Future of Asia, Global HotSpots

The Resurgence of Japanese Nationalism

Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s military choice brings Asia closer to war.

Credit: Riku Kettunen - www.flickr.com


  • Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s military choice brings Asia closer to war.
  • Japan hasn’t been an active Asian let alone global citizen. It has remained closed to its neighbors.
  • Germany is a major market for its neighbors while Japan has not been a regional economic locomotive.
  • Germany has atoned for its atrocities and has reconciled with its neighbors while Japan has not.
  • There are more Asian refugees and immigrants in tiny Belgium than in Japan.
  • The US government should pursue a far more circumspect stance vis-à-vis the rearmament of Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s choice to beef up Japan’s military role, supposedly made to fulfill a commitment to his American ally, is emphatically the wrong choice: It enhances the chances of war.

To see why, let us recall the historical context: Japan was engaged in constant military expeditions and wars against its Asian neighbors from the mid-1870s until 1945. Only seven decades after embarking on that aggressive path was it finally defeated by China and the United States.

To its credit, since 1945 Japan has not been engaged in military conflict with its neighbors or with anyone else. In article nine of the country’s 1947 Constitution, Japan renounces the sovereign right to war and, to that end, undertakes not to maintain land, sea or air forces.

In reality, that latter part of article 9 has been violated since the outbreak of the Cold and Korean wars. For appearance’s sake, however, the troops were referred to as “self-defense” forces. Japan was also protected through the military alliance signed with the United States in 1952.

What has Japan been doing?

Does the fact that Japan has not militarily invaded anyone support Tokyo’s claim that, for the last seven decades, it has been promoting peace and democracy?

Not really. For the last seven decades, Japan has been a rather inward looking nation, not much engaged either with its neighbors or the world beyond in other than purely economic concerns — trade and outward foreign direct investment.

Japan also became a major source of foreign aid. However, as is the case with foreign aid for any country, the donor often benefits at least as much as the recipient, especially in the case of so-called “tied-aid” deals, which are a core feature of aid provided by Japan.

Beyond these purely economic dimensions, Japan cannot claim to have been an active Asian, let alone global, citizen. Indeed, in many ways Japan has remained closed to its neighbors.

It has been a major importer of energy and raw materials from Asia and other resource-rich regions of the world. Other than that, however, its market has been closed to imports of manufactured goods from Asian industrializing economies.

How Japan has differed from Germany

The so-called Asian NIEs (“newly industrialized economies”) were able to achieve export-driven growth by penetrating, and profiting from, American and European markets, not that of their rich neighbor Japan.

This is one of the many differences between Germany and Japan. Germany has been the major market for its European neighbors, including the emerging East European economies. In contrast, Japan has not played the role of regional economic locomotive.

The other major difference between Germany and Japan is that whereas the former has atoned for its atrocities and has reconciled peacefully with its neighbors, Japan has not.

Japanese shores have always been unwelcoming to Asian refugees, from the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s to the Burmese Rohingyas of today. There are more Asian refugees and immigrants in tiny Belgium (population 11.2 million) than in Japan (population 127 million).

The number of Asian immigrants, though possibly rising at present in light of Japan’s aging population, remains small. Very few non-Japanese Asians hold prominent positions in Japanese corporations or institutions, in contrast to the situation in many European countries and the United States.

The roughly one million ethnic Korean inhabitants of Japan, due to discrimination, have had to form their own communities and enterprises. In some cases, notably Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of Softbank, they were strikingly successful – but have still not been assimilated in the mainstream Japanese society.

In addition, violent ultra-rightist anti-Korean gangs operate in Japan, which, as I was able to experience personally recently, can be quite terrifying.

A weak civil society

With regard to humanitarian causes, there are a number of remarkable individual Japanese who have undertaken impressive humanitarian initiatives. An outstanding example is Tatsuya Yoshioka, Co-Founder and Director of Peace Boat – an admirable NGO dedicated to “building a culture of peace around the world.” Peace Boat is not well known abroad, partly because it gets little support from its home country.

Overall, though, the Japanese political culture is not NGO-friendly, whether to domestic or foreign NGOs. Hence, civil society is weak.

The Tokyo claim that causes the most bewilderment globally is the country’s alleged promotion of democracy. Japan is, it is true, a democracy. Before 1945, there was a brief experiment in democracy that failed miserably as the country was taken over by an Emperor worship-based military dictatorship.

It was only the post-war American Occupation that brought Japan democracy. The country represents a very rare case of a successful U.S. democratization initiative.

Two former Japanese colonies, South Korea and Taiwan, have become democracies, not because a democratic regime was imposed by foreign forces, but because of strong domestic social forces from below. Japan played no role in the democratic transitions of Korea and Taiwan.

