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Japan's Prime Minister is a Far-Right Nationalist

Credit: Wiki Commons.

This article originally appeared in JapanFocus.

In 2010, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) launched a highly successful TV show called The Gruen Transfer. The title refers to the disorienting psychological effects produced on consumers by the architecture of shopping malls, whose dazzle and noise are deliberately designed to mesmerize: on entering, “our eyes glaze over, our jaws slacken... we forget what we came for and become impulse buyers”. The ABC’s Gruen Transfer explored the weird, wonderful and disorienting effects produced by the advertising industry. Its most popular element was a segment called “The Pitch”, in which representatives of two advertising agencies competed to sell the unsellable to the show’s audience - creating gloriously sleek videos to market bottled air, promote the virtues of banning religion, or advocate generous pay raises for politicians.

I have been reminded of The Gruen Transfer in recent months, as sections of the media in Japan, and even internationally, have gone into overdrive to sell an equally challenging message: the message that Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is not a nationalist. This particular pitch has been running for some time. It began with the inception of Abe’s first short-lived prime ministership in 2006, when Japanese Foreign Affairs Deputy Press Secretary Taniguchi Tomohiko devoted considerable energy to persuading a US audience that Abe was “almost the polar opposite” of a nationalist. The right-of-centre Sankei Newspaper took up the challenge with enthusiasm: its Washington correspondent, Komori Yoshihisa, published numerous articles, including an opinion piece in the New York Times, which aimed to refute the “nationalist” tag. Far from being a hawkish nationalist, Komori argued, Abe had “merely been shaped by democracy”, and his real aim was to bring Japan back from the “post-war extreme towards the center.” But these pronouncements had only limited impact on international opinion, and by early 2007 one prominent Japanese marketing consultant was lamenting, in the pages of the Yomiuri newspaper, that the government needed a far more effective foreign media strategy to rescue Abe from the “hawk” and “nationalist” labels.

The issue has resurfaced with renewed vigor since the advent of the second Abe regime in December 2012. In May 2013, a U.S. Congressional Research Service paper describing Abe as a “strong nationalist” evoked a surprisingly querulous response from pro-government media in Japan, and even from Prime Minister Abe himself. Abe hit back with a statement in parliament, expressing his unhappiness that “the ideas of our country” were being misunderstood by foreigners. He went on to call for measures to “actively collect and spread information so that we will be correctly understood.”

The prime minister’s sensitivity to the “nationalist” label seems curious, since he is on record as arguing with considerable passion that there is nothing wrong with nationalism: “nationalism as I think of it is a sense of belonging to the nature, ancestors, family and the local community where one was born and brought up and with which one has become familiar. This sense of belonging is not something that we are told to have, but is completely natural and spontaneous...”; in which case, the label “strong nationalist” should presumably be taken as a compliment.

Georgetown University professor Kevin Doak also claims that Abe has been internationally misunderstood. Rather than denying the Japanese prime minister’s nationalism, though, Doak argues that Abe-style nationalism belongs to a brand distinct from the bad nationalisms of wartime Japan, or (apparently) of other Asian nations. Doak’s argument rests on the distinction between two quite different types of nationalism, “ethnic nationalism” and “civic nationalism”. He associates the first with the Japanese term minzoku -- the equivalent of the German “Volk” -- and the second with the term kokumin -- which simply means “people of the nation,” and can be given a wide range of nuances depending on context (though Doak questionably chooses to translate it as “civic nation”).

“Ethnic nationalism,” writes Doak, “has also been positioned as ‘Asian nationalism’ at least since the 1955 Bandung Conference; in contrast, civic nationalism has from its very beginning in modern Japan and throughout East Asia been seen as the favorite of pro-Western governments, Christian minorities and intellectuals thought to be tainted by Western ways of thinking”. The mistake of outside observers, he tells us, is that they have taken Abe to be an ethnic nationalist, whereas in fact he is “one of the leaders in the current renaissance of civic nationalism in Japan”.

Abe’s identity as a civic nationalist can be demonstrated (says Doak) by a reading of his best-selling book, Towards a Beautiful Country Utsukushii Kuni e: “throughout the book, Abe consistently renders the Japanese nation as kokumin (civic nation) not as minzoku (ethnic nation), a distinction made not only conceptually but also through his description of how democratic nationalism functions in practice.” Doak’s depiction of the civic and democratic Abe is in dramatic contrast to his depiction (in a recent Sankei newspaper interview) of “emotional South Korea”, which (apparently in toto) “links Japan bashing to ethnic pride minzoku puraido.”

This re-labeling of Abe’s nationalism raises several problems. First, it assumes that the phenomenon of nationalism can be neatly separated into an “ethnic” and a “civic” variant, with the second being morally superior to the first. But “the manichean view that there are two kinds of nationalism, a good, civic kind and a bad, ethnic kind” has been very effectively criticized by many scholars, who point out that the notions of race, culture, tradition and citizenship bound up in nationalism are far too complex to be isolated and captured in this easy formula. The identification of ethnic nationalism as “Asian” (or at least “non-Western”) and civic nationalism as “Western” or “pro-Western” has come in for particular criticism. As sociologist David McCrone puts it, the distinction “does lend itself to caricature -- why can’t they be more like us?” History shows that, even in nations seen as exemplars of civic nationalism (such as the U.S. and France), the ethnic undercurrents of nationalism can all too easily surge to the surface, as they did in the U.S. following 9/11.

