Jacob Heilbrunn

Japan and the Rebirth of Nationalism

The surprising thing is not that Japan is trying to revive patriotism. It is that it did not happen sooner. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine last Thursday, a place of worship that also pays respect to World War II war criminals, or at least those dubbed criminals once the war ended. For nationalists in Japan have never really conceded that Tokyo did anything wrong before or during the war. 

Quite the contrary. Visit Hiroshima or just about any Japanese museum and you will be hard-pressed to find much, if any, mention of Japan's wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The nationalists, a number of whom are professors, cannot bring themselves to admit that their intellectual ancestors embarked upon a ruinous path in the attempt to create a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. Instead, Japan emerges as a power that was simply trying to defend its own interests. The atomic bombs, it seems, were dropped out of nowhere on a defenseless Japan. The one thing both the Japanese left and right can agree upon is that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was a bad thing. 

But the nationalists also bridle at the moral guilt that outsiders have tried to affix to Japan, whether it is the 1937 invasion of Nanking, which they argue has been falsely turned into a genocidal act, or the use of so-called "comfort women" in Korea. Japan, they suggest, was acting like any ordinary power. There was nothing unusuall about its behavior, whatever victor's justice might suggest. And even if untoward things did occur, was Japan really so different from any other world power in the midst of battle?

In the Sunday New York Times Martin Fackler notes that nationalism seems to be on the upsurge in Japan. He reports that a government-appointed committee suggested "putting mayors in charge of their local school districts, a move that opponents say would increase political interference in textbook screening. And just days ago, an advisory committee to the Education Ministry suggested hardening the proposed new standards by requiring that textbooks that do not nurture patriotism be rejected."

The contrast with Germany, as has often been noted, is striking. There genuine contrition and repentance have been absorbed into the DNA of German democracy. Japan is different.

But the difference is not solely attributable to the presence of retrograde nationalists who do not want to acknowledge that their country did shameful things in the past. It is also the case that Japan's geographic situation is different from Germany's. The borders in Europe are settled. Not so in Asia. China is flexing its nascent naval muscles. Japan is figuring out how to respond. North Korea remains a bellicose foe, both for Japan and South Korea. 

The rise of a patriotism would actually be in America's interest if it prompted Japan to take a more assertive role in trying to balance Chinese military power. But the route that nationalists in Japan are following is a losing one. To remain in denial over Japanese crimes is not likely to induce Japan's neighbors to cooperate with it in confronting China. Rather, Japan simply continues to antagonize South Korea. And its neighbors have become expert at using Japan's periodic, half-hearted apologies to portray it in the worst light possible. After all, China, which murdered tens of millions of its own citizens, while leaping forward under Mao, does not exactly have great moral standing, either.

To what degree Japan's flirtation with nationalism is also simply an act of romantic vanity is another question. Can anyone seriously expect a society of pensioners, which is what Japan is rapidly becoming, to embark upon a new quest for Weltmacht, or world power? Tokyo would do better to focus on how it can counter China's growing might. Indulging in nationalism is a frivolous luxury that will not accomplish that goal.