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The Global Rightist Turn, Nationalism and Japan

“How does the wall keep us free?

The wall keeps out the enemy

And we build the wall to keep us free

That's why we build the wall

We build the wall to keep us free.”

“Why We Build the Wall”, song by Anaïs Mitchell, from her studio album Hadestown (Brooklyn Recording Studio, New York City, March 2010)

Abstract: This article looks at contemporary Japanese nationalism in the context of growing far-right movements within democratic societies around the world, notably in Europe and North America, and the general rejection of the “happy globalization” narrative that has shaped the international order since the end of the Cold War. Japan, which witnessed the birth of the “borderless world” metaphor in the 1990s, is now contributing in its own way to the early twenty-first century worldwide longing for strong borders and an aggressive military posture. The rise of ultra-conservatism in democratic societies cannot be reduced to a “Western problem”; by taking into account the political transformation of a country such as Japan it is possible to consider a truly global phenomenon with far-reaching consequences.

The Demise of “Happy Globalization”

Walls – old and new, disassembled or reassembled – constitute a pictorial trope of how governments and societies have been making sense of global togetherness since the end of the Cold War. In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall epitomized the idea of the fall of all walls, an idea that was central to a new Weltanschauungwhich was powerful enough to produce an international and transnational rhetoric about a world without borders that would be shared by very different actors, from the global corporation to the global NGO, and across the planet, from Berlin to Washington and Tokyo. It led to a “happy globalization” vision that was all the more emotionally and practically efficient in that it was sustained by a discursive continuity rooted in the West’s engagement with Perestroika and embodied by American president Ronald Reagan’s spectacular injunction declaimed in front of the Berlin Brandenburg Gate, in June 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Echoing its bombastic mood, the German tabloid Bild declared that it was “a speech that changed the world”. If hardly a decisive game changer, it captured the dominant geopolitical spirit of the time. That spirit inspired governments to participate in a renewed agenda of international cooperation and encouraged a rising transnational civil society.

Yet the limits of the globalist consensus quickly emerged and soon after 1989, new “walls” – sometime called “barriers” or “fences” - were being erected: between Israel and the Gaza strip as early as 1994, between Mexico and the United States, following the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and in the wake of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and throughout the Middle East, others soon followed throughout Europe. Thirty years after the Brandenburg speech, the popular narrative of freedom arising from torn down walls has lost its appeal. As depicted in the Anaïs Mitchell song (“Why We Build the Wall”), the idea of freedom seems now to be intrinsically linked to a Three-Little-Pigs-like tale of construction of ever thicker and stronger barricades against a Big Bad Wolf impersonating a myriad of perceived threats, from undocumented workers to would-be terrorists. US president Donald Trump, putative leader of this redefined “free world” entered the inter/national stage presenting himself as a wall-builder, visualizing a new America nestled in a web of real and metaphorical borders.

The pendulum swing from one Republican US president’s discourse to another – from wall-demolisher Reagan to wall-builder Trump – is the most visible, and therefore describable, part of a movement whose depth and complexity are still puzzling most analysts, social scientists and political commentators alike. How can one define Trumpism beyond the outer features of one incessantly gesticulating larger than life character?1 Is it populism, ur-fascism, (neo)nationalism, paleoconservatism? And how is it related to the general far-right movements of societies and governments that this decade has been witnessing, notably in the seemingly well-established democracies, not only in North America, but throughout Europe, Latin America and East Asia?2 Addressing in depth the global dimensions of this issue is beyond the scope of the present article; but looking at the position of Japan in this context is a first step towards the necessary enterprise of connecting the dots of what appear to be similar movements of counter-reaction to the post-Cold War “happy globalization” within OECD countries and beyond. Regional differences, and Japan’s specificity, notably its spearhead role in late twentieth century globalization, have to be taken into account, lest one reduces the present situation to a “Western” problem.3 A Western-centric approach would be particularly paradoxical here as the general counter-reaction to globalization is as “global” as what it is reacting to. However the manifestations of that trend around the world are diverse, highlighting the many-faceted movement that has pushed forward leaders as different – yet by no means unrelated – as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and Abe Shinzō.

Craving for the Nation?

Globalization fatigue is clearly an important vehicle for the rightist movements that have been increasingly visible since the beginning of the new millennium around the world, but other factors are also at play and vary from one region to another. The “anti-establishment” mood that has fed the rise to power of Donald Trump is also present in a number of European countries as well as at the continental level, where it is either directed against national elites or the so-called “Brussels technocrats” (an establishment of its own, whose members are not necessarily part of the national ones). That mood is not absent in East Asia – it accompanied Rodrigo Duterte’s trajectory in particular4 – but it has not been a major component of the development of rightist movements that this region has been witnessing since the early 2000s. At least until the rise and fall of Park Geun-hye, “populism” was not an accurate characterization of South Korean politics: new far-rightist currents were nonetheless developing, notably in the digital public space as illustrated by the growing political influence of the ultra-conservative website Ilbe. Likewise in Japan, it was not an “anti-establishment” impetus that triggered the rightist turn of the new millennium, a political change that saw the establishment of Nippon Kaigi, the Japan Conference5, now the main non-party organization for the promotion of aggressive nationalism and the most influential Japanese political lobby, with deep ties to Prime Minister Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. ...

Read entire article at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus