December 19, 2012

The New Japanese Nationalism

A once-reserved country fuels itself on indignation and catharsis.

Japan has been apologizing since the summer of 1945; apologizing to its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific and to the United States. Have we, the Japanese, been kowtowing to the point that no nation believes our sincerity? Or do the Asia-Pacific nations demand more of our prostration? The scene is perhaps like an addict needing a more potent drug every passing day: the drug being Japan’s apology, and the addict you could easily guess.

Don’t the Japanese get sick and tired of our same miserable behavior? Yes, we do. Indeed, a proverbial swing has moved a little toward the center, and Japan has become assertive and recently proclaimed ownership for some little rocks sticking out of the water in the Sea of Japan.

  the new japanese nationalism by toshio nishi  
  Illustration by Barbara Kelley

China and South Korea are shocked to see Japan’s unexpected nationalistic, neo-militaristic resurgence. The United States wisely stays out of this potentially volatile shouting match. There is a very good reason for unfriendly bickering. Below the rocks, under the seabed, huge oil and natural gas deposits have been discovered.

MacArthur’s Legacy

Something is going on under the surface of a polite Japanese society that previously enjoyed unprecedented wealth and now is suffering from two decades of recession (but is still without much crime). Granted, the largest earthquake and tsunami in our memory and the four nuclear meltdowns never before experienced in our history have wrecked our daily lives. Yet, on its surface, Japan remains calm and collected. The people’s indignation, however, is heating up within.

Through our recent history, we have learned victory in war lasts only a moment, and the misery of defeat remains for a lifetime. Born in Osaka five days after Pearl Harbor, I grew up in the terrible aftermath of Japan’s first, crushing defeat. Like all other children who survived it, I know hunger and poverty, and the burden of the defeat.

I remember leaving Osaka, the nation’s second largest city, with my mother for the countryside, where she, a wealthy landlord, employed many tenant farmers. The train we took had all its windows painted black to hide from the B-29s, which would rain napalm bombs on everything visible or moving. Our train, with primitive camouflage, crawled through the night. Soon afterward, Osaka was reduced to charcoal. I heard adults whispering that the smoke smelled of biological decay. It was the pungent odor of a dying empire.

A cathartic relief that might have helped the Japanese ease their anguish did not materialize at the cessation of killing. Only emptiness invaded the nation’s hearts. The deep pain of the unconditional surrender was relentless, as was unending hunger. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) assigned Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) to the task of changing a defeated Japan into a peace-loving nation. A starving Japanese people thought the tall, handsome, and charismatic General MacArthur was the missionary of democracy. He told us he was. A fervent evangelist, he tried his best to convert the pagan Japanese to what he proclaimed a higher spirituality. The Japanese Christians, a very small minority in the land of innumerable indigenous gods and deities, welcomed him as the Second Jesus Christ.

My mother lost her productive farms and mountains because MacArthur said that landlords, like her, were feudalistic and responsible for the growth of militarism, and ordered her land—which her family had owned from time immemorial—be confiscated and handed over to the tenants, free. She believed for a long time that MacArthur had to be a Marxist.

During the seven-year occupation, MacArthur wrote the Japanese Constitution, Article 9 of which declares: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Japan has become a shining showcase for U.S. foreign policy, a great success by any standard anywhere in the world. Even so, many Japanese think Article 9 sounds a little too idealistic or embarrassingly suicidal.

Japan’s Loss

I grew up in the middle of a devastated Japan, and was schooled about peace, democracy, and the crime of our nation. But I was thinking about food all the time. Meanwhile, the nation underwent a daily ritual of self-flagellation for its war guilt. Japan, with the slogan of catching up to America, climbed out from the pit of depravation to a height of affluence. The Japanese have considered none but the United States as a nation worthy of emulation. Even now, despite an incomprehensibly long recession, Japan is one of the wealthiest and safest nations in the world.

Though we have a working democracy and spectacular prosperity that we wholeheartedly enjoy, have we traded something priceless that we should have kept at all costs? While pursuing democracy and hard currency, two conspicuous assets that victorious America had told us are most desirable in life, have we not lost something spiritually Japanese, something invisible but discernable like patriotism, like faith and pride in our long unbroken history? For material wealth, have we paid the price of losing our legendary courage, dignity, and self-reliance? Have we forsaken our two-thousand year history as shameful and barbaric just because MacArthur said so at the height of his glory?

