education minister Arinori Mori, who had set the prewar pattern for a Westernized but intensely patriotic education. The Mori family hailed from Kagoshima, and the part that Arinori had played in the Meiji Restoration, as a 20-year-old, was not insignificant.

Grandson Arimasa had, by the time I met him, given up his job at the University of Tokyo and settled in Paris for the life of an émigré philosopher, a noted expert on Descartes and Pascal. I was staying in a scruffy hotel, the top floor of which was his Bohemian garret.

One thing I remember clearly from that fascinating conversation was his remark about the centuries-old enmity between Satsuma and Choshu. They had cooperated to bring about the Meiji Restoration.

“I see a lot of Japanese visiting Paris,” he said. “But still, when somebody tells me he’s from Choshu, I want to put a knife in his guts.”

The Japan of 1847, when his grandfather was born, was indeed a country of Han-ism or fiefism, but hardly nationalism. The only nationalists were a few sectarian Shintoists like Hirata Atsutane, whose primary identification for Japan was that it was not China; it was better-than China. They were a tiny minority in a Confucian country where practically the whole educated class acknowledged, as the source of its moral values and philosophical Weltanschauung, the Confucian classics written 2,000 years earlier in China.

Those classics played a part in Japanese society remarkably similar to that of the Bible in Britain. In both countries, the culture of the educated elite was trickling downward as literacy gradually spread.

What made Japanese nationalism a formidable force was the arrival of menacing Westerners, the unequal treaties and the forced entry of Japan into international competitive politics.

The agenda of the nationalism it engendered was: (1) to protect Japan from the encroaching imperialisms that were dismembering China, and (2), once security was assured, to be treated by the European powers on an equal footing.

The rallying symbol was the moribund Emperor’s court, which made the sectarian Shinto traditionalists temporarily important. But the nationalism of the new age was one in which national identity was defined in contradistinction to the West rather than to China, even though its first expression was a war with China.

How, then, do we explain the fact that now, 120 years or five generations later, national sentiment should once again be expressed in a widespread and intense hostility to China? And all over a few barren rocks inhabited only by goats.

Although the surrounding waters might contain some delicious fish and some oil and gas, such useful resources would hardly account for an addition of more than a ten thousandth fraction of either country’s gross domestic product.

It is true that if you assume that either this dispute or some other is likely to escalate into war, then, as Masashi Nishihara, director of the Institute of Peace and Security points out, whoever has the radar station on those islands will have a better chance of sinking the other’s ships.

Nationalism comes in many forms. So far, I have been using the term not to mean a political doctrine deriving from the Westphalian treaty but rather in its other main sense, which might be defined briefly as “a state of mind or of heart involving a strong sense of membership in some population that has, or thinks it ought to have (the Kurds, for instance), a state, and a tendency to give priority to the interests of that population over any other goal such as charity toward the poor, the promotion of science, peace, friendly relations with other state populations, etc.”

The rise of nationalism in Europe is even more astonishing than its rise in Japan. Or perhaps the astonishing thing is the temporary suspension of nationalism in the decades after the Second World War.

The victory over German and Japanese nationalism was sufficiently seen as a shared triumph that the victor countries were temporarily persuaded to relinquish, at the risk of some national interest and sovereign autonomy, in order to create the United Nations, which it was hoped might be the embryo of world government, a system of international relations governed by universally accepted law.

Even then, the blinkers of nationalism were so strong that the victors could not bring themselves to create a system to serve the whole human race — beyond the common interests of a triumphant alliance. Even today, the “enemy country” clauses in the U.N. Charter say that, unlike the punishment of aggression by other countries (which requires U.N. Security Council authorization), Germany, Japan and Italy can be attacked by anybody if they try misbehaving.

It was, of course, the split of the victors’ alliance and the Cold War that led to much greater sacrifices of sovereignty and suspension of nationalisms than had been implied by the U.N. Charter. The gradual integration of countries in Western Europe into the European Community and of Eastern European countries into the Warsaw Pact would never have happened without it.

The integration of the Russian bloc was dependent partly on a common Communist ideology that never penetrated much beyond the political elites and more so on the threat of Russian armed force, exercised in practice in 1957 and in 1968. It was too weakened to be used in 1989 when the Warsaw Pact fell to pieces, and national politics and national sentiment were once again liberated.

The Western bloc, with its military integration into NATO, was never tested for its primary anti-Russian purpose, yet any similar political integration as a whole was unthinkable, given the one-sided dominance of the United States over all the others. Still, the integration of those others in what eventually became the European Union proceeded apace, to the point that all of Western Europe except Britain accepted a common currency.

Up to the point of the 2008 financial crisis, that process of political integration seemed to keep progressing, even if conducted in hesitant incremental steps. It was greatly aided by the fact that the leaders of the economically most powerful country, Germany, showed an extra willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the others. This lasted as long as did its leaders’ (but not always the general public’s) sense of collective guilt for the Second World War and genocide.

Clearly, with a political union for which only 1 percent of the region’s GDP was made available as a budget at the disposal of the Brussels Commission (the Union’s government), the basis for a sense of common identity never came close to overcoming separate national identities.

