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'A strong Japan'

Anne Thomas
October 16, 2012

After decades of pacifism and subdued patriotism, nationalism is becoming more socially acceptable in Japan.

Japanese protesters shout slogans during a rally
Image: AP

Hundreds of Japanese people streamed to Tokyo's shopping district Shibuya at the end of September and beginning of October to demonstrate in front of the Chinese embassy. "China out of Japan" they chanted, accusing the Asian giant of invading a disputed group of islands in the East China Sea that Japan refers to as the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu.

It was a rare but relatively subdued outburst of nationalism. There was none of the anger anti-Japan demonstrators have displayed over the same issue in China. No windows were smashed and Chinese products were not damaged.

However, it was also a sign that nationalism is becoming more acceptable in Japan. One of the rallies was organized by the small nationalist group "Ganbare Nippon" ("Stand Firm, Japan"), which was founded by the former Japanese general Toshio Tamogami. He was dismissed from his post in October 2008 after writing an essay in which he called for a renunciation of the notion of pacifism, saying it was time for Japan to strengthen its defenses. In August, activists from the group landed on the disputed islands.

Although such nationalist voices are given little space in the mainstream media, supporters of the extreme right (known generically as uyoko) have been visible for decades in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. They travel in black buses and brandish the old military flag with its 16 sun rays, sometimes disturbing the peace in Korean areas or Chinese diplomatic quarters, usually unbothered by the police. Experts estimate there are tens of thousands of such extremists in Japan.

Some 800 groups belong to the The All Japan Council of Patriotic Organizations (Zenai Kaigi) which has links to Yakuza criminals. One nationalist icon is the writer Yukio Mishima who committed ritual suicide in 1970.

Lone attackers have sometimes committed terrorist acts inspired by the ideology of the ultra-nationalist ideology, even attacking liberal members of parliament.

Stirring controversy

In recent years, the notion that Japan should become more self-assertive has found more and more advocates. The most prominent is the 80-year-old writer Shintaro Ishihara, who has been governor of Tokyo since 1999. He and the Sony co-founder and chairman Akio Morita stirred international controversy with their 1989 essay "The Japan That Can Say No" that called for more independence from the US.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara
Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara likes to pour flames on the fireImage: dapd

Ishihara has since often caused a stir with offensive remarks about foreigners and women, or by denying that the Massacre of Nanking took place. According to official statistics, at least 200,000 civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers in the Chinese city in 1937.

He was also playing with fire when he announced earlier this year that he would buy up three of the disputed Senkaku islands. "Think of Tibet," he said in an explicit interview with the Wall St Journal. "They don't have a country. They don't have a leader. They've even lost their culture. All they have is Dharamsala, India, which is where they have set up their government in exile. I don't want Japan to end up as a second Tibet."

Another outspoken nationalist is Shinzo Abe, who hails from a family of politicians, and was prime minister for one year in 2006-7. To the surprise of many, he was elected president of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party in September. The party, which ran Japan for decades, hopes Abe's tough stance towards China will help it back into power in the next parliamentary polls.

After being elected, Abe said he intended to "defend" the Senkaku islands' territorial waters.

"We will recover Japan and make a strong Japan," he said, recalling the slogan “Enrich the nation, strengthen the military" that dominated imperial Japan in the latter half of the 19th century.

Just as the nationalists then were frustrated by the weak, inward-looking stance of the last military ruler, their contemporaries today are worried about China's strivings for hegemony since emerging as an economic powerhouse.

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe could make Japanese nationalism more socially acceptableImage: picture alliance

Abe wants Japan to become a "normal" country with the right to defend itself. He would also like to expand the navy and spend more than 1 percent of GDP on defense. This is currently not allowed by the constitution dictated by the US after the Second World War.

The politician who could well become prime minister again also wants patriotism to be taught in Japanese schools.

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