Japan’s nationalist turn signifies weakness


November 27, 2012

Japan’s nationalist turn signifies weakness

By Joseph Nye

On December 16 Japan will hold an election and if the polls are correct, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will be replaced by Shinzo Abe, the opposition leader and former PM. If so, he would become Japan’s seventh prime minister in the past six years.

Japanese public opinion is shifting to the right and in a more nationalistic direction. Not only has Mr Abe recently visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial second world war memorial, but politicians to his right have formed new parties and staked out nationalistic positions. Shintaro Ishihara, the former Tokyo mayor who helped spur the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, speaks of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. As once did Toru Hasihmoto, the 43 year-old mayor of Osaka and founder of the “restoration association” party.

All this has caused alarm in Beijing. I recently met leaders there as part of a delegation of four former US officials charged with explaining the American position on the Senkaku Islands. I was struck by the way Chinese officials expressed concern about the rise of Japan’s rightwing militarism. They charged that its government’s purchase of the islands from a private owner was designed to undercut the Cairo and Potsdam declarations that were part of the post-second world war settlement.

One should be wary of such alarmism. A Chinese minister told me some years ago never to forget the 1930s, but Japan today is very different from the military-dominated society of the 1930s. While some politicians talk about amending Article 9 of the pacifist constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence, the military is firmly under civilian control. Moreover, a Japan that participates in the anti-piracy coalition off the shores of Somalia or in UN peacekeeping operations is to be welcomed. Polls show that a large majority of Japanese reject the idea of developing nuclear arms and prefer to rely on the US-Japan Security Treaty. As one friend said: “We are interested in conservative nationalism, not militarist nationalism. No one wants to return to the 1930s.”

The real problem is not that Japan is becoming too powerful in international affairs but that it may become too weak and inward-turning. The question is whether Japan wishes to continue to be a great power nation, or if it is content to drift into second-tier status. China has passed Japan as the second-largest economy, and Japan faces a debt to gross domestic product ratio of more than 200 per cent, an ageing population and a declining birth rate. If this means that Japan turns inward to a reactive populist nationalism rather than play an active role on the world stage, the world as well as Japan will be worse off. Japan has much to contribute. It is now the second-largest contributor to the UN and other multilateral institutions; a significant provider of overseas development assistance; and the world’s third-largest economy, with a consumer sector twice the size of China’s.

Japanese politics is showing the signs of two decades of low growth, which has led to fiscal problems and a more insular attitude among the young. Undergraduate enrolment of Japanese students in US universities has fallen by more than 50 per cent since 2000. Japan’s political system is democratic but far from stable. Yoichi Funibashi, the former editor of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, argues that “there’s a sense in Japan that we are unprepared to be a tough, competitive player in this global world.”

Many younger Japanese leaders would like to change this pattern. When I asked about the rightward trend in politics, some young Diet members said they hoped it might produce a realignment among political parties that would lead to greater longevity of prime ministers and more effective government. If a moderate nationalism is harnessed to produce political reform, and the election produces such a realignment, the results could be good for Japan. The danger, however, is that the nationalist mood leads to symbolic and populist positions that win votes at home but antagonise Japan’s neighbours.

China is undergoing its own nationalist resurgence, and the Communist party relies for its legitimacy not on elections but on a combination of high economic growth and nationalism. Hawks benefit. For example, General Liu Yuan argues that China should cast aside restraint, and Major General Luo Yuan urges the dispatch of hundreds of fishing boats to fight a maritime guerrilla war to seize territories claimed by China. Such positions may not be typical, but the danger is that extreme nationalists in China and Japan will feed each other and create a climate that makes it difficult to maintain the prosperity that has been so beneficial to the region and to the world.

The writer is a professor at Harvard and author of ‘The Future of Power’

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