Indeed, Japan is on very bad terms with its democratic neighbor South Korea and the two countries’ respective heads of government have not met for quite some time now. What a contrast with the ties that bind Germany and France!

Internationalism versus nationalism

The fact that Japan should be redefining its military role raises many questions, especially in light of the means by which the bill was railroaded through the Diet. Polls indicate that two-thirds of the Japanese population is opposed to the bill. There have been demonstrations and petitions.

Fundamentally, the fact that Japan has not been an active Asian citizen would not per se cause grave concern. What is worrying is that this is happening in conjunction with the increasingly strident nationalism and revisionism of the Japanese political leadership.

Although Prime Minister Abe has refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine since 2013 due to intense international pressure, it continues to be regularly visited by other prominent Japanese politicians, including members of Abe’s government.

In the Yasukuni Shrine repose the spirits of 14 Class A war criminals, including Iwane Matsui, the officer responsible for the Nanjing Massacre that killed an estimated 200,000 civilians.

This is as if, in Germany, members of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party visited and paid homage to the tombs of the Waffen SS. This act is a cruel provocation vis-à-vis Japan’s neighbors and erstwhile victims and thereby a major reason why there is no peace in Asia Pacific.

Over half of Abe’s Cabinet, including Abe himself, along with some 150 MPs from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), are members of a powerful ultra-nationalist lobby known as Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference). Far from promoting democracy, it insists that the American Occupation and the Constitution emasculated Japan.

That is the domestic political context in Japan that makes advocating re-arming Japan so troublesome. This same group praises the invasions, massacres and rapes of its East Asian neighbors as wars of liberation.

Restoring the Emperor to his prewar divine position and cleansing the minds of students sullied by left-wing teachers, etc., are among its other causes. So much for promoting peace and democracy!

Human rights violations

The most heinous aspect of contemporary Japanese revisionism is the denial of the plight of the Korean — (and other) sex slaves (known euphemistically in Japanese as “ianfu,” meaning comfort women) — forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during the war.

Japanese revisionists deny their existence — or, worse, claim they were just common whores. Their efforts contravene the historical record. As a group of Japanese historical associations has stated in a recent declaration, “the existence of forcibly recruited ‘comfort women’ has been verified by many historical records and research” and “those who were made comfort women fell victim to unspeakable violence as sex slaves.”

If Japanese parliamentarians ceased paying visits to Yasukuni, if Nippon Kaigi were dissolved, if Prime Minister Abe were to go to Seoul and bow before the memorial erected in honor of the Ianfu, there would be far less concern about Japan’s increased military role.

However, given the unrelenting chauvinism that pervades Japan’s political establishment, it is no wonder that in East Asia there is serious concern about the resurgence of Japanese militarism — and hence the prospect of war in Asia.

Rather than being a de facto propellant of strident Japanese nationalism à la Abe, the U.S. government would be well advised to pursue a far more circumspect stance vis-à-vis the rearmament of Japan.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is also the co-author of “Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland] Follow him @jp_lehmann

Responses to “The Resurgence of Japanese Nationalism”

Archived Comments.

  1. On July 23, 2015 at 6:37 am Mike Lee responded with... #

    I agree with everything you have said above – just one question: what about China’s occupation/development of islands in the South China sea which has raised serious concerns among neighbouring countries, especially the Philippines?
    Would like your take on this…

  2. On July 23, 2015 at 8:41 am Guy Pfeffermann responded with... #

    JP: your piece is convincing. One of the most significant differences between Germany and Japan, as Ian Buruma pointed out, was régime change in the former, but not in the latter, as the Emperor remained in place. Regime change (and vigorous de-nazification under Lucius Clay) de-legitimized neo-Nazis. The other thing that comes to my mind reading your article is that unfortunately, in spite of China’s economic success, its narrative is still that of a victim, looking for some form of satisfaction from its former enemies. That makes the Abe line more dangerous.

  3. On July 23, 2015 at 10:09 am Jean-Pierre Lehmann responded with... #

    Thanks, Guy. I agree with your points including what you say about China. While much has been achieved, there is still considerable political turbulence and historical reckonings that are going to have to be faced by China some day. In the meantime, there is truth to the claim that Japan’s remorselessness is a convenient scape-goat

  4. On July 23, 2015 at 9:17 am Jean-Pierre Lehmann responded with... #

    Thanks, Mike. I read with tremendous interest and respect the extremely well-researched and well-written book by Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: the Struggle for Power in Asia. It is immensely complex and a cauldron. Besides I am not sure anyone really knows who in China is making SCS policy. Beijing may be seeing the issue more as a contest with the US than with the regional countries, eg Philippines and Vietnam. Rising powers make waves! I have a piece in today’s Straits Times that partly addresses that. http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/chinas-historic-quest-for-a-peaceful-rise

  5. On July 23, 2015 at 11:14 am haavbline responded with... #

    An excellent review of what Japan has really been about after WWII.

