9 December 2003

Nationalism:  Old News or New Worry?
By Steven C. Clemons

In his "Notes on Nationalism," George Orwell writes, "the nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

For nearly the first half of the 20th century, nations around the Pacific lived in fear of Japan's formidable military machine and regional hegemonic pretensions. In the latter half, they dreaded a return of unconstrained and aggressive Japanese power.

Japan's unwillingness to address in some broad cathartic manner the cruelty of its wartime deeds has kept the specter of Japan's empowerment as a rearmed "normal nation" something that many Asia-Pacific citizens feared more than welcomed.
Many observers today--including Eugene Matthews, a former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is now president of international educational firm Nintai--argue that Japan's trademark pacifism is being supplanted by a new robust nationalism, and that Washington and the world need to adjust to both the opportunities and problems of this trend. Matthews made these points in an important essay titled "Japan's New Nationalism" in the November/December 2003 edition of Foreign Affairs.

It is true that Japan's nationalism is becoming more evident and obvious to the world. What is not clear, however, is if Japan's nationalism is a new phenomenon, or if the rest of the world is only now awakening to a Japanese nationalism that has been brewing for decades, if not longer.

What is misunderstood is that Japan, even in its most strident moments of extreme pacifism, has had a strongly nationalistic citizenry, struggling with a deep need to be unique and powerful and to matter in the world. What should concern observers now is not a supposedly new Japanese nationalism but rather the radicalization of an otherwise stable and healthy Japanese nationalism that increasingly resents the ongoing subordination of its sovereignty and interests to its former conqueror and Cold War ally, the United States.

Current discussions on Japan's nationalism often engage in a shallow and intellectually thin treatment of the subject, overlooking deeper questions: What is nationalism? When does one see it? When does one not? Mr. Matthews suggests that Japan's sinking of a North Korean fishing vessel in December 2001--quite possibly a spy ship or covert smuggling operation--is evidence of a new nationalism in Japan. Others point to Japan's launch of a fleet of self-built spy satellites and its willingness to send material, ships and Self-Defense Forces troops abroad for contingencies far beyond its borders as manifestations of a nation that is ready to cast off past constraints on its military role and identity. In addition, nearly all who comment on Japan's new nationalism point to the now cliched, saber-rattling spear-carrier for unconstrained and crude nationalism, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Ishihara is important, but he is not new.

What has recently brought Japanese nationalism to the fore has more to do with American presumptions about how the Japanese should feel about their own interests and circumstances than it does with the strong and ubiquitous nationalistic currents that have long been agitating Japan's national character. During the first Gulf War, Americans convinced themselves that Japan should be as worried about Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait because of Japan's dependence on Middle East oil. But Japan's national ambivalence in that conflict rested on Japanese confidence that its ability to buy oil from Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations would not be undermined.

The answer to the future of radical, rather than sensible, Japanese nationalism depends on the manner in which the United States responds to Japan, North (and South) Korea and China. The terrorism unleashed in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001 deeply buried any illusions of runaway globalization and the end of the nation-state.
After 9/11, U.S. President George W. Bush demanded loyalty oaths and clear declarations from leaders around the world on which side--America's or the terrorists'--they chose to be. Unlikely nations such as Libya, Sudan, China, Russia, Yemen and even Syria chose to side with America. After 9/11, borderlessness belonged to transnational terrorists who thrive in dozens of languages and scores of nations despite a hostile intelligence environment.

In response, America led the way among all nations reasserting its security priorities, bolstering borders, impeding the flow of people and investment, reversing globalization and reestablishing the nation state as the primary fixture of 21st-century global order.

Thus Japan's nationalism, brewing for decades beneath a cosmetic veil of pacifism, seems to be going with the flow of the return of the nation-state. It would be incorrect to argue that Japan's recent nationalistic flirtations have anything to do with 9/11. If there has been any impact at all, 9/11 has only helped to slightly accelerate a trend that was already well under way.

Japan has not rushed into a role of global military activism despite sinking a mystery ship, despite passing temporary anti-terrorism legislation, and despite passing legislation permitting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to send about 1,000 SDF troops to help stabilize post-Saddam Iraq--each of which is a relatively small-scale, low-cost arrangement, far more trivial than the 13.5 billion dollars financial contribution Japan made in the first Gulf War.

Japan was in fact the only nation on the planet that directly taxed its people to pay for removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Japan's prime minister is skilled at manipulating symbols of a Japan empowered on the world stage: intelligence briefings at Bush's Crawford ranch, and a fairly quick response to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's admonition to "show the flag" after Japan sought direction from the United States in how to respond to the 9/11 tragedy. But the bottom line for Japan's actions is that they continue to be militarily small--trivial, in fact, when it comes to a substantive contribution to stabilizing Iraq.

Whether or not Matthews is right about the time line, he is correct that nationalism is no longer hiding in Japan, as it is not in many other nations. America needs to be sure that it uses its power and influence to permit the healthy development of national identity and nationalism in Japan, stepping back and reducing American over-extension in Japan and in Asia. Japan needs a new constitution. It needs to figure out a way to participate in both military and civil society-building excursions around the world. In fact, it largely already has. In many ways, Japan's civil society-building competencies are far more developed than America's.

The combination of Japan's desire to be more self-governing combined with a United States that on the one hand applauds Japan's emergence as a military power and at the same time recognizes fears in Asia about Japan's increasing military power is a toxic mixture. America has not and should not snuff out the natural evolution of Japan's nationalism. America cannot be the cork in the bottle, but its attempt to be such will radicalize many Japanese. Instead of the advocate for American interests and power Koizumi has turned out to be, the United States may face in the future a slew of prime ministers whose legitimacy is determined by the intensity of their anti-Americanism.

Steven Clemons is executive vice president of the New America Foundation, a centrist policy institution in Washington.