Japan from the inside out

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, 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?

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23 Responses to “The mirage of Japanese nationalism”

  1. Masaya Kubota said

    This reminds me of both countries’ national anthems. Japanese lefists want to abolish “Kimigayo”. But “La Marseillaise”is much more jingoistic.

  2. Abe calls himself a nationalists in chapter three of utsukushi kuni e. As he calls himself a nationalists, then why shouldn’t others?

    I’ll note though, that in that chapter, he takes time to explain what he means and he defines two types of nationalism, something like:

    Nationalism in the wide (hearted) sense.
    Nationalism in the narrow (minded) sense.

    Maybe he means something like liberal nationalism. I need to go through that chapter again and read it more slowly and carefully, but so long as he is defending some notion of nationalism it’s perfectly appropriate to call him a nationalist. Obviously Abe takes the term serious enough so as to defend it.

    As far as being a hawk, he looks favorably on the war in Iraq. In 2004 he went to the America Enterprise Institute, the de facto headquarters of the neocons, and praised the American soldiers in Iraq and said their deaths were a necessity so that freedom and democracy could be spread throughout the world.

    He said he feels strongly that the Japan-American treaty must not be a paper treaty and so Japan needs to modify its constitution. He endorsed the neocon vision of a new world order. At least he said, that since 9/11 things had changed dramatically and he felt this, among other things, called for a modified constitution of Japan. Basically he tacitly endorsed preemption as a policy, the linchpin of neocon foreign policy.

    As a neocon, Abe is a hawk.

    Perhaps what you really mean to say here is that neoconservatism isn’t so bad?

    If so, I would disagree.

  3. Jason Wray said

    I would take any comparison of nationalism between France and Japan with a grain of salt. Political and cultural climates and mores obviously differ significantly between the two, so while France is almost expected to be arrogant and overly boisterous in their self-promotion, Japan has been apparently rather reluctant to act in a similar fashion. For better or worse, there are different sensitivities (both internationally and otherwise) that would come in to play if Abe were to follow Chirac’s lead, the least of which being on opposite ends of 20th century wars of aggression.

    Your point would be then that international reaction to such a hypothetical (and heretofore uncharacteristic) move on the part of Japan would be out of racism and a basic lack of comprehension when it comes to the realities of “today’s Japan”?

    More generally: While it occasionally piques my interest to read your take on current affairs, the strained insults that you heap on those who hold differing opinions never fails to grate at my nerves. Why not simply let your arguments stand on their own rather than to also feebly attempt to diminish them verbally?

  4. ampontan said

    Masaya: You anticipated me by a day!

    Matt: Neocons are people who used to be liberal. Abe was never liberal. The newspapers are purposely using nationalist in a derogatory sense, in the way that Chirac used the term.

    I quickly reviewed Chapter 3, and saw no place in which Abe calls himself a nationalist outright, though he certainly implies it. But this is the sort of nationalism he talks about:

    “Soccer’s World Cup is the epitome of the direct expression of nationalism, in which people pin their hopes on a sporting event and affirm their country of allegiance and identity.”

    Here’s the point: Abe’s “nationalism” is no different from the default form “nationalism” of most national politicians (or most citizens) in any country. That means there is no particular reason to use the term to describe him. They don’t need to refer to him as a “male”, for the same reason. It is only done to create a negative impression of Abe.

    I do not think that people who believe in pre-emption are hawks. Self-defense is not hawkish.

    Jason: There is no reason for a double standard at all. What makes the media qualified to assume there should be different standards for judging different countries, and then establishing those standards? Why should they have one yardstick for Japan and a different one for France, a country which also has had an Imperial experience, both on the European continent and elsewhere, which has nuclear weapons, and which, since the end of WWII, has engaged in military action in Vietnam, Algeria, and the Cote D’Ivoire (at least). From that perspective, France should be held to a more stringent standard than Japan.

  5. […] Ampontan has reported on the mirage of Japanese nationalism and groupthink in the international media. [Link] […]

  6. Albion said


    I think most people (not only the media) consider Prime Minister Abe to be a “nationalist” largely because of the proposals his government have put out regarding reforms in the education system.

    Among the recent “ideas” being batted around are:

    1. strengthening students’ love of country and/or “local area”

    2. strengthening students sense of “morals” and “norms and standards” (規範,kihan)

    3. related to 2 above, a proposal (just recently scrapped) to bring elementary school students on a week-long “nature trip” during which they would receive instruction on “morals” (this one in particular made many Japanese people I know think of the pre-WWII education system, which apparently had some elements of boot camp — at least that’s what several Japanese people I talked to told me)

    4. besides education, his government recently proposed and then quickly rejected the idea that mothers be encouraged to “sing lullabies to their babies while breastfeeding,” among other things.

    All of the above examples were criticized by the Japanese press and the domestic opposition parties as well as many ordinary Japanese citizens for being “too evasive into people’s private lives.”

    Abe has communicated to the people of Japan that he envisions something like an Eisenhower-era conservative society as his ideal.

    Is it fair to call that “nationalist”? Well, that’s up for debate, though there are certainly elements of nationalism in some of the above.

    It is certainly conservative in the extreme. Especially his apparent desire to control elements of life that are pretty clearly “private.”

    For me, a resident of Japan for over thirty years, that’s a bit troubling.

  7. ampontan said

    “Abe has communicated to the people of Japan that he envisions something like an Eisenhower-era conservative society as his ideal.”

    In his book, he doesn’t mention Eisenhower as a model, but he does cite Churchill.

  8. Albion said


    Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that Mr. Abe himself referred directly to Eisenhower.

    I meant to use the phrase “Eisenhower-era” as an example of the kind of society the Prime Minister seems to have in mind. Or at least seems to be communicating via many of his government’s recent proposals (see my above post).

    Thanks for your comment.

  9. ampontan said

    Albion: That was fast! Another point that occurred to me while I was making a cup of tea–

    When her husband was Governor of Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed that public service films about breast feeding be shown in such places as DMV offices when people were renewing their licenses.

    That’s just as invasive as your lullaby example, but does that make her conservative?

    I don’t think either wing has a monopoly on the invasion of privacy.

  10. bingobangoboy said

    I mostly agree with the spirit of this article, but I think it’s quite natural to think of Abe as “nationalistic” (mainly according to your second definition) by the standards we’ve come to expect from a Japanese PM — he IS nationalistic by those standards, even if in absolute terms, his rhetoric & policies are possibly the least nationalistic of any major industrialized country. I think it’s inappropriate and misleading (ie bad journalism) to use that label in broader context, for the reasons you describe. And it’s a real shame, because one of my most beloved features of Japanese society is its unique *lack* of most of the overt nationalism that irks me in other countries. The casual reader outside Japan will probably not be left with an accurate image of the country. But I can understand one reason Abe keeps getting labeled this way.
    On the other hand, I don’t know what you find inappropriate about the AP (or anyone’s) use of “right-wing” for the named groups; it may be true that they’re “wholly dissimilar” in terms of specific policy, but “right/left wing” aren’t descriptions of policy, but of how a group fits into its contemporary & historical ruling order. “Meaningless”? well, maybe…

  11. yasuyasu said

    I am “a ordinary Japanese citizen”, but support a Prime Minister Abe individual.

    The dilapidation of education is the important social problem that anyone accepts. In the area where a real left-winger owns influence, the dilapidation of a school is outstanding.
    He avoids a leftist evil cooperated excessively by an American occupation policy.
    He is not non-liberal, and it is not a personal suppression debater.
    Will not an ideal method of a liberal have a different thing by circumstances of each country?

    Because Japan does not have resources except a talented person and social order, it may be said that an educational issue is the most important problem. And I think the result to be significant for anyone regardless of inside and outside the country and the politics camp.
    In addition, a true Japanese right-winger is the minority, but criticizes cowardice of Mr.Abe.

  12. […] criticizes English-language media for their “[m]indlessly parroted assumptions based on conventional […]

  13. jost said

    I think the first definition you give for “nationalism” — liberation of one’s peoples under colonial rule — could apply here, to the extent that, under the current Constitution, Japan’s SDF is effectively subservient to the US. Although Abe hasn’t explicitly suggested revising the SOFA, I believe both countries could benefit from a more equal partnership, perhaps something similar to that between the UK and the US.

  14. […] Ampontan has a great post about how the foreign media lazily stereotypes Japanese politicians as “right wing”, or “nationalistic”. Go and read it! […]

  15. […] Webster at Transpacific Triangle, picking up on earlier entries by Anpontan and Observing Japan, asks the question: “Who’s the Bigger Nationalist: Abe or […]

  16. ampontan said

    Jost: That’s an intriguing thought!

  17. Amponton,

    Great post!

    You are right to point out that Japan seems to be held to a much lower level of tolerance when it comes to expressing a love for one’s country; however, I do not see a problem with the AP article, which seems to be using the phrase “nationalistic Abe” to mean “a patriotic Abe.”

    In other countries, Abe’s level of patriotism would probably be considered the required standard for any politician, but maybe in Japan, Abe’s level of patriotism exceeds that of the average Japanese, which may be why AP decided to use “nationalistic” to describe Prime Minister Abe. For example, how would Abe be described in relation to the other Japanese prime ministers over the past couple of decades?

    Yes, the Chinese and Korean governments seem to be trying, very hard, to convince or, at least, suggest to the rest of the world that Prime Minister Abe is an ultra-nationalist with territorial expansion in mind, which is ridiculous, but it may not seem so ridiculous to ignorant Western journalists who do not really understand just how petty and conniving Chinese and Korean leaders, jounalists, and scholars can be when it comes to Japan.

  18. bender said

    I don’t quite see how “nationalist” or “rightist” equates with “patriotism”. The former surely has a negative slant because of historical reasons and others…remember how the word “” was incorporated in the party name NSDAP(or more popularly, Nazi). “Nationalist” or “rightist” suggests selfish devotion for one’s country with total disregard of others…feel free to disagree!

    Interesting how Japan seems to receive strict scruitiny over its political/diplomatic postures whereas most Asian countries seems to be able to be nationalistic as they please. Why do I not see any westeren media covering South Korean nationalism which seems much more extreme than Japan’s and worse, quite ethnocentric?

    France…if a German chancellor made the same kind of speech,I guess there would be an outrage. So maybe Japan and Germany are doomed to be treated forever as inherent criminal nations?

  19. Albion said

    I think the problem many people perceive with Abe’s “nationalism” or “patriotism” (which term is appropirate is a matter of debate, it seems) is that the Abe government (I don’t know if the Prime Minister himself has ever been this explicit) has said clearly that they think the post-WWII emphasis in Japan on “individualism” has had a negative effect on society and that this trend should be reversed with more of the traditional Japanese (read: pre-1945) love of country and community. I’m thinking now of statements the Minister of Education has made.

    I think that the problem with statements like these is that they either imply or explicit state a desire to REPLACE indiviualism either wholly or partially with “love of country.”

    I wish the Abe government were saying things like:

    “While recognizing the advances made by Japanese society as a result of greater recognition of individual rights in law and society, we perceive a need to support efforts to strengthen community bonds and reinforce traditional Japanese customs, such as sharing and empathy for others.”

    As a result of current Abe-government rhetoric, people are liable to conclude that the policy is “country before self.” That may not be what Abe intends, but it sure is the message that comes across.

    Oh, and Ampontan, I never said that liberals don’t try to get involved in people’s private lives. I was simply pointing out that the tendency is most often observed in US conservatives. US liberals certainly do try to meddle in people’s private lives as well from time to time, but certainly to a lesser extent than US conservatives (think of abortion, gay marriage, etc) .

  20. Albion said

    One further note:

    Considering what I just posted above, perhaps the term “reactionary” is most the most appropriate way to describe many of the Abe-government’s statements.

    By “reactionary” I mean: “A reactionary (sometimes: reactionist, or regressive) is someone who seeks to restore conditions to those of a previous era. The political attitude of a reactionary is reactionism or regressivism. Reaction is always presented against something that it opposes.”

    That definition is courtesy of Wikipedia.

  21. ampontan said

    “US liberals certainly do try to meddle in people’s private lives as well from time to time, but certainly to a lesser extent than US conservatives.”

    I would dispute that on several grounds. First, I don’t think the extent is anywhere near as imbalanced as you make it out to be. Second, if someone thinks abortion is murder–and surely you cannot deny that is a carefully considered view by serious people worthy of respect–then it would be difficult to call preventing murder “meddling in people’s lives”.

    But that’s a whole ‘nother country.

  22. Albion said


    I think anyone who advocates “meddling in people’s lives” (though they certainly don’t phrase it that way) does so based on the belief that they are within their moral right to do so.

    They may be wrong.

    That is why debate over the extent to which governments have the right to control people’s behavior will probably never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

    But you are right: “that’s a whole ‘nother country” and I don’t think it would be constructive to get into a debate over abortion in this forum.

    Regarding the “imbalance” between US conservatives and liberals: You may be right about that. That’s an interesting observation.

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments.

  23. Ken said

    Thanks for the post, I think this is worth considering.

    The American Heritage dictionary says that nationalism is:

    1. Devotion to the interests or culture of one’s nation.

    2. The belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals.

    That’s quite interesting, isn’t it? After all, Abe’s on the side pushing to rewrite the Constitution in order to allow collective self-defense. Domestically, he sure seems like a nationalist though…

    And this is why I think what Matt D has been talking about recently is relevant. Abe as the nationalist as home and neocon abroad – I’m still not 100% sold on the latter half, but don’t slam me for that just yet…

    Then, Albion makes a very good point about the role of ‘individualism’ in the current political dialogue, and I think it’s one that hasn’t been talked about as much as it should be. The Minister of Education, and many others (even…shudder…academics) have certainly talked about ‘individualism’ being the cause of what’s ‘wrong’ with Japan today.

    If all this ‘individualism’ is the problem, the opposite must be to then love the country, according to the logic we’re seeing here. I’m just wondering what kind of metrics they’re using to judge the balance of that weight…

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