Is Japan really tilting to the right?

Author: Stephen Robert Nagy, ICU

Japan is coming under increasing scrutiny as the 70th anniversary of World War II approaches and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moves to reform Japan’s defence policy. Recent concerns over hate speech and the right-wing nationalistic rhetoric of revisionist groups like Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), Sakura Channel, and Zaitokukai (The Association of Citizens Against the Special Privileges of the Zainichi — that is, the resident Korean population) have led commentators to conclude that Japanese people are becoming more nationalistic. But is this really the case?

Demonstrators shout while holding banners reading 'No War' during a protest against reforms that would allow Japan to dispatch its Self-Defense Forces overseas, on 26 May 2015. (Photo: AAP)

The views of these groups are out of line with the values of mainstream Japanese citizens. Zaitokukai, for example, advocates that Koreans in Japan should be deported to South or North Korea. These discriminatory attacks by a minority of people are in stark contrast to the available evidence on mainstream Japanese views. The 2014 Survey on National Identity, conducted by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics, suggests that rather than becoming more nationalistic, the Japanese people are actually becoming more open in many respects. For example, the acceptance of international marriage increased from 29 per cent in 1988 to 51 per cent in 2013.

Other surveys by NHK, Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun as well as the Cabinet Office’s latest survey on defence issues also show that Japanese people are not becoming more nationalistic. On the issue of Japan’s defence posture, there is widespread support for constitutional reform that would allow Japan to defend its own territory. But there is very little support for reforms that would allow Japan to dispatch its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) overseas.

Since 2005, Japan has gradually lost its sense of affinity with China. Polls indicate that the major drivers of this change are the territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, criticism over Japan’s handling of its war history and China’s perceived inability to abide by international law and norms. This shift indicates a tendency to juxtapose China’s so-called assertive and unneighbourly behaviour against Japan’s peaceful, modern and democratic self-image. The negative impression of China has reinforced the self-understanding of many Japanese that they are part of a family of nations that believes in ‘modern’ values such as universal human rights, international law and democracy.

In the December 2014 election, although Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the election, all of the right-leaning nationalist parties — including the LDP — suffered considerable electoral setbacks. Most notably the far-right Party for Future Generations lost all but two seats. At the same time, left-leaning parties such as the Democratic Party of Japan, Komeito and Japanese Communist Party increased their number of seats. The results send a clear message that while the public supports Abe’s economic policies, they do not endorse politicians who tie their fortunes to nationalist issues.

Still there is little doubt that Abe is a right-leaning nationalist. He visits the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, sits on a variety of questionable committees — such as the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership Diet Member’s Roundtable (Shintou seiji renmei kokkai giin kondankai), the Liberal Democratic Party Committee for Historical Investigation (Jimintou rekishi kentou iinkai), Diet Members’ Group for Considering Japan’s Future and History Textbooks (Nippon no zento to rekishi kyokasho wo kangaeru giin no kai) among others — and he would like to formally revise the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of the Japanese constitution. But Abe’s nationalist ‘qualifications’ need to be divorced from analyses of Japan’s foreign policy.

Without question Abe has been more active internationally since coming to power in 2012. He has travelled to all the ASEAN member countries and other regions to stress Japan’s willingness to be more involved internationally. He has made security commitments to the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam, and strengthened the US–Japan alliance security cooperation. The LDP has also increased military spending to acquire defence-oriented equipment, surveillance, submarines and drone technology to monitor Japanese territory, as well as amphibious vehicles that would be necessary should a conflict arise over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan has not acquired any weapons designed for power projection.

These actions are proactive but are not aggressive or nationalistic. What we are seeing is an increased commitment to maintaining the status quo, international law and multilateralism. Even the recent discussions to allow for the dispatch of the SDF overseas are articulated through Japan’s commitment to preserving its post-World War II pacifist stance.

Abe, historical revisionist inclinations aside, would like to provide Japan with ‘normal’ security capabilities — that is, not power projection or war capabilities, but the ability to contribute to dealing with global issues. This security posture is not nationalistic. Rather Abe, and many Japanese political leaders, have been trying for the last 30 years to encourage Japan to become a more proactive and cooperative international player. Abe’s constitutional agenda is to shift Japan from being an economic superpower but a political pygmy to an economic superpower and a political partner. Constitutional reform is about strengthening Japan’s ability to defend itself and cooperate with its allies. Abe’s active foreign policy is best described as an investment in the regional and global status quo, rather than as a reflection of his personal nationalistic ambitions.

Criticisms aside, Japan has a free press, transparent rule of law and a democratically elected government. Civil society groups are actively ensuring Japan does not forget its wartime past by remembering the so-called ‘comfort women’, arguing against the revision of Article 9 and promoting an anti-nuclear Japan by preserving the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sheer numbers of Japanese involved in these activities dwarf those in far-right nationalist groups, such as Nippon Kaigi, Sakura Channel and Zaitokukai, not only in number but also in the diversity of their membership.

While nationalism is present in Japan, far-right nationalism and historical revisionism is a peripheral view that does not represent mainstream Japanese society.

Stephen Robert Nagy is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies, International Christian University, Tokyo.

A version of this article was originally published in Japanese here at Diamond Online.

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