The idea of a common foreign policy remained a joke, as did the idea of a European Defense Union separate from NATO. The separate binational trans-Atlantic ties, particularly the secret intelligence exchanges with Britain, were far too strong, even after they had been temporarily damaged by France’s and Germany’s opposition to America’s Iraq war.

The common market seemed to be working well enough for everything except debt: The globalization of financial markets made any attempt to seal off a separate European market unthinkable.

The financial crisis showed that a common currency was just not viable without a common macroeconomic policy and a common fiscal policy in a region where separate national economies not only had widely different growth rates and inflation rates but also were participating individually (and not collectively) in the global bond market.

It was not until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, nearly a century after the American Civil War and after a long process of political and cultural integration, that the U.S. states achieved a degree of fiscal union that would see prosperous states like Massachusetts regularly subsidize the penurious inhabitants of Kentucky.

The reluctance of the Germans to subsidize the Greeks was exacerbated by attenuation of the sense of guilt for the Second World War that had hitherto made the Germans willing to make the sacrifices needed to be counted as good Europeans.

Hence there were chaotic negotiations, reluctant one-off subsidies after bitter talks and mutual recrimination, and the application of crippling, situation-worsening conditions, all forced by fear of anarchic consequences if Greece or Spain or Portugal or Ireland left the currency union. This in spite of the obvious economic logic that the Greek economy, for instance, is unlikely to recover unless it leaves the eurozone and returns to a much devalued drachma — something that Greek politicians perceive as an irredeemable blow to Greek pride.

The result is a bad-tempered revival of stereotypes that are the stuff of nationalism: mean, aggressively self-centered, arrogant Germans vs. lazy, inefficient, dishonest Greeks incapable of making each other pay taxes. It makes for a lot of quarrelsome continentals that no decent Englishman would want to keep company with. The mood is such that there is a real possibility of the union breaking up.

In Britain, which has always been semi-detached from the EU and refused to join the euro, the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party has made such inroads into the voting support of the traditional Conservative Party that it has put withdrawal from the EU on the political agenda — the subject of the cover article of a recent issue of the Economist.

Most expressions of Japanese nationalism over the last half-century have been directed at the United States. The Occupation, which began in September 1945, has never really ended.

It is not merely a question of American troops and air and naval bases being stationed in Japan — and becoming increasingly entrenched, as former Prime Minister’s Yukio Hatoyama’s failed efforts to get the U.S. Marines out of Okinawa’s Futenma air base showed — but also of the increasingly justified American assumptions that Japan will be its loyal supporter in international affairs.

Even when the two countries seem to take a different tack, as in the U.N. General Assembly recently when the U.S. voted against, and Japan voted for, a resolution to admit the Palestinians as a nonmember observer state, coordination was close.

As Japan’s Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba explained afterward at his regular press conference, it was a kind of division of labor. America would support and maintain its influence with Israel, and Japan would try to mollify the Arab states. The two countries had even agreed not only on Japan’s pro vote, but also on the reasons its spokesman would give for it.

It wasn’t always thus. In the 1950s, as Cold War tensions built up, American pressure on Japan became intense: Japan should change its American-inspired Constitution and seriously rearm.

The pressure was resisted notably in the Ikeda-Roberston talks of 1953, which became a kind of watershed. The U.S. gave up for the moment any attempt to make Japan much more than its forward aircraft carrier. Hayato Ikeda’s backbone was stiffened in those negotiations, no doubt by the memory of his first visit to the U.S. to start negotiations on the 1950 peace treaty. He and his then civil service secretary, Kiichi Miyazawa, had a $7-a-day hotel allowance, which meant they shared a tiny room with twin beds in a scruffy Washington hotel. They shared their evening sake sitting on their beds.

America was even less pleased when, in the following year, the government of Shigeru Yoshida gave way to one led by Ichiro Hatoyama, which soon showed an unseemly willingness to make concessions to the Cold War enemy in order to get a peace treaty and to resume normal diplomatic relations.

This time the Japanese were brought to heel by John Foster Dulles’ famous threat that if Japan made concessions on the Northern Territories issue to get a treaty with the Soviet Union, it would never get Okinawa back from the U.S.

The peak of this Japanese Resistance Movement was reached, of course, in the Anpo Toso — the demonstrations and riots against renewal of the security treaty with the U.S. in 1960. Thereafter, it was all downhill for the movement as its organizational bases eroded. Student unions fragmented into warring factions; the trade unions became enfeebled to the point that Nikkeiren, the employers’ organization specifically dedicated to dealing with them, was able to shut up shop and fold itself into the Keidanren. Meanwhile, support for the socialist and communist parties, the backbone of the Resistance, evaporated.

The Japan-U.S. alliance has been cemented increasingly by a shift in the Japanese cultural center of gravity. By now there have been two generations of Japanese elite, heavily populated by alumni of American universities and business schools. They are as brainwashed into the acceptance of American values and neoliberal ideologies as their great-grandfathers were into German culture. The only difference is that for every Japanese who spent two years in a German educational institution in the 1920s, there were, at a guess, 200 studying in the U.S. in the 1980s.

