Nationalism and Aggression in Japan: The US Model
by Ian Werkheiser
May 11, 2004

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The international community was shocked and appalled at the kidnapping of Japanese civilians in Iraq. When they were released by the members of Mujahedin who had been holding them, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, not least Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro who had been suffering in approval ratings during the crisis. Many were surprised then to see the treatment the freed hostages received upon their return at the hands of the Japanese media and their own government, who even went so far as to begin leveling fines against the former hostages to reimburse the state for the trouble it went through. This mistreatment can be understood as part of a larger move toward right-wing nationalism in Japan today.

Military Involvement

Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led government has sent members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Iraq, the first time Japanese troops have been sent as aggressors to a foreign country since the end of World War Two. The only other comparable case was the SDF Navy being sent to aid the US invasion of Afghanistan. That aid and this more direct involvement are a change in foreign policy with dangerous and far-reaching ramifications. Article 9 in the Japanese constitution explicitly forbids military aggression, hence the term “Self-Defense” explicitly in the title of their military. This has long been a source of shame in right-wing nationalistic circles in the country.

To get around this problem, the SDF has been sent ostensibly to aid in the rebuilding of Iraq, though some suspect that the actual aim is to get the troops engaged in combat with Iraqi freedom fighters, forcing the question of what “self-defense” really entails, and whether or not the constitution hamstrings Japan’s sons, a question especially poignant if some of the SDF were to die defending themselves and the country’s honor. Even if this is too cynical, it is clear that sending these soldiers has helped to weaken the pacifism enshrined in the constitution.

This change has not gone unchallenged, however. There is a large peace movement in Japan, and there have been protests over the war generally and Japan’s role in it particularly ever since America began its aggressive posturing. These protests were recently bolstered by the families of the victims, whose pleas for the SDF to pull out of Iraq on behalf of their relatives in captivity were in many major Japanese news sources. The backlash against the victims, then, takes on an air of revenge from the establishment. But there is more to the story than that -- the tide of nationalism has been rising in Japan, despite efforts by peace activists.

Increasing Nationalism

In addition to sending the SDF to Iraq, Koizumi and the LDP have made many other moves to fan the fires of nationalism. Koizumi has made repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial to Japanese war dead, where they are raised to the status of gods for dying for the emperor. Japanese courts have recently ruled that it is a violation of the constitutional separation between religion and state. The case was brought on behalf of many people from all over Asia, including Korean residents in Japan who object to their relatives, who had been drafted against their will to fight for the Japanese, being enshrined in a religion they do not hold. This international disapproval has only made Koizumi’s pledge to continue visiting a further paean to the nationalistic right.

Another flashpoint for the right in Japan has been the now mandatory raising of the Hinomaru, the national flag, and the singing of the Kimigayo, the national anthem in praise of the emperor, at school graduation and commencement. Both of these actions have strong imperial connotations in Japan, and as the Kimigayo speaks of the deified emperor, it goes against many peoples’ religion as well. Yet teachers have been fired, fined, and harassed for any protest of this, even merely refusing to stand or sing while others did so. The teachers must be applauded for their bravery, but the reaction against them by so many is a further indication of the growing eminence of the right.

A New Trend

This skew to the right is new for the country since the reforms instituted, many at US prodding, after World War Two. Though there has always been some strong nationalism in Japan since the end of the war, it has been overwhelmed in most cases by milder voices. One could look back in history to see evidence of this: there was a famous moment when a Japanese writer took hostages and forced members of the SDF to listen to his call to return Japan to its former glory, then committed ritual suicide when he was laughed at by the troops he was addressing, though he remains a hero to the Japanese right. But looking back that far is hardly necessary. Japan today gives more than the US in foreign aid – gross dollars, let alone per capita – and contributes twenty percent of the United Nation’s actual budget, despite not having a seat on the Security Council. Yet from 2003 to 2004 support in Japan for sending troops to Iraq jumped from only about twenty percent to forty-eight. This change in opinion is due in large part to changing media coverage and a different line from many prominent politicians and pundits. One must therefore ask why people in power have made this move.