A second problem is that, in the context of Abe’s political rhetoric, Doak’s distinction between minzoku-based and kokumin-based nationalism simply does not stand up to scrutiny. It is not correct to state (as Doak does) that Abe “directly rejects ethnic nationalism”, or to imply that Abe does not use the term minzoku. Though the word kokumin often appears in Abe’s speeches and writings, he also uses the term minzoku, and indeed uses the two terms interchangeably -- as in: “when people come from foreign countries, surely they get a sense that Japanese are a minzoku, a kokumin, of high quality; they get the impression that even if we are poor, we are a country of culture...” Abe’s vision of a national identity rooted in nature and tradition is evident in statements like: “the Japanese are originally an agricultural minzoku, a minzoku who produced rice by sharing water, so I think that from the beginning we have had a sense of mutual cooperation built into our DNA”; or, more recently, “in the case of Japan, in particular, we are an agricultural minzoku. This is the ‘land of rice.’ We firmly retained the traditions and culture of this Japan. For Japanese to be Japanese, it is necessary that agriculture be the basis of our country.”

This vision is also reflected in Abe’s central role in a range of political groups which proclaim a unique national character grounded in timeless cultural tradition. For example, as of 2012 Abe headed the liaison group of parliamentarians cooperating with the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, a body that aims to restore traditional Japanese spiritual values weakened by postwar prosperity, promote the central place of the imperial house in Japanese life and create a new constitution built on Japanese national character.

A third problem with the “civic nationalist” label is that “civic nationalism” is frequently associated with liberalism, particularly respect for the rights of the individual, and commitment to equality and human rights. If there is one thing that Abe Shinzo definitely is not, that is a liberal in the sense of commitment to human rights. The two books in which he most clearly sets out his political credo both begin with warnings of the dangers of liberalism (indeed, the first is subtitled “The Choice for Anti-Liberalism”). In the U.S., Abe cautions, the term “liberal” has come to refer to people whose ideas are “socialist, or close to it... Revolutionaries and left-wingers are included in this category”. By contrast, Abe firmly identifies himself as a conservative. Though he intermittently expresses his admiration for the British Conservative Party, his conservatism is really in a distinctly Japanese mold. His political hero is his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, a key architect of Japanese economic policy in prewar Manchuria who went on to be a profoundly controversial postwar Japanese prime minister, famous in particular for his very divisive role in ramming ratification of the 1960 Security Treaty with the US through the Japanese parliament.

Abe’s core goal, inherited from Kishi, clearly set out in Towards a Beautiful Country, and echoed in the manifestos of groups like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership, is to “escape from the postwar regime”: that is, to reverse the political reforms introduced to Japan during the allied occupation. In his view, these reforms undermine Japan’s traditions, which are centred on the figure of the Emperor. What Abe’s nationalist vision means in practice is best understood by examining his party’s far-reaching proposals to rewrite the postwar Japanese constitution. The proposed changes include removing the reference to “respect for the individual” and making it constitutionally impossible for foreign permanent residents to be given national or local voting rights. Freedom of expression and freedom of association would not be protected where these “have the purpose of harming the public interest or public order”. The same formula would be used to limit the right of citizens to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The revised constitution prepared by the Liberal Democratic Party contains no guidelines as to how, and by whom, “public interest” and “public order” would be defined, leaving an alarmingly large loophole for the repression of civic freedoms by the state. A new article would also be added to the constitution to give the state sweeping powers to declare prolonged states of emergency, during which constitutional rights could be suspended.22 With the prospect of an LDP super-majority in parliament for the next two to three years, there is a strong likelihood that the ruling party will push forward with an attempt to carry out these changes: changes so profound that they should probably be described, not as plans for constitutional revision, but rather as plans for a new constitution.

The current popularity of the Abe administration in no way reflects public enthusiasm for these grand political designs. It is, instead, a response to the government’s economic stimulus package, and to Abe’s skill in making optimistic statements, which convey a sense of leadership to a population weary of political uncertainty and economic malaise. In the end, the Abe government’s performance should and will be judged, not on any political labels, but on the impact that it has on Japanese society and on Japan’s relations with its region and the world. It is possible that Abe may yet choose to focus on the vital tasks of creating a basis for a strong Japanese economic future and improving relations with Japan’s neighbours, rather than pursuing the ideological agendas of anti-liberalism and “escape from the postwar regime”.

In the meanwhile, though, those who care about the future of Japanese society should not allow the dazzle of verbal juggling to induce a political version of the Gruen Transfer. The prime minister’s ideology may be re-branded for the global market, but the old adage remains: buyer beware.