The old ressentiment that fueled the Resistance in the 1950s is by no means dead. It has recently been eloquently reawakened in a book by ex-diplomat Ukeru Magosaki, a former ambassador to Iran and the former head of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department. His latest books are based not only on his personal experience, but also on his readings and reflections as a professor at the National Defense Academy during the first six years of his retirement.

He has written a subsequent book called “Prime Ministers Whom America Crushed” (Amerika ni Tsubusareta Sori Daijin) — beginning with Ichiro Hatoyama and ending with his grandson, Yukio Hatoyama.

His first best-seller, “The True History of Postwar Japan” (Sengoshi no Shotai) revolves around the axis of the perennial conflict said to be going on in the Japanese political and bureaucratic class between what he calls the “Submissive to America” group and the “Autonomous foreign policy” group. It is written in a style meant to be attractive and comprehensible to an intelligent high school student, and has sold a quarter of a million copies. That does not mean a quarter of a million sympathizers, although he apparently does have 6,000 followers on Twitter.

At any rate, it is not very likely that this support is a symptom of a growing nationalist disenchantment with the U.S. that will soon dissolve the Alliance. Such a possibility has become even more remote with the extraordinary clash of nationalisms that has brought Japanese-Chinese relations to an unprecedented nadir over the past several months.

The governing elites of both countries have done little to calm the flush of nationalist sentiments that have led to the current enmity.

First, there are background factors. The Chinese allow nightly TV broadcasts of films that portray all Japanese soldiers as cruel beasts, while the Japanese government does nothing to discredit the steady stream of atrocity-denial books written by sinophobic Japanese.

Second, Japan might well complain about semi-hysterical bullying in Chinese reactions, particularly during the September riots, but both the 2010 dispute over damage done to a Japanese patrol boat and the current dispute were triggered by Japanese miscalculation.

In 2010, Japanese authorities arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat in spite of a Fisheries Agreement not to apply domestic laws to trespassing fishermen. And this year they failed to predict the obvious — that their feeble response to the then Tokyo governor’s proposal to purchase the islands would greatly exacerbate matters.

Japan could easily have defused the tension if Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had simply said: “There is no doubt in international law that the Senkakus are ours, but you Chinese obviously think otherwise, so go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and make your case.

“We — unlike you — are treaty-bound to respond and will happily do so.”

If the Chinese had still refused, the next step would have been to go to the Security Council. Instead, responding with the unbending rigidity of its current stance — “there is no dispute” — has made the Japanese government a laughingstock, especially when it is reinforced by the improbable thesis regarding diplomatic recognition by, and the friendship treaty talks with, Zhou Enlai in 1972 and Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

Both men famously suggested that contentious issues like the Senkakus should be “left to the wiser heads of later generations.”

The Japanese government now contends that the Japanese negotiators responded with silence not agreement, and thus did not acknowledge that there was any dispute. The whole atmosphere of the negotiations, which were so friendly that Henry Kissinger was prompted to say, “Of all the treacherous sons of bitches, the Japanese take the cake,” precludes the likelihood of Japan’s contention being the truth — as does Japan’s studiously keeping the islands uninhabited as if acknowledging the dodgy nature of its control.

As for China, its elite’s apparent belief that the ICJ is only for little countries is wrong (Britain and France settled a dispute there in the early days) and foolish.

The current keynote Japanese word for the appropriate attitude toward China is kizen — steely, composed severity. Its invocation is a sign of fearful rather than confident nationalism — fear of being seen to be weak.

But this is not a play-acting situation. Things could get really serious. And that’s a source of diplomatic weakness in itself and a generator of strong domestic reactions that threaten democracy and free speech.

Let any Japanese vernacular newspaper today refer simply to the Senkaku Islands without the locution “Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture,” and it courts rightwing attacks, broken windows, even a bomb.

The dismissed ambassador to China — who was ferociously attacked in the media for telling the Financial Times that Shintaro Ishihara’s plan for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to buy those islands would be disastrous for Japan-China relations — said in the Nikkei daily on Dec. 27 that he was more shocked by the absence of intelligent discussion of the issue in Japan than by the attacks on himself:

“The atmosphere that has developed around the issue is scary. People ought to be able to speak their opinions. But I suppose that in order to protect themselves, people hold back their true opinions and help to create an atmosphere in which it really is difficult to speak out,” Uichiro Niwa told the daily. “I was criticized. I got a number of threatening phone calls. It is an atmosphere like that prior to the Second World War. Unless we can get over that, we are likely to repeat the same mistakes.”

There is the theory that Shinzo Abe, who just made a comeback as prime minister, will be better able than Noda to correct those mistakes and achieve reconciliation by making apparent concessions to China, because his bellicose credentials are stronger and he feels less threatened by appearing weak.

Let us hope that this becomes one of the wonders of 2013.

Ronald Dore has spent most of his life studying Japanese society and economy. He has taught at London, University of British Columbia, Sussex, Harvard and MIT in departments of sociology, history and political science. Two collections of his writings have been published: “Social evolution, Economic Development, Culture, Change: What It Means to Take Japan Seriously” (2001) and “Collected Writings of Ronald Dore” (2002).

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