Who's the Bigger Nationalist: Abe or Koizumi?

Ampontan criticizes English-language media for their “[m]indlessly parroted assumptions based on conventional wisdom” that lead to their labeling Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as a “nationalist.” The entry notes Abe’s hands-off approach thus far on the disputed island situations with Korea and Russia as evidence that he is no “hawkish nationalist.” Observing Japan, on the other hand, argues that, for a variety of reasons, Abe can reasonably be called a nationalist:

What makes Abe a nationalist has little if anything to do with his ideas about Japan’s place in the world and more to do with his vision of Japanese society. In short, Abe and his allies in the LDP want to use the state to recreate a more unified Japan as a means of coping with the problems Japan will face in the twenty-first century. What makes Abe a nationalist is his desire to forge (or re-forge) a kind of dynamic unity among the Japanese people, under the rule of the emperor, of course. As he said in his debate with Ozawa Ichiro this week, “If Japan’s long history, traditions and cultures can be likened to a tapestry that the Japanese people have been weaving, the emperor is the warp.”

An interesting question if we’re talking about Japanese nationalism in a historical sense is whether Abe or Koizumi is indeed the bigger nationalist. The nation-building (i.e. unifying) efforts by the Meiji government prominently featured the symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine, and they used Yasukuni as a place to show off Japan’s new pride in regarding itself as a modern nation. The shrine was strategically located on a Kudan Hill, which then separated upper- and lower-class areas of Tokyo, with the idea of symbolizing unity. Kudan Hill is also conveniently right across the street from the Imperial Palace Grounds, lest you would forget how important the emperor was to the emerging Japanese nation-state. (An excellent source for the early history of the shrine is Akiko Takenaka’s dissertation on Meiji nationalist architecture: Takenaka-O’Brien, Akiko. “The Aesthetics of Mass Persuasion: War and Architectural Sites in Tokyo, 1868-1945.” Yale University, 2004.)

As we know, Koizumi spent much more time and international political capital than Abe has in paying tribute to Japan’s late 19th—early 20th century nationalism. But Abe has spent more energy on a more contemporary and more instrumental form of nationalism, the revision of Article 9. The rhetoric behind constitutional revision—especially among the people usually called “nationalists”—often invokes the desire for Japan to become a “normal state.”

Indeed, as currently constituted, Japan lacks one of the main characteristics of an independent sovereign state: the ability to use force or the threat of force as an instrument of foreign policy. The result is a relationship with the United States that puts its status somewhere in the area between protectorate and strategic ally. Though Japan could theoretically cast off U.S. ties without changing its constitution, the security environment makes this highly unlikely. Changing the constitution would, for better or for worse, strengthen Japan’s independence as a state.

So my verdict: People like Abe who favor constitutional revision are “practical nationalists,” whereas people like Koizumi who pay tribute to late 19th century nationalist traditions are “sentimental nationalists.”

3 thoughts on “Who's the Bigger Nationalist: Abe or Koizumi?

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Japan: Who’s the real nationalist?

  2. Pingback: What kind of ‘hawk’ is Japan’s Shinzo Abe? Probably not how you think | Transpacifica

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