Is Japan Moving to the Right?

The Illusion of “Rising Nationalism”: Internationalism and Xenophobia in Today’s Japan

Politics Society

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.

The Principle of International Cooperation and the Issue of Collective Self-Defense

If we look back at the history of postwar thought, we find that even at the time the current Constitution was adopted, some took the position that the right of collective self-defense was in keeping with the principle of international cooperation set forth in the document. A good expression of this view is seen in the speech delivered by Nanbara Shigeru (1889–1974), a political philosopher, in the House of Peers on August 27, 1946, questioning the government about the draft of the new Constitution. Nanbara (also spelled Nambara) was an intellectual who espoused pacifism grounded in Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”; he is famous for his enthusiastic advocacy of East-West coexistence and neutrality for Japan during the Cold War years.

In his speech, Nanbara expressed doubt about the renunciation of “war potential” set forth in Article 9. His first concern was that this provision would negate the Japanese state’s right of self-defense. But as a more important consideration, he asserted that Japan must take part in collective security activities in order to implement the principle of international cooperation contained in the preamble to the Constitution, which declares, “We believe that no nation is responsible to itself alone.” Nanbara pressed the question of what Japan would do in this connection if it became a member of the United Nations:

“The members of the United Nations have the obligation to contribute their military potential to its military organization. I want to ask if we are proposing to renounce this obligation as well as these rights [of self-defense] if Japan becomes a member of the United Nations in the future. Is there not a danger that Japan will sink into an Oriental spirit of resignation, seeking to survive by relying perpetually on the good will and faith of other nations? Will this not mean abandoning the positive ideal of cooperative contribution to the establishment of world peace through the voluntary mutual sacrifice of blood and sweat in order to protect freedom and justice for humankind?” (The original Japanese version is contained in Nanbara Shigeru chosaku shū [Collected Works of Nanbara Shigeru] [Iwanami Shoten, 1973].)

Needless to say, Nanbara’s remarks were premised on the view that the UN Security Council would function properly and that the United Nations would establish its own armed forces. So his position does not apply precisely to the current discussion of collective self-defense. And his idea that Article 9 of the new Constitution would totally negate Japan’s right of self-defense is quite different from the currently accepted interpretation.

If, however, one takes the principle of international cooperation expressed in the preamble as the starting point when reading Article 9, then one cannot interpret it to allow individual self-defense without allowing collective self-defense. Such an interpretation is inconsistent, and it casts aside the “positive ideal” set forth in the Constitution. Nanbara’s questions deliver this message to us across the years. They leave no room for arguments that the right of individual self-defense may be exercised but the right of collective self-defense is not allowed, or that Japan possesses the latter right but may not exercise it.

A more recent example of a relevant argument on this issue comes from Murase Shin’ya in the essay titled “Anzen hoshō ni kansuru kokusaihō to Nihonhō” (International Law and Japanese Law Relating to Security), contained in his book Kokusaihō Ronshū (Collected Articles on International Law [Shinzansha, 2012]). Murase argues that now, given the development of various forms of collective defense arrangements in lieu of UN armed forces, along with the advance of UN peacekeeping operations, the exercise of the right of collective self-defense based on policy decisions should be permitted, with certain limitations. And Hosoya Yuichi, drawing on earlier research, has brought to light the fact that the government’s current interpretation of the Constitution to forbid exercising the right of collective self-defense emerged as the product of bartering between the ruling and opposition parties in the Diet during the 1960s (“Shūdanteki jieiken o meguru sengo seiji” [Postwar Politics Concerning the Right of Collective Self-Defense), IIPS Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2 [April 2014]).

Of course, opinions may differ with respect to the relationship between the explicit provisions of Article 9 and the rights of individual and collective self-defense. But the idea of allowing the exercise of the right of collective self-defense is not the product of the “nationalism” of Prime Minister Abe as an individual. On the contrary, it seems to me that this endeavor may be seen as a continuation of the unbroken, albeit slender, current of thought dating back to Nanbara—an attempt to reconcile Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution with the positive ideal of becoming actively involved in the international community’s efforts to maintain peace.

Restraining the Rise of Crude Nationalism

Though I believe the print media is overstating the danger of rising nationalism or a tilt to the right under the current Abe administration, we cannot ignore the existence of a xenophobic movement within Japanese society, as seen in the spread of anti-Chinese and anti-Korean publications and of hate speech. Higuchi Naoto offers valuable observations on this issue in his recent book Nihongata haigaishugi (Japanese-Style Xenophobia [University of Nagoya Press, 2014]). He notes that the hate speech spewed on the streets and the xenophobic sentiments expressed in online forums are mainly directed at Japan’s ethnic Koreans, whom some Japanese equate with North and South Korea. And as an underlying factor, he identifies the persistent lack of stability in Japan’s relations with its East Asian neighbors, which can be attributed to the Japanese government’s ongoing failure to clarify Japan’s responsibility for its past colonization and belligerence.

It is certainly not true that the Japanese government and people have been avoiding responsibility for the past. For example, in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi issued a statement apologizing for Japan’s past colonization and aggression. This statement was in the form of a cabinet decision, and subsequent administrations have continued to adhere to it. And there have been initiatives to address the issue of the “comfort women,” notably the activities of the Asian Women’s Fund. At the same time, however, it is a fact that nationalistic media and websites continue to present many comments that sneeringly reject straightforward acknowledgement of the transgressions committed by the Japanese state over the course of its modern history.

The developments that are said to represent rising nationalism under Prime Minister Abe, particularly the emergence of hate speech and the move to allow the exercise of collective self-defense, relate to the issue of how Japan intends to involve itself in the international community—how it can build cooperative ties with other nations while clarifying its stance regarding its own past. Both the government and the public should strive to turn the discussion of Japan’s alleged rightward tilt into an opportunity to address this issue seriously, while restraining the rise of crude nationalism.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 1, 2014. Title photo: Members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are welcomed by residents of Cebu Island in the Philippines as they participate in post-typhoon medical relief efforts, November 2013. Photo by Jiji Press.)

▼Further reading
Bringing “Internationalism” Back
(Hosoya Yuichi)
d00108_thumbThe Turnabout of Japan’s Security Policy: Toward “Proactive Pacifism”
(Kitaoka Shin’ichi)

China Abe Shinzō nationalism Nakasone Yasuhiro PKO Korea collective self-defense Murayama Tomiichi Article 9 Yasukuni Shrine comfort women Rightist xenophobia hate speech state secrets law Japan Constitution political thought Nanbara Shigeru wartime responsibility ethnic Koreans foreign residents