The mirage of Japanese nationalism
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 19, 2007
SOME YEARS AGO, the Associated Press acquired a taste for using the term “right-wing” as an adjective to modify proper nouns that were rather dissimilar. Over the course of a few months, they applied it to the Soviet Politburo, Henry Kissinger, a faction of the Polish labor union Solidarity, and Newt Gingrich.
But words do mean things, and such a profligate use of “right-wing” to describe wholly unrelated people or institutions debases the term and renders it meaningless. Perhaps that’s why journalists seem to be using it less frequently of late.
In the case of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, however, the AP and other members of the media have discovered and installed a new vocabulary widget. Here it is in action in a recent AP story about Constitutional reform in Japan:
Overhauling the Constitution, written by US occupation forces after World War II to stamp out Japanese militarism, has been a key goal for the nationalistic Abe, who wants to expand the military’s role in the world and bolster patriotism at home.
Once one becomes aware of it, the combination of “nationalist” and “Abe” starts popping up everywhere. Here’s a variation in the Times of London:
Shinzo Abe, the hawkish nationalist, breezed through a parliamentary vote today to become Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War II…
Something called Buzzle.com, which advertises itself as “intelligent life on the web”, had this to say:
Japan will move a step closer to electing its most nationalist leader in decades tomorrow if, as expected, Shinzo Abe succeeds Junichiro Koizumi as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party.
Mindlessly parroted assumptions based on conventional wisdom–i.e., groupthink–are always a fruitful subject for inquiry, and this is no exception. What is it they mean by calling Mr. Abe a “nationalist”? And because they so frequently insist on using that term to describe him, they must think he demonstrates more of those characteristics than other political leaders elsewhere. This naturally leads one to wonder: The prime minister is nationalistic…compared to whom?
There are several definitions for the term nationalism. One is the aspiration for independence by people under colonial rule, and that obviously doesn’t apply here. Another is the love of country and the willingness to sacrifice for it. But this is the default position of most politicians at the national level in every country. If there is nothing exceptional about politicians expressing love for their country and their willingness to sacrifice for it — the fodder of political speeches during every election campaign everywhere — then there is no particular need to describe Mr. Abe this way.
A third definition of nationalism is the belief that one’s culture and beliefs are superior to any other. Is that what they are trying to pin on the prime minister?
I hope not. I’ve never seen a public statement anywhere by Mr. Abe that even remotely suggests that he believes this, and I’ve read his book. He does say he thinks Japanese today have nothing to be ashamed of. He does say that he wants to make the country one in which the Japanese can be confident and proud. He does think that Japanese education should be conducted in such a way as to inculcate a love of country.
But this is all rather commonplace for a political leader. That’s no reason to start burning up column inches with the word “nationalist”. It only creates suspicion that the media is trying to paint a picture of the man as an old-line imperialist with a youthful haircut and good dentistry who wants to brainwash a new generation of Japanese school children into marching again into the jungles of Luzon and dying for the Emperor while establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere V.2.
If that’s what they actually think, it’s a figment of their fevered imagination. Calling Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist” sails even closer to the edge of delusion. The prime minister is working to amend the Japanese Constitution to allow the use of the military for both individual and collective self-defense. That is hardly in the same class as colonizing the Korean Peninsula.
Japan claims the islets of Takeshima, now illegally occupied by South Korea, and four islands near Hokkaido, seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Were Mr. Abe a “hawkish nationalist”, would it not stand to reason that somewhere in his career he would have suggested using military force to reclaim that territory? Yet not a hint of that is to be found in any of his public utterances.
As for Buzzle, the self-styled “intelligent life on the web”, well, comparing yourself to a pygmy doesn’t make you tall. Prime Minister Abe’s ideas about Japan and its place in the world are not significantly different than most of the Liberal-Democratic Party prime ministers—including his immediate predecessor Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who, after all, paid annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine.
But why limit the comparison to other Japanese leaders? Wouldn’t it be more instructive to compare Mr. Abe with other national leaders, particularly a national leader in a democratic country that is a member of the G7?
In March, Jacques Chirac announced to the French people that he was stepping down from office at the end of his term. This blogger, a long-time resident of France, translated into English his speech to the nation. I trust that his translation is close to the original meaning. Here are some excerpts:
* “This evening it is with heartfelt love and pride for France that I appear before you.”
* “My dear compatriots, I love France passionately. I have put all my heart, all my energy, all my strength at her service, at your service. Serving France, serving the cause of peace, that has been the commitment of my life.”
* “France is living up to its responsibilities. France is asserting its position in the world.”
* “I will continue the struggles that have been ours, the struggles that have always been my priorities, for justice, progress, peace, and the greatness of France.”
* “France’s true calling, France’s glorious mission, is unity and solidarity. Yes, our values have meaning!”
* “The second thing I want to say is that you must always believe in yourselves and believe in France.”
* “The fourth thing I want to say is that France is not ‘just another country.’ France has special responsibilities that we have inherited from our history and from universal values that we have helped to forge.”
* “Not for one minute have I stopped working at the service of our magnificent France. This France that I love as much as I love you all. This France rich because of its young people, strong because of its past and its diversity, and hungry for justice and a desire to move forward. This French nation that has not yet finished astonishing the world.”
* “Long live the Republic! Long live France!”
Here’s your comparison: Abe Shinzo has never used such overtly nationalistic language in a public speech in his life. “France’s glorious mission…France is asserting its position…the greatness of France…France has special responsibilities.” Had the prime minister made any one of these statements about Japan, the world’s media would be choking on its collective tongue. And all the journalists and politicians in South Korea would have had to replace their underwear.
You don’t think so? Try replacing “France” with “Japan” in the foregoing and see how it reads. Then end it with three rousing shouts of “Banzai!” instead of Chirac’s “Vive La France!”
Note also that President Chirac said that “France is not ‘just another country'”. Then consider that the third definition of nationalism cited above was the espousal of the superiority of one’s cuture and beliefs.
Do you wonder how many media sources in English have ever described M. Chirac as “nationalist”? I’ll save you the trouble of Googling. Here’s the number of major news outlets that have used “nationalist” or “nationalistic” as an adjective immediately preceding the name “Chirac”:
To be fair, President Chirac also said, “Nationalism has done such damage to our continent and could resurface at any moment.” But that single statement was made in the context of avoiding economic dislocation, and in any event it is effectively nullified by the blatant nationalism of the rest of his speech. One cannot have it both ways, and it is apparent, from sheer volume if nothing else, which way M. Chirac chooses to have it.
Is Prime Minister Abe a “hawkish nationalist” and “its most nationalist leader in decades”?
Or is that just a mirage created by a media too lazy to hide its biases?