The European Politics Blog

Japanese nationalism was first introduced at the end of the 19th century. During the Meiji period, industrialisation, centralisation, mass education and military conscription resulted in a shift in popular allegiances. The Emperor saw through the transition, where devotion to the state took the place of feudal loyalties.

Nationalism of this time comprised a mix of local and imported political thinking, which eventually grew to a favouring of totalitarian government and overseas expansion during the Taisho and Showa periods. Early nationalists would often demand tempering of Japan’s ‘westernisation’ achieved by placing limits on industrialisation. However, after the First World War, politicians in the West began to disapprove of Japan’s imperial ambitions, restricting military expansion in 1922’s Five Power Naval Limitation Agreement.

When the Japanese army invaded Manchuria, the League of Nations condemned the action, prompting Japan to withdraw its membership; international isolation then give rise to increasing support for nationalism in the country. Nationalism in Japan began to decline post-World War II after Japanese forces surrendered to American forces in a defeat which ended the war. America’s intention at the time was to root out Japanese militarism through essential reforms in the government, society and economic structure.

The country soon faced heavy restriction in military development because of which Japan would turn to the United States for security for many years, especially during the Cold War. In the coming years, economic progress in Japan would downplay the prevailing pre-war militarist nationalism, instead opting for a rather different form of political slogan: prosperity is achievable without the presence of colonies.

Many people in Japan today perceive nationalism to be on the rise. Some lawmakers in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party even seek to alter the constitution, especially “Article 9”, which had largely de-militarised Japan after the war. Shinzo Abe came to power last year backed by his nationalist agenda and promises to amend the pacifist constitution to hand the military with more freedom, take a hard line with North Korea and strengthen the security alliance with United States.

Neighbouring countries are still left wondering after Shinzo Abe’s victory however, just how much he will free Japan from the restraining legacy of the Second World War. It is known that the Prime Minister supports revisionist history textbooks which teach students to take pride in their nation, rather than learn a great deal about accounts of Japanese atrocities and aggression. He has even gone so far as to question whether every Prime Minister must repeat Japan’s standard apology for its wartime actions.

Japan started to show signs of leaving pacifism behind under the leadership of Shinzo Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, when he sent in military support in non-combat roles for US-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite opposition at home. Abe wants to craft a Japan with an expanding naval base, spending more than 1 percent of GDP on defence. This is presently not permitted by the constitution dictated by the US after the Second World War. These sorts of ideas were heretical in post-war Japan but have proved to be popular amongst the Japanese in recent years, as China swiftly developed its military and North Korea began testing missiles and nuclear devices.

Meanwhile, in response to all the nationalist sentiment creating waves in Japan, the American media in particular branded Abe as a risky nationalist, perhaps because of the post-war convention that has often been in display, one of being unilaterally peace-loving. But this would be an incorrect perception of the reality and on-the-ground situation in the country, because nationalism is actually embedded in the very fabric of Japanese society through the prevailing popularity of Marxism, various newspapers and nationalism itself acting as a form of socio-cultural identity.

Nationalism in Japan is well-received in modern times, in spite of decades of pacifism and subdued patriotism. The social strata in Japan nowadays consider nationalism to be more collectively acceptable. The Liberal Democratic party is largely controlled by a nationalist faction and Abe’s eagerness to reassess Japan’s place in the world has won support amongst the conservatives in his party.

Shinzo Abe needs to attempt to repair Japan’s troubled relationships with both China and South Korea first though, which has not improved with time at all. Nationalists in Imperial Japan during the latter half of the 19th century were exasperated by the weak, inward-looking stance of the previous military ruler, a sentiment that echoes amongst their contemporaries today with respect to China’s aspirations for hegemony, since emerging as an economic powerhouse.

Furthermore, although there’s been a growth in the competitive index for Japan’s markets, paving a path out of a decade-long economic slowdown for the country, important domestic issues such as the widening gap between the rich and poor in Japan, which has seen an increase under Koizumi, needs to be addressed as well. Japan has a growing ageing population and much of the fiscal policy in Japan, termed as Abenomics is directed towards building infrastructure rather than increasing welfare spending.

The popular-at-home nationalist point of view for Abe should not stand in the way for regional co-operation, which has thankfully already seen an increse with the latest introduction of idealogies, such as corporate tax cuts, more support for migrant workers and foreign investors – mostly from the country’s largest neighbouring trade hubs, from China to South Korea. Perhaps coupled up with the positive index the stock market has shown because of Abenomics, the nationalist sentiment being projected by Shinzo Abe will reign in patriotism home for Japan too.

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