The shadow of nationalism has haunted Japan for decades. With an ideology of supremacy in ascendancy during the 1930s, the island waged wars of conquest across Asia during WWII that rivalled Nazi atrocities on the Western front in their savagery and brutality. More than half a century later, and flickers of this sentiment are again growing in strength. The Prime Minister defiantly pays respect to war criminals as the public turn increasingly against the country’s neighbours. Questions are thus posed as to why this is happening, if we shall see Japan’s future generations lost to nationalist fervour; and, if so, what this will mean for the world.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s far-right sentiments are well publicised. Symbolically his veneration of the Yasukuni Shrine, where the names of convicted war criminals are inscribed, in defiance of China and South Korea’s outrage, was a display of extreme national pride; and more pragmatically, he has moved to increase the country’s military freedom and capability. Only a few months ago he approved Japan’s largest ever military spending budget ($42bn) and enacted legal changes that allowed Japanese military to fight overseas for the first time since WWII; in spite of opposition from more than half of the nation’s citizens. Furthermore, at the close of 2014 he allocated 15 out of 19 positions in his new cabinet to members of the reclusive and hardline ‘‘Nippon Kaigi’’ group. This organisation aims to re-organise educational policies, and their beliefs include the idea that Japan’s invasion of surrounding territories during WWII was something to be applauded; and that many of the atrocities Japan committed, such as the infamous ‘‘Rape of Nanking’’ in China, have been exaggerated or even fabricated altogether. The latter assertion is arguably analogous to Holocaust denial. Such sentiments are fiercely prohibited in Germany, yet in Japan government cabinet members who hold them are actively selected for office. One of Abe’s senior educational advisors, Ayaka Sono, openly praised the apartheid system of 1970s South Africa, saying different races couldn’t live together and that any immigrants allowed into the country should be segregated from the populace. The response from the PM to this lunacy? To say that Japan would implement a ‘fair’ immigration policy, the details of which he chose not to divulge. Japan has always been a nation with a strong ethnic and cultural identity, sceptical of immigration; but Abe’s appointments have certainly intensified the startling xenophobia and staunch nationalism of its government.
More worryingly still, far-right sentiment is not restricted to Abe and his cabal of ideologues. Many of the Japanese public might not have heard of Nippon Kaigi when voting for Abe, but did gift over 11% of the popular vote to the newly formed ‘‘Japan Restoration Party’’ in 2012, which stood to the right of even the ruling party; and in a gubernatorial election in Tokyo last year showed high levels of support for Toshio Tamogami, an ex-army officer with a penchant for hosting xenophobic rallies. The effects are clear in broader society: a film glorifying the life of a WWII kamikaze pilot topped the box office last year, books targeted at denigrating Japan’s neighbours have popped up in shops around the country; and xenophobic protesters march through the streets. At one Tokyo rally, protesters shouted: ‘‘Koreans are parasites, cockroaches…clear [the town] make it a gas chamber. Get Koreans into the gas chambers!’’ Echoes of Rwanda and the Third Reich are frighteningly patent, and the legal clout of the state is at best complicit and at worst inflammatory in its treatment of the situation. Police hem in and arrest the anti-racist protesters, not the racist ones; and laws prohibiting ethnic discrimination only apply if abuse is directed at a particular person, as opposed to at a group or a township. Even the long overdue government move to permit the naturalisation of the Zainichi Korean minority in Japan, largely the fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Korean workers forcibly imported into the country during its colonial period, has been effected contentiously. Zainichi are required to replace their Korean names with Japanese ones and act in a Japanese way to be permitted citizenship; actively encouraging and institutionalising cultural intolerance on a judicial level.
