In Japan, new nationalism takes hold

The country's post-World War II pacificism is being challenged by a more assertive, patriotic attitude.

On a pleasant November morning, some 300 Japanese executives paid $150 each to hear a lanky math professor named Masahiko Fujiwara give a secular sermon on restoring Japan's greatness. Mr. Fujiwara spoke quietly, without notes, for 80 minutes. His message, a sort of spiritual nationalism, rang loudly, though: Japan has lost its "glorious purity," its samurai spirit, its traditional sense of beauty, because of habits instilled by the United States after the war. "We are slaves to the Americans," he said.

Fujiwara's remedy is for Japan to recover its emotional strength. He says that Japan "can help save the world" – but its youths are lost in a fog of laxity and don't love Japan enough.

Fujiwara represents the milder side of an assertive discourse rising gradually but powerfully here. What direction it will take in this vibrant and complex society remains unclear. But as a new generation seeks to shed the remnants of what is commonly called the "American occupation" legacy, a range of speech and ideas previously frowned on or ignored, is showing up sharply in mainstream culture.

"We came because Fujiwara is one of few who speaks the truth to our politicians," says Hirofumi Kato, vice president of a family business who attended the talk. Those not there can buy Fujiwara's "Dignity of a Nation," a bestseller at more than 2 million copies this year, that describes how Western concepts like freedom and equality are inappropriate for Japan and don't really work in the US.

Cartoons, magazines fuel message

The new nationalist sentiment is seen in popular magazines that use provocative language to advocate a more militaristic Japan, question the legitimacy of the Tokyo war-crimes trials, and often cast racist aspersions on China and Korea. Magazines include "Voice," "Bungei-shunju," "Shokun," "Seiron," and "Sapio," among others that are widely available. Sapio issues this fall have detailed how China will soon invade Japan and advocate nuclear weapons for Taiwan and Japan. The Dec. 27 issue details which members of the US Congress "love and hate Japan," including those described by political scientist Takahiko Soejima as helping "US companies take over Japanese banks at cheap prices."

Popular manga cartoons, another example, are a vivid entry point for school children and young adult males who read them on the trains. In recent years, manga have begun to include stronger and more-open ethnic hate messages. "The 100 Crimes of China," for example, is one in a recent series put out by publisher Yushinsha, with a kicker noting that China is the "world's most evil country." One recent manga is titled, "Why We Should Hate South Korea." Drawings are graphic and depict non-Japanese in unflattering ethnic stereotypes.

New programs are emerging, like the weekly Asahi talk show hosted by Beat Takeshi, that have thrown staid political expression into satire for Japanese viewers. There's a higher profile set of "conspiracy theories" that get repeated on TV, including those by writer Hideyuki Sekioka, author of "The Japan That Cannot Say 'No.' " Mr. Sekioka says the US manipulates Japan into adopting weak policies and has a "master plan" to control Japanese business. TV Asahi broadcasts programs detailing various US manipulations, including the idea that the CIA sent the Beatles to Japan in 1966 to dissipate an anti-US mood and "emasculate" Japanese youths.

The rise of this rhetoric is often denied here. Yet by last summer, Yoshinori Katori, then-Foreign Ministry spokesman, acknowledged that nationalism, most often on the right, had become a "new phenomenon."

The Japan of 2006 has quietly adopted a tone very different from the milder pacifism of it postwar identity. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe engineered two historic changes – transforming the postwar Defense Agency into a full-scale Defense Ministry, and ushering in a law requiring patriotic education in schools. The new law requires teachers to evaluate student levels of patriotism and eagerness to learn traditions. The Asahi Shimbun warns that this may "force students to vie to be patriotic in the classroom."

"A nationalistic reawakening from Japan's old pacifist identity, is leading to a domestic restructuring of Japan," says Alexander Mansourov, Asia specialist at the Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "Along with a new defense ministry, a new national security council, and new intelligence agency, there's debate over whether to go nuclear, a debate on pre-emptive strikes on North Korea."