Economic Underpinnings

The heyday of Japan’s bubble economy is long since over, and despite having a large GDP, they face potentially the worst debt crisis in modern history. Pensions and domestic relief programs are in serious peril, and the idea of permanent job security is no longer the assurance it once was, as loyalty to one company is being rewarded more and more by bankruptcy and layoffs. “Non-Performing Loans” (NPL’s), what would be called bad debts were they loans to individuals rather than extremely powerful corporations, are hanging like a stone around the necks of Japanese banks. Yet during all this, money is being used to help shore up the US dollar, due to demands by the neo-conservative government in Washington, demands that Japan doesn’t think it can afford to ignore with the US acting as their shield against North Korea. Japan also pays for most of the cost of the US bases there, and the US has thwarted any attempts for relations between Japan and North Korea to become more amicable, so the benefit of this shield is dubious, but nevertheless highly valued by the LDP for reasons we shall see.

Little is being done to address this economic disaster. Koizumi’s contentions of reform have yet to manifest in any concrete way and look unlikely to do so. The LDP still contends that Japan must mimic the US and its business practices as closely as possible in order to turn the, as they put it, “stagnation” around. One must question the wisdom of mimicking a country known to be sliding further into debt, but they have little else to offer. Little, that is, but the one thing that can always distract from domestic concerns: aggressive nationalism. Perhaps the LDP is studying the US model closely after all.

The US Model

We here in the US have long heard the call to ignore our lost jobs, cut pensions, and lack of medical care and concentrate on how strong our country is in the international scene – how strong, and how embattled. This is a very effective tactic for several reasons – the fear of being attacked on all sides with destructive force seems to take precedence over not being able to send our children to college in the triage the media forces Americans into performing daily; the scenario also appeals to our desire to help people (bringing democracy to those that need it); but more importantly it appeals to us to invade other countries and defeat the bad guys for the same reason that violence becomes more prevalent in economically troubled times and areas – perceived impotence in our life can be more easily swallowed as we make others even more impotent by asserting our dominance over them.

All this is at work in Japan as well. The desire to, as US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, not sit in the stands anymore but to be a player in the game and support the US after the devastating attack of September 11th; the fear of the North Koreans, and indeed of China, are constantly reinforced in Japan; and the desire to return to a time when Japan was militarily nearly unstoppable, and dictated to its neighbors, is as appealing to some in Japan as an American Empire is to some here.

The danger should not be understated. Japan’s military capability is very high, with technology on par with ours for the very good reason that we have supplied and helped train them, and needing only the will to make the nuclear jump as well. Should their posture become increasingly aggressive, should Koizumi and his ilk decide as their counterparts here did that a war would be the ultimate distraction, the results could be catastrophic.

Peace and social justice movements in the US must stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Japan. Something as simple as a connection across the two cultures can surely help both participants, and there are many struggles in which we can act more directly – from getting the US military bases out of Japan, or at least to stop shifting the burden of their upkeep to the Japanese people, to stopping our government from dictating economic policy which diverts money desperately needed for social programs in Japan to help shore up the US dollar versus the yen. Perhaps most importantly, the Koizumi government exists in the shadow of our own neocon internationalism, both in economics and our mutual policy toward North Korea. Making changes here at home can and will help make change possible abroad.

Ian Werkheiser is a recent graduate of the University of Washington, where he was involved in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.  He will be moving to Japan later this year. He can be reached at: chambara@tsunamisquadron.com.

Select Bibliography

McNeill, David, “Japanese Hostages Return Home to Mauling From the Right,” London Independent, April 28, 2004.

Nobumasa, Tanaka, “The Dead Must Not be Abused: Yasukuni Shrine, the Prime Minister, and the Constitution,” Shukan Kinyobi, February 20, 2004, Translated by Vanessa B. Ward for Japan Focus and reprinted at ZNET: www.zmag.org. 

Dewit, Andrew, “Japan’s Third Way: A Public Intellectual Confronts Japan’s Economic Stagnation,” ZNET: www.zmag.org.

“More Than 150 Teachers to be Punished Over Singing National Anthem,” Japan Today, March 30, 2004.

“Board of Education Reprimands 171 Teachers over Anthem,” Japan Today, April 1, 2004.