The most extreme examples aside, xenophobia is increasing in the general populace: 81% of Japan’s citizens still feel unfriendly towards China. This is the highest level recorded, up 59% from four years ago and 40% from 20 years ago; anti-Korean sentiment has skyrocketed too. Japan has always been a conservative nation when attitudes to ethnicity are in play, but there has nevertheless been a recent upsurge in racialised suspicion and hatred. Frighteningly enough, this is not a phenomenon restricted to the elderly. Almost a quarter of those voting for the extremist ex-officer Tamogami were in their 20s; more people in their 30s supported Shinzo Abe’s shrine visit than any other demographic; and the readership of the fiercely nationalistic magazine ‘‘Will’’ that rails against Korea, China and the US, has grown from almost exclusively men over the age of 50 to include huge numbers of men and women in their 20s and 30s. These are people who will be active voters for decades to come, and will be soon raising, and educating, children to think in the same manner that they do.
The reasons behind such a complex trend are of course difficult to navigate, but we can tentatively tease out some likely factors. The rhetoric and campaigning of Abe and his government, although partly dependent on public sympathy, have also helped to cultivate far-right sentiment by appealing to people’s sense of national pride and identity. The subsequent backlash and criticism of Japan by China and Korea only intensify matters, as they cast these countries as the nation’s antagonists and enemies. Indeed, of the 40% of the population who hardened in disposition towards Korea during 2014, a significant proportion linked it to deteriorating relations between the two countries at large. In addition, it is well known that economic difficulty and extremist attitudes form an unholy and fecund pairing, and this may indeed be a factor here as well. While Japan is far from the financial ruin that catalysed its extremist ideology in the 1930s, it is certainly in a period of stagnation, in stark contrast to its neighbours, potentially provoking further antagonism. Indeed, books postulating that China’s economic system will fail, or that Korean Samsung’s success will soon unravel, have become hugely popular of late.
One cannot, of course, over-generalise. For each protest against foreign workers taking place, there are heroes like Tadamasa Iwai, an ex-kamikaze operative in WWII, who has dedicated his life in old age to educating young people about the dangers of war and nationalism. When Sono took to glorify the apartheid regime, online commentators reacted with fury, and when the population was asked if they supported immigration into Japan in the future a third said yes. However, we equally cannot deny that nationalism and xenophobia are prevalent in Japanese government and society and are on the increase. The future effects of this remain to be seen. Analysts point out that Japan’s public has swung in and out of nationalist sentiment before in the 80s and 90s when, just as today, Japan’s economy was turbulent: stagnating after the post-war boom years, and undergoing a traumatic stock market crash in 1990-1. As such, we might posit that further action is required here to make this trend truly a long-term one. Given that the longevity of Japanese nationalism depends on attitudes of younger generations, radical changes to the education system could have a profound impact. Abe has brought into power lots of individuals who want to change Japan’s curriculum and textbooks, and has even expressed interest himself. Chillingly enough, this process is already underway: the ‘‘Rape of Nanking’’, one of Japan’s worst war crimes, has already been stripped out of some textbooks; the abduction of comfort women in WWII to service Japanese brothels has been rephrased as persuasion; and Japan’s claims to contested territories in the Pacific Ocean is increasingly emphasised. Excessively nationalistic sentiments like this skirt over of the inconvenient truths of the nation that chequer Japan’s history, and a widescale proliferation of this behaviour is extremely dangerous. The marginalisation of self-reflection and criticism runs the risk of fostering blind, unthinking patriotism and condoning the exceedingly dangerous perception that one’s country is superior to others, and hence that one’s people are superior to others.
Such an eventuality would, of course, require future governments to maintain the changes, and would outrage the island’s neighbours. Abe has shown already that the latter does not concern him, and, as for the former requirement, it is too hard to say for certain, but given the high level of public support for Abe and his extremist vision, especially among the young; it does seem at least a possibility for the near future. The results of such continually burgeoning nationalism would be disastrous. Racism towards foreigners in the country would only intensify; the immigration vitally required to support Japan’s ageing economy would be cut; and, however unlikely, there is always the chance of war over the mutually contested territories lying between the island and its neighbours.
Thus, while the situation is far too early to call, the stakes are incredibly high. If, and it is a big if, the shift to the right wing becomes a stable and long-term trend, then we risk seeing future generations thoroughly consumed by radical thought and the blood-soaked ideology of nationalism.