    The combination of a ‘democracy’ imposed upon them by the Americans and a still very weak civil society after 70 years is a very important point many observers failed to understand.

  6. On July 23, 2015 at 11:22 am haavbline responded with... #

    Vietnam grabbed the most number of islands in the SCS and the Philippines is next. In fact, Vietnam grabbed some islands from the Philippines only a couple of decades ago. I’ll bet you know nothing about all these.

  7. On July 23, 2015 at 4:59 pm WINTHROP allen responded with... #

    Is it preferable to condemn Japan’s military initiatives or stand back for the time being and watch where they’re going?

  8. On July 23, 2015 at 7:34 pm fanshi responded with... #

    Your post does not make sense. Why single out China? China-hatred? Which “former” enemies? In terms of victimization rhetoric, Korea far surpasses China although China suffered much more in the hands of imperialist Japan. And Korea’s economic success obviously starker than China’s. So, perhaps Korean should stop burning and beheading Abe’s effigies on streets because now they are richer? You should guise your China-hatred more eloquently since your logic is one of a subhuman.

  9. On July 23, 2015 at 7:49 pm fanshi responded with... #

    Well, about China’s island development and genesis program, it is simply “responding in kind.” Guess what, Vietnam and The Philippines occupy much more islands in the SCS than China. These two started building and reclaiming islands way earlier than China. These two had air strips, ports, and other military structures (heck, even Taiwan and Malaysia) on the occupied and artificially enlarged islands way before China started its own island genesis and development scheme.

    Hence, there is little serious concern except the concern by Pinoys and Viets. ASEAN, for that reason, has never unanimously called on China to stop reclamation. China is just getting by very well most of its ASEAN neighbors.

    Another point, if you are able to see your dense anti-intellectual China hatred, you will see that everybody has some beef with everybody else in SCS. So everybody is concerned about their neighbor. In fact, to be concerned about stuff is countries’ business. Indonesia blows up Vietnamese fishing boats on daily basis. Pinoys just recently killed an unarmed Taiwanese elderly fisherman on their so called EEZ. Pinoys are still claiming the Viets as imperialists because of the rocks they occupied by force in 1974. Sub Mekong region hate Vietnam and see them as bloody imperialists.

    Why single out China?

    China has been been extremely cautious and always proposed joint exploration and development. There is territorial dispute, for sure, but a dispute is a two-way street. China advises bilateral solution and opposes multi-lateralization. By inviting outsiders into the conflict, Viets and Pinoys are doing a disservice to their argument. Guess what, before the Pinoys launched the so-called arbitration, they had the second largest island holder with Vietnam being the largest. In less than two years, however, China achieved a land area more than all the rest combined, although, in Spratlyes, China held a mere seven reefs. And China is building ports, air strips, communication stations, radars and whole lot of modern tech to ensure freedom of navigation, disaster response and relief and scientific research.

    China is a late comer and is just warming up, If this is going to deepen “your” concerns. It will continue with its belated island genesis program. If Japan and the US push further, the next step will be declaring an ADIZ over the SCS.

  10. On July 24, 2015 at 7:53 am Mike Lee responded with... #

    I don’t know where you come with your ” dense anti-intellectual China hatred”? I merely expressed concern about the activities of the Chinese in that area. I wouldn’t exactly call their activities in the Spratly Islands (Wikipedia does not recognise your spelling!) anything not to be concerned about, which was reported on at length in Forbes magazine recently. They are nowhere near mainland China by the way..
    China is a one party state just “starting to warm up” as you so succinctly put it – desperately in need of mineral resources and obviously not shy of putting military assets in place to deter would be objectors!
    We should be concerned – that is people who are fortunate to live in a world where human rights are taken very seriously…
    That’s about as much as I intend to say on this subject.

  11. On July 24, 2015 at 10:48 am Guy Pfeffermann responded with... #

    Perhaps the commentator is employed as underpaid government troller in Beijing…

  12. On July 24, 2015 at 10:49 am Guy Pfeffermann responded with... #

    I think you are probably right. China is playing chess games with the US.

  13. On July 26, 2015 at 12:36 pm Liars N. Fools responded with... #

    I saw this piece reprinted in the Japan Times, and thought I would comment also directly at the source.

    At that site my comment is: What bull. Abe Shinzo is a revisionist and nationalist, but Japan is not and does not have the potential of becoming an expansionist aggressive power as it was starting in the late nineteenth century until the 1940s.

    To elaborate, a unique set of circumstances created the basis for Imperialist Japanese aggression starting in the Meiji period. They included the overweening influence of militarist cliques that would tolerate the assassination of two Prime Ministers (and a failed attempt of another) and the insubordination of military commands to stop advances in Manchuria and China (and a completely eviscerated civilian government which lacked the power to bring the military back under control). This was coupled with an ideology of State Shintoism which assigned Imperial Japan with a divine mission to advance Japan’s protection of all East Asians from Western Imperialism, even if those nations did not ask for the help.

    Fast forward. This imperial aggression brought about the complete defeat of Japan, with massive destruction. Some of that is notable even today. There are parts of Japan which are clearly known as once devastated areas, and the memorials, particularly in Hiroshima, testify to the price Japanese paid. With a few exceptions, no members of the Japanese military (self-defense force) advocate the restoration of militarist-dominated political regime. The Japanese do not need to re-arm much because in particular the naval and air forces are quite capable. None are crying out that they were sold out in the war, and none are crying out for revenge. The Treaty of San Francisco was a “soft peace” and not the Treaty of Versailles (which you Europeans imposed).

    I do not like Abe Shinzo nor Nippon Kaigi nor Aso nor Shimomura nor any of the right wing revisionists in the government or ruling party. But they are not going to lead Japanese to war because there are few Japanese who want to be led to war.

    I have spent many decades in East Asia, not a few years in Japan, and the mythology of a restoration of the militarist thinking of Meiji, Taisho, and Showa Japan is just that — a mythology, no matter how hard Abe Shinzo attempts to restore the honor of Imperial Japan and build a “beautiful country” free from “masochistic history.”

  14. On July 27, 2015 at 8:32 pm sambiman responded with... #

    The great contradiction in Japanese politics is that although the American postwar occupation initially helped create a more open political system, it later undercut the Japanese left and supported the right, specifically the LDP, via hidden CIA money. Tim Weiner detailed it in his book on the CIA and historian John Dower has written about this as well. The result is an inept political opposition, only once having held power in half a century, and a PM who’s following his grandfather’s path in trying to make it easier for Japan to once again become involved in military adventures.

  15. On July 28, 2015 at 9:45 am Monjiro Kogarashi responded with... #

    With all due respect, Mr. Lehmann seems misinformed about the history of Japan. In the interests of a balanced view, let me point out some crucial misunderstandings which prevail in English-speaking media.

    First, Mr. Lehmann claims that the postwar American Occupation brought Japan democracy. It did not. Japan had democracy before the war.

    Non-Japanese tend to think that democracy in Japan was created by the United States after the war. In his last book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny” published in 2010, American writer William Pfaff describes prewar Japan as follows: “After the Second World War the United States had ‘made’ Germany and Japan into democracies. Both of those nations in the past were constitutional monarchies, with parliaments,
    sophisticated administrative institutions, advanced legal systems and courts, and national political parties. They had little need of instruction in representative institutions.” 

    If Japan’s democracy had been cosmetic, we would have never been able to drive away the Democratic Party of Japan, which is pro-Beijing and anti-American, out of power three years ago through a general election.

    In addition, if Japan’s “human rights violations” of 70 years ago really matters for him,
    why in the world Mr. Lehmann can be shamefully silent on what’s going on in East Asia right now. There can be absolutely no double standard here.

    The facts speak for themselves. Let’s face it: According to “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression” by French historian Stéphane Courtois, published in 1997, after the WWⅡ more than 65 million Chinese have been killed under the Communist China, and over 2 million Koreans killed in North Korea. Humanitarian abuses are happening at this very moment in Tibet, in East Turkistan, and in Southern Mongolia. A good portion of people in several countries, presumably including one American named David Sneddon, have been abducted by North Korea. Chinese naval forces invade territorial waters of Vietnam, Philippine, and Japan. Beijing cracks down on the democratic movement in Hongkong. Seoul gives in to the domestic anti-Japan and pro-Pyongyang juggernaut, at the expense of universal values like the rule of law or freedom of speech.

    Behind the facade of modern developed nation, you see almost everything is at
    the mercy of the current rulers in these countries. By contrast, the rule of law in Japan looks like a miracle in East Asian history.

    In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln described the United States as “the last best hope of earth”. In 2015 Prime Minister Sinzo Abe has now urged in the U.S. Congress, “let us call the U.S.-Japan alliance, an alliance of hope. Let the two of us, America and Japan, join our hands together and do our best to make the world a better, a much better, place to live.”

    I would say that the alliance between Japan and the United States is the last best hope of East Asia.