We want to stop the clock now—or, at least, to stop floating like a ghost in the sea of perpetual apologies for the Asia-Pacific War of 70 years ago. Eighty percent of Japan’s population of 125 million people was born after 1945 and have no recollection of the war. They feel far less guilt than the victorious nations might expect.

The New Japanese Nationalism

The Asia-Pacific nations of post–World War II are not used to an assertive Japan. In fact, they have never seen one as most of their populations were also born after the war. Indeed, all of the nations in Asia-Pacific have watched Japan behaving like a chicken of the Pacific, and some even called Japan an American puppet.

When Japan claims those little isles Senkaku Shoto that are legally Japanese property, its neighbors will react with ferocity and send out their warships. With perfect timing China, the current engine of the world economy, has launched its first aircraft carrier. Japan has countered by sending its warships from the Self Defense Forces. A stalemate has ensued. No solution is in sight. There is no surprise here, for there has been no solution for the past 67 years. But, besides its desire to secure the vast oil and natural gas and fishing rights in the region, Japan’s open claim signals an undeniable national mood change.

Japan recently held elections for its House of Representatives. The Democratic Party of Japan that was in power until a few weeks ago has wasted its great popularity and failed the country’s expectations for three years. The party operates like a socialist-engineered anarchy that led itself to self-destruction. We watched an expensive spectacle and are left terribly disappointed. The nation’s economy remains still stuck in recession.

The next prime minister will be the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe. Japan’s mass media had routinely called him nationalistic. In Japan, being branded nationalistic was a curse, reminiscent of the war we lost miserably. But Mr. Abe wears a nationalistic mantle with pride and flair.

Mr. Abe will tackle the nation’s most difficult job of reviewing the Constitution for possible rewriting. Yes, Article 9 will openly be debated throughout the nation for the first time in post-war Japan. That debate will stop Japan’s aimless floating in the Sea of Apologies, and compel neighboring nations and international organizations not to take for granted Japan’s generosity.

A few data points tell a big story about American and Japanese generosity to the world. The United Nations has 193 member nations. Each member is expected to donate its membership fee. The UN’s annual budget for 2012 is $2.412 billion. Here are some surprises: (1) The United States pays 22 percent of the UN budget, which amounts to $568.8 million; (2) Japan pays 12.5 percent, which is $296.1 million; and (3) Germany pays 8 percent, $189.5 million.

These three nations together pay 42.5 percent of the UN annual budget. Until 2007, Japan used to contribute 20 percent, but due to the great recession of the past two decades, it could cough up only 12.5 percent in more recent years. To reiterate, the United Nations has 193 members.

Is something wrong here? There seems to be an unequal sharing of the burden. England pays 6.6 percent, or $156 million; France pays 6.1 percent, or $144.7 million; China, a surging mega-economy, pays only 3.1 percent, or $75.4 million; South Korea, another Asian powerhouse, pays 2.2 percent, or $63.4 million; and natural resource super-rich Russia pays a mere 1.6 percent, or $37.9 million.

Japan and Germany, the UN’s second and third top supporters, are not voting members of the UN’s most powerful Security Council, whose permanent members are the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia, each of which have a veto power to decide on war and peace for the entire planet. For Japan and Germany, their contributions to the UN—taxes for world peace—amount to taxation without representation.

Japan’s Article 9 continues to say sorry for the terrible war of 70 years ago. While our apologies over the past seven decades are not pacifying our neighbors’ demands, we Japanese are running out of appropriate vocabulary or behavior. Instead, for the coming violent world, where history will matter less, Japan needs to become capable of defending itself. Japan must build a force, not out of an ambition to launch outward, but rather for self-preservation.

In the increasingly unstable world, Japan views its close economic and defense ties with the United States as the most important link to survival and prosperity. The only doubt the Japanese occasionally express is: would the United States continue to honor its promises with them?


Toshio Nishi is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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