Pacifist sensibility still strong

The new nationalism is not coming as an especially fire-breathing exercise. Japan remains quite cosmopolitan; mildness and politeness are valued. Many Japanese don't notice the stronger messages, or are not interested in politics.

The majority retain a pacifist sensibility. There's little hint of a mass emotional patriotism seen in Japan under Emperor Hirohito. The trend may get redirected as part of a healthy rediscovery of pride.

"I see a Japan that, after the 1990s, is becoming more confident," says one American corporate headhunter who has lived here for two decades.

Still, the extent of change in Japan's discourse can be measured by the number of moderates who say that they have little ground to stand on today. Former Koizumi presidential adviser Yukio Okamoto, a moderate conservative, argues that the "middle or moderate ground" is disappearing. Mr. Okamoto says that on many subjects – membership in the UN Security Council, culpability in World War II – he finds himself without a voice. "Every time I open my mouth to say something, I am bashed by either the left or the right," he says. Recent TV appearances by the granddaughter of Hideki Tojo, a World War II leader who was later executed for war crimes, describing him as a fine fellow, also concern Okamoto, who says that, though not an exact parallel, it would be inconceivable to imagine a granddaughter of Hitler going on German TV.

Most of the current domination of media is by the harder right. Former finance minister Eisuke Sakakibara says, "The sense of nationalism is rising here. I feel threatened ... any liberal does. We worry about a loss of freedom of speech. [In the US,] the right has not taken complete control in the media, but we are not the US."

The new tone is coupled with the rise of China, fears associated with North Korea, perennial questions of identity – and comes as America, Japan's main ally and security guarantor, is bogged down in Iraq. It was given some license by the repeated visits to the Yasukuni war-memorial shrine by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Those angered much of Asia, where they were seen as implicit support of a view that Japan's 20th-century war was justified.

Prime Minister Abe has eased that anger by not visiting the shrine, instead visiting Beijing to promote common points, like trade. But many experts see that decision as tactical.

Radical media, too, are thriving. The magazine "Will," for example, ran a discussion between the ultranationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and Fujiwara, the author. Mr. Ishihara, who won 80 percent of the Tokyo vote in 2005, calls World War II "a splendid war." Fujiwara says Japan must replace its logic-based culture with an emotion-based culture; he pushes to eliminate the teaching of English in schools. Photos in "Will" this year depicted fascist author Yukio Mishima standing atop the high command in 1970 in a military uniform, minutes before he jumped to his death. Mr. Mishima's private army had just failed to take control of the building.

It's the "mainstreaming" of such material that raises some eyebrows. Yoshinori Kobayashi, a popular far-right cartoonist, now appears regularly on mainstream talk shows. Ishihara recently interviewed Sekioka in "Bungeishunju," a literary magazine akin to the Atlantic Monthly. Ishihara wonders why Japan lacks the spiritual strength to stand up to the Americans.

Behind such views is a shared vision: a return to pure virtues found in medieval Japan. The Tom Cruise film "The Last Samurai" captures some of this. "What we need is a return to the inherent religion and culture of Japan ... of our ancestors in the middle ages," argues Sekioka.

Japan's education bill is designed to teach such virtues. Prime Minister Abe's new book, "Toward a Beautiful Country," hearkens to the ideas of love of homeland.

The idealized samurai code was given best expression by a Japanese Christian named Inazo Nitobe. His book, "Bushido: The Soul of Japan," was written in English and translated back into Japanese after World War II. It prizes sympathy for the weak and hatred of cowardice – and has been a gold mine for present-day nationalists.

Critics say Japan must confront its wartime past. Much of its pacifist identity emerges from the view that it was a war victim, as epitomized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That story, reinforced by textbooks that downplay or deny Japan's role in invading Korea and Manchuria, rang loudly in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and ignored as the economy boomed in the late 1980s. But it has received a boost from tales of Japanese abducted by North Korea. Prime Minister Abe, who has been instrumental in promoting the abductee issue, has of late been trying to mediate between extreme nationalism while still advocating more patriotism.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.