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In-depth Is Japan Moving to the Right?
The Illusion of “Rising Nationalism”: Internationalism and Xenophobia in Today’s Japan

Karube Tadashi [Profile]


Both in Japan and overseas, journalists have been expressing concern about the rise of nationalism under Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. A political scientist questions the validity of these worries.

The Media Spotlight on Japan’s “Rightward Tilt”

These days the media both in Japan and overseas frequently carries commentary suggesting that Japan is tilting to the right and becoming more nationalistic. For example, a long, signed article that appeared in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal on February 26, 2014, was titled “Tensions in Asia Stoke Rising Nationalism in Japan.” The article referred to the rising sales of WiLL, a nationalistic magazine, the publication of books openly disparaging China and South Korea, and the large number of votes going to candidates expressing “staunchly conservative views,” citing such phenomena as evidence of a tilt in the “collective mood.”

The article also included a photo of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s December 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine and noted that after the US government criticized the visit, an advisor to the prime minister rebutted the criticism. The text of the article points out that Japan is a mature democracy that has contributed to international peace for decades, and it presents the view that “Japanese society has the flexibility to push back the pendulum if it keeps swinging toward nationalism.” But it closes with a quote from a nationalistic young Diet member who calls for Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons. So, in terms of the message it delivers to readers, the article, as its title suggests, is one that stresses Japan’s “rising nationalism” in a critical vein.

In the Japanese media, meanwhile, the database of the Asahi Shimbun, one of the leading national dailies, reveals a sudden rise since the start of 2014 in the number of articles including the term ukeika, meaning “tilt to the right,” which refers to more or less the same phenomena as the English phrase “rising nationalism.” As the piece in the Wall Street Journal notes, surveys of public opinion show that the Japanese are more concerned about social security and economic reform than about national security, and Japan’s society as a whole is by no means caught up in a wave of nationalism. But looking at the print media, we see a pattern in which some publishers are increasing their sales by featuring anti-Chinese and anti-Korean material, while mainstream newspapers and magazines warn that this sort of content is dangerous. So the idea of a tilt to the right is certainly a major topic in the world of public discourse, which operates at a level distinct from social realities.

Abe Under Attack

If we compare the critical coverage of Japan’s “rising nationalism” in the Wall Street Journal with that of the domestic press, however, we seem to see a difference in focus. The Wall Street Journal article that I cited above looks mainly at what might be seen as xenophobic tendencies in Japanese society, as exemplified by the lively sales of anti-Chinese and anti-Korean magazines and books and the great popularity of a recent film that, according to some, glorifies Japan’s World War II kamikaze pilots. Given the rise of xenophobic movements fueled by immigration-related issues in many European countries, it is only natural that the Western media is interested in signs of similar movements in Japan. Western journalists can thus be expected also to take note of Japan’s “hate speech” problem—the demonstrations by nationalist groups whose members have been spewing vile language at ethnic Koreans in the districts of Tokyo and Osaka where they have major presences.

Here in Japan, by contrast, when newspapers and magazines express concern about a tilt to the right, they generally seem to be focusing on the policies of the current Abe administration—or, in the most extreme cases, to be directing their criticism at Prime Minister Abe’s personality. Among foreign media organs, those of China and South Korea have also been busily attacking the Abe administration as nationalistic. But their rhetoric is basically the same as what they always direct against the Japanese government, whoever is at the helm. The Japanese media’s broadsides against Abe and his administration are different in this respect. The current barrage of domestic criticism against the government for being “nationalistic” is something Japan has not seen the likes of since the administration of Nakasone Yasuhiro in the 1980s.

Part of the reason for the domestic criticism of Abe is his history of spouting phrases like “beautiful country” (in reference to Japan) and “escape from the postwar regime,” which have a rightist ring, even if their concrete meaning is not necessarily clear. This sort of language dates back to his first term as prime minister in 2006–7. And in December 2013, just short of a year into his second administration, Abe visited to Yasukuni Shrine, where class A war criminals from World War II are among the enshrined spirits; this was an act that was certainly open to criticism as showing a lack of contrition for Japan’s past aggression and a self-righteous spirit of nationalism. In that sense the attacks on the current Abe administration expressed in the context of concerns that Japan is tilting to the right are not wide of the mark.

The problem is with blanket condemnations of everything the Abe administration is up to as manifesting a rightward tilt—even in the case of policies that are not merely expressions of the prime minister’s nationalistic sentiments or personal preferences. One example is the passage of the state secrets law, which some critics likened to the repressive Public Security Preservation Law enacted in the period before World War II. The introduction of this new legislation was actually the continuation of an initiative pursued by the Democratic Party of Japan before it was voted out of power and Abe launched his second administration in December 2012. And here I would like to discuss another example, namely, the move to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan so as to allow the country to exercise the right of collective self-defense. This is also an issue that predates the current administration. The idea of revising the existing interpretation (under which Japan is deemed to possess the right of collective self-defense but to be forbidden from exercising this right under the Constitution) has been under consideration within the government for many years, and so it is wrong to take it as something that a “nationalistic” Abe has been trying to force through as part of his personal agenda.

  • [2014.07.14]

Professor at the University of Tokyo, specializing in political thought in Japan. Graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1988 and received a doctorate from the same university in 1994. Has held his current position since 2006. Works include Maruyama Masao and the Fate of Liberalism in Twentieth-Century Japan.

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