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The Resurgence of Japanese Nationalism

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

July 22, 2015

Credit: Riku Kettunen